In Fort Ord, blooming comes after burning

In Fort Ord, blooming comes after burning

02 April 2011

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USA — A military tank sits rusting at a crossroad, along with random scraps of metal riddled with holes caused by high-powered guns and explosives.

Indian warrior grows in the impact zone at the former Fort Ord. Scott MacDonald

“Half a million pounds so far,” said Lyle Shurtleff, environmental scientist with the Department of the Army, totaling up the collection of metals.

“We’ll probably pick up a million pounds by the time we’re done,” he added, looking over a picturesque piece of land — covering hundreds of acres — on the former Fort Ord.

To the east of the tank, across a wide, dirt road, are two large parcels — called Units 15 and 21 — still looking bare from a prescribed burn in October that cleared nearly 300 acres of thick, overgrown brush.

The burns allow cleanup crews to collect the scraps of metal, as well as clear the land of dangerous munitions and unexploded ordnance left over from military training during the old Fort Ord’s decades as an Army base.

But offering a sharp contrast to the shards of military leftovers and the hazards of yet-to-be-found explosives, the restricted zone is home to the beauty of some of the world’s rarest — including some endangered — wildflowers and plants.

Near where the tank sits, greenery covers Unit 19, burned and cleared in 2009. To the north, Unit 22, burned in 2008, shows even more plant life.

An old tank sits in the former Fort Ord’s impact zone, the area still being cleaned of unexploded ordnance.
During a planned May 14 tour, people will be able to see the closed area and the wildflowers that grow there.

The four units make up only a fraction of 7,000 acres of open space inside the “impact zone” — a lush area littered with explosives and still closed to the public nearly 20 years after Fort Ord shut down.

Come next month, however, for the second time in two years, up to 50 people will be allowed to enter the impact zone and get a glimpse of the ongoing work and see the progress in turning a dangerous area of a once-thriving military base into a space — both beautiful and safe — for public recreational use.

The 3-mile guided wildflower walk takes hikers on a hilly stroll on wide, crisscrossing dirt trails. The paths were created by the Army as “fuel breaks” intended to contain large wildfires, and allow fire trucks to travel in and extinguish blazes often caused by training in the firing ranges.

Just a few feet away from the edge of a hillside dirt path, wildlife biologist Bill Collins spotted a lone, reddish flower atop the sandy slope.

“Indian warrior,” said Collins, who works for the Fort Ord Base Realignment and Closure Office. “This is native here.”

Wildlife biologist Bill Collins pulls some invasive ice plants from a hillside in the impact zone.

He then pointed to a short brush with soft needle-like leaves nearby.

“Chamise,” he said. “Deer will eat this, grab the front and top of it, strip the leaves off and that’s what they’ll eat.”

Chamise, as a younger plant, provides more nutrition and is more succulent to the wildlife inhabiting Fort Ord.

Farther away from the Indian warrior stood a short tassel tree and the bright yellow flowers of the golden yarrow plant.

A rare plant community.

Inside the impact area, Collins said, is the largest intact maritime chaparral community remaining in the world.

Rusting vehicles that served as targets sit in the former Fort Ord’s impact zone,
the area still being cleaned of unexploded ordnance.

Maritime chaparrals are found from Washington to the Baja peninsula. The plant communities’ species vary, as some are endemic to some areas.

But the impact area’s plant community, called the Central Maritime Chaparral, Collins said, is “one of the most diverse chaparrals in the entire range.”

The diversity of the wildflower community in the impact zone stems from several factors — from microclimates and the coastal fog to the Army’s occupation over the decades, keeping most people off the land.

The Army’s use of the property also resulted in periodic fires, Collins said, which are ideal for chaparrals.

In the chaparral life cycle, before thick, overgrown brush overtakes the land, wildflowers thrive. In the first year after fire clears the brush anew, flowers again become plentiful.

Monterey ceanothus grows on the impact zone at the former Fort Ord.

“The second year, if you get good rains, is even better,” Collins said. “Then succession takes over. The annual flowers will soon be outcompeted by the shrubs.”

The wildflowers, however, will lay a seed bank, and after another burn clears the brush, the flowers will sprout again.

Base closure brings new uses

Even before the Army’s seven decades of use of the impact zone, the area was prone to fires — caused by anything from lightning to Native Americans holding controlled burns to knock down the brush.

“Whether the burning was as frequent as the Army, that’s doubtful,” said Eric Morgan, Fort Ord manager with the federal Bureau of Land Management, the future managing agency of the impact zone area.

Established in 1917, the former U.S. Army post, which sits between Salinas and Monterey, expanded into the 28,000 acres of Fort Ord. Over the decades, thousands of soldiers underwent basic training here with various types of armaments, resulting in frequent, but usually small, brush fires.

But in 1994, the base officially shut down, three years after it was ordered to close.

“When the base was put in the closure list, everybody got up in arms,” Morgan said.

“You can imagine there were a lot of different ideas of what to do with the property,” he said, though the initial reaction was to fight the closure. “This was part of the custom and culture of the Peninsula for decades … having Fort Ord here.”

But when it became inevitable the base was closing, Morgan said, then-U.S. Rep. Leon Panetta (a Carmel Valley resident who now heads the CIA for the Obama administration) spearheaded a series of meetings between stakeholders and agencies to decide the future of the Fort Ord lands.

The process resulted in having parts set aside for development to stimulate the economy that suffered from the base closure, while other parts have been reserved for recreation and habitat protection.

“Someone had asked, ‘Is anyone aware that there’s rare maritime chaparral out there?’ ” Morgan said. Many of Fort Ord’s plants have been listed as endangered or “species of concern.”

These include the Monterey spineflower, the Toro and sandmat manzanita and Eastwood’s ericameria — which has up to 95 percent of its worldwide distribution on Fort Ord.

The sand gilia, with its star-shaped, purple flowers, is on the federal endangered species list. Up to 70 percent of its worldwide population is on the former military base.

“It’s the best that there is,” Morgan said of the environment in the impact zone. “In the big picture of looking at where maritime chaparral is distributed along the [California] coast, this is the greatest example of intact maritime chaparral anywhere.”

What happens after a burn

Come July 1, another burn season begins. Between then and Dec. 31, Monterey County residents are likely to see large pillars of smoke in the skies above Fort Ord.

About 475 acres of land — in Units 11 and 12 — are scheduled to be cleared. The annual burns began in 2003, but about 3,400 acres still remain to be cleared of old munitions.

The cleanup project, which is estimated to cost about $154 million, is not expected to be completed for another decade, said Melissa Broadston of U.S. Army Fort Ord Cleanup Community Involvement.

Since the burns began, the Army has collected more than 43,000 “high-explosive items” in the impact zone.

“The baddest of the bad,” Broadston said. The items are often blown up in place.

Despite the extensive cleanup effort, officials said the hazards the explosives pose will still play a key role in determining the future use of the impact zone.

The about 7,000 acres of the land are designated to be open space. Although access is very likely to be restricted, limits won’t be set until after the Army hands over the property to the BLM.

Morgan said restrictions will be decided by, among others, the Army and the California Department of Toxic Control.

Most likely, he said, the 50 miles of existing fuel breaks in the impact zone will become outdoor recreation trails for hiking, horseback riding and possibly bicycle races. People will be kept from straying off the paths, to protect both the plant habitats and the safety of the hikers.

After a burn clears away the brush, crews come to look for explosives and metal scraps. Using detection technologies, they have dug about 13 million holes on and along the dirt paths to make sure unexploded munitions are cleared.

“We can only detect the best place to find something or avoid,” said Shurtleff. “It doesn’t tell us what’s there underground.”

In the rest of the burned areas, beyond 15 feet from both sides of the paths, crews only do a “surface cleanup.” An underground cleanup would only harm habitats and cause the cost of the project to skyrocket, Morgan said.

With erosion, he said, explosives could surface over time in the cleared areas.

“People need that mindset [of staying on the trails], because someone can harm themselves,” Morgan added.

Future fires

Because buried explosives will continue to resurface, and because the maritime chaparral plants rely on fire for reproduction, controlled burns will likely continue long after the initial cleanup project is over — but not as frequently.

“The Army’s removal of the vegetation … is a very accelerated burn cycle,” Morgan said.

Once the cleanup project is done, he said, another controlled burn wouldn’t likely happen for another 20 years.

“We’re going to let the [chaparrals] age a little bit,” Morgan said. “After that, there may be burns annually.”

Although the land is not yet officially theirs, BLM officials have responsibility to begin the transition for the hand-off. BLM tasks include all road work and weed abatement.

“They are the future owners of this land,” Collins said, pulling a young ice plant out of the ground.

“These don’t belong here,” he said of the fast-growing, non-native plant.

With several weeks remaining before the May 14 nature walk, many of the wildflowers have yet to bloom. The bright colors, as of late March, were sparse on the road side and green slopes.

“That’ll change soon,” Broadston said. “It’s just beautiful out there. It’s just what California was before we got here, maybe except for the roads.”

And except for a military tank that sits at the crossroads near the final stretch of the scheduled nature walk.

Shurtleff said BLM officials have considered keeping the tank.

“It’ll serve as a reminder of what this land was used for,” Broadston said. “It’s part of its history.”

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