High hopes for the former fort
In the rolling Monterey hills of federally protected Fort Ord, soldiers bound for World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Panama got their first taste of combat. The base closed in 1994, but the land – now a prime hiking and cycling destination – still bears reminders of 77 years of army use.
Live grenades, rockets, artillery and mortars are scattered on the ground or lying just below the surface. That’s why military munitions response program manager Lyle Shurtleff starts off an annual guided hike inside the 8,000-acre “impact zone” with a warning: “You’ll obey the directions of your guides, you cannot leave the roadway without a specification from the guide,” he says. “There is no other cleared area, as far we’re concerned, for this walk.”
An ambitious cleanup
As the group follows a road usually closed to the public, flanked by maritime chaparral and live oaks, they come upon an M60 battle tank and armored personnel carriers, now historical relics. About 14,000 acres of Fort Ord were declared a national monument last April, and now Army and Bureau of Land Management crews are working to give this land a second life, as public recreational space.
But before the army can turn this area over to recreational use, they have to make it safe.
“The removal itself isn’t that difficult,” says Shurtleff. “It’s not that technically challeng[ing] to take ordinance and explosive off the surface once we find it. The finding it is a little more challenging, in that we have to remove a protected habitat.”
Over a dozen species found on Fort Ord are listed as either threatened or endangered. But habitat restoration experts can’t get in here until the explosives are cleared. So the army is burning a total of 5,000 acres to reveal what’s under the vegetation, which is well-adapted to fire. The team then blows up any objects they find on the surface and clears underground debris from areas destined to become public trails. “It’s doesn’t really take that long to do the surface removal,” Shurtleff says, “but the paperwork, you wouldn’t believe.”
But the impact of army use goes even deeper. Bullets have contaminated the soil with lead, and it will take take 20 years to remove engine cleaning products that have leeched into the groundwater.
“They extract the groundwater, run it through a treatment system and the reinject it back into the aquifers,” explains Bill Collins, who coordinates the army base’s realignment and closure office. “So far we’ve pumped over 7 billion gallons of water and treated and re-injected it.”
Historically protected lands face uncertain future
Beyond the army warning signs and fenced cleanup areas, Fort Ord already feels pristine. In a field outside the impact area, Louise Miranda Ramirez, Tribal Chairwoman of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, welcomes a crowd to the ancient homeland of her ancestors. In a celebration of Fort Ord’s first birthday as a national monument, she passes around a box of ceremonial tobacco, mugwort and sage. Everyone takes a pinch and tosses it on the ground as a blessing. “We ask the honorable ancestors to protect the earth that they walked and lived,” she says.
Among those celebrating is Gordon Smith, a member of the organization Keep Fort Ord Wild. “A lot of people go down the freeway and they see fort Ord, the see the old barracks,” he says, “[but] they have no idea that a mile and a half back is square mile after square mile of beautiful rolling oak trees – John Steinbeck country.”
Since becoming a national monument, Fort Ord’s best kept-secret-status is changing, and Smith hopes the area can market itself as an off-season hiking and cycling destination. Meanwhile, a heated debate is underway about a proposed 550-acre development called Monterey Downs, to include residential neighborhoods, an equestrian track and retail space. For Monterey county, which has fought to recover from the economic impact of the fort’s closure 1994, it’s an important issue that may come to a head on a November ballot.
“I think that this – Fort Ord – and what’s happened here to Fort Ord and with our monument, is our future,” says Monterey City councilwoman Nancy Selfridge, a member of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority board. “I think when people know about this, they’re going to come in droves. And ecotourism will be the future of the area, the region.”
For today, Fort Ord enthusiasts celebrate its path to becoming a full-grown national monument. While crews on the army side groom the land for that future, recreators can explore 86 miles of existing trails through Steinbeck country.