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Obama to Designate Fort Ord as a New National Monument

San Jose Mercury News - April 19, 2012, By Paul Rogers

Fort Ord, the sweeping former military base north of Monterey known for its oceanfront landscape and a history that dates back to cavalry soldiers in World War I, will become America's newest national monument.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to establish the new designation on Friday, making Fort Ord only the second national monument he has created since becoming president in 2009.

"Fort Ord's dramatic landscape lives in the memories of thousands of veterans as their first taste of Army life, as a final stop before deploying to war, or as a home base during their military career," Obama said in a statement late Thursday.

"This national monument will not only protect one of the crown jewels of California's coast, but will also honor the heroism and dedication of men and women who served our nation and fought in the major conflicts of the 20th century."

More details are expected to be released Friday, but a White House official familiar with the plan said that about 14,650 acres will be included in the monument. That land is located on Fort Ord's eastern half. It does not include the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay, the oceanfront lands along Highway 1 that make up Fort Ord Dunes State Park, or hundreds of homes and businesses located on the property in the towns of Seaside and Marina.

In most national monuments, all oil and gas drilling, along with mining, is banned.

The new monument, which will be supervised by the federal Bureau of Land Management, will include 7,200 acres now run by the BLM and open for hiking, horse riding and bicycling. It also will include an additional 7,450 acres where decades of unexploded shells and other ordnance once used for artillery practice are being cleaned up. That work is scheduled to be finished in 2019. That land is under the control of the Defense Department.

Over the past year, environmental leaders, business officials and politicians in the Monterey Bay area have pushed for the former Army base to become a national monument. They wanted the designation to raise the profile of the area to attract tourism and business, and also to permanently lock in open-space protections.

As recently as a week ago, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, personally lobbied Obama on Air Force One while the two rode to Colombia to attend the Summit of the Americas Conference. Farr was a member of the Peace Corps stationed in Colombia in the mid-1960s and has worked closely on issues relating to South America and Central America.

Farr was traveling Thursday evening and unavailable for comment.

"We're thrilled," said David Beltran, his spokesman. "This will preserve the open space for future generations. It will help tourism and honor the memory of the generations of soldiers who served there."

The former base, a 28,000-acre site the size of San Francisco, was put on the closure list in 1991, ending a storied history that began in 1917.

More than 60 years ago, Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell drilled thousands of infantrymen on amphibious assaults at Fort Ord beaches before they headed to Okinawa, the Philippines and the Marshall Islands. In the 1950s and early 1960s, then-unknowns Clint Eastwood, Jerry Garcia and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were stationed at Fort Ord.

When the base closed in 1994, about 15,000 soldiers and civilians from the 7th Infantry Division, and 22,000 family members, were moved to Fort Lewis, Wash.

Panetta, then the Monterey Bay area's congressman, pushed hard to establish a new university, and in 1995, Cal State Monterey Bay opened on the old base. Today the school has 5,100 students and 150 faculty members.

A long, slow toxics cleanup removed tons of old bullets from firing ranges along the huge dunes on the base along Highway 1, and that land became a state park. Hoping to make up for the economic hit -- schools closed as children left, businesses in Seaside and Marina went bankrupt, and local tax receipts fell -- state lawmakers created the Fort Ord Reuse Authority to redevelop the base.

Over the past 15 years, the agency has helped facilitate deals to build hundreds of new homes and several retail outlets on the property. But dozens of dilapidated barracks and other buildings remain. They will be torn down when enough money from developer fees is raised, said Dave Potter, chairman of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority.

"It was devastating when Fort Ord closed," Potter said. "We were a military community. It was the third leg of our economy -- agriculture, tourism and the military. Now, 20 years later, we have made progress, but the promise has not been delivered yet for full economic recovery."

Potter said the monument designation will not limit business development on the base, since it will only affect the rural, undeveloped eastern half of the property. Local business leaders support the idea, he said, because it could help lure new business.

Obama's action will not require a vote of Congress. He will establish the monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Since then, nearly every president has used the act to provide special protection to federal lands of national importance, with Congress eventually upgrading many to national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods, Death Valley and others.

One of the people who advocated hardest for the Fort Ord monument said she hopes the planning process that will follow will preserve access for hikers, bicyclists and horse riders.

"This is fantastic," said Henrietta Stern, president of Fort Ord Recreation Trails Friends. "We really aren't asking for anything new. We just wanted to make sure that what we're enjoying today will always be preserved for future generations."

Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.

 

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