PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. (Sept. 24, 2021) – After a thorough safety briefing, more than 100 members of the public received a sneak peek inside the former Fort Ord munitions impact area that will become a Bureau of Land Management recreation area when cleanup is complete in eight to 10 years.
Hikers registered in advance for the Sept. 18 event and had a choice of a 3.75-mile or 1.6-mile guided nature walk in the fenced-in area. Most chose the longer walk, and along the way they not only saw the beautiful landscape, but a variety of native plants and an old Gama Goat off-road vehicle, an M59 Armored Personnel Carrier and an M58 Tank, part of the “Patton” line of armor.
The Fort Ord Field Office of the Army Base Realignment and Closure office began the environmental cleanup of the area about 30 years ago, and personnel from the office organized the event. It is currently part of Fort Ord National Monument under joint Army and BLM management, but will become solely BLM property when the cleanup is complete.
In addition to experienced tour leaders, organizers had a team of about 20 staff members on hand to answer questions. Also, Jane Styer, a volunteer with the California Native Plant Society, joined the long walk and provided information about plants.
Before everyone set off, Betsy Hibbits, a contractor supporting the BRAC office, provided a 10-point safety briefing that included everything from staying hydrated to being aware of mountain lions in the area. She made one point especially clear, however.
“The number one safety consideration is always munitions, so stay on the roads,” Hibbits said. “If you see by any chance something shiny or metallic on the ground, don’t touch it. In fact, if you see anything on the ground that you didn’t drop, don’t pick it up.”
William Collins, environmental coordinator, Fort Ord Field Office, Army BRAC office, opened the locked gate and led the longer tour. He has worked on the project for nearly 29 years and answered many questions along the way.
Collins said the guided nature walks, which the office has hosted annually for about 10 years, are his favorite part of the job.
“I started off as a wildlife biologist and now I end up managing the cleanup with munitions, soil and water, so I don’t usually get out in the field like I used to,” Collins said. “So this is an opportunity to share what the Army’s been doing for the last 30 years.”
The walk was also an opportunity to spread the word that the area is dangerous and trespassers must stay away, Collins said.
“When you see the signs and the fences that say ‘danger,’ ‘keep out,’ ‘explosives,’ we ask that you take that seriously,” Collins said. “We’ve had a lot of trespass in the restricted area. People have been killed and injured because of munitions on Fort Ord, and although it hasn’t happened in the recent past, we just want to keep it that way.”
The walk also took participants within view of the Military Operations on Urban Terrain, or MOUT, test site, often called Impossible City, and Collins asked participants to stress in any social media posts they made that the area is off limits.
“There are a lot of cameras around this site to detect trespass,” Collins said. “Something that happens quite frequently is the Army’s security, BLM’s security, capture a lot of people hopping the fence … and we get those guys.”
Seeing the military vehicles brought back memories for some, including Collins.
“I actually used to drive a Gama Goat, this six-wheeled thing,” Collins told tour members. “We used to throw that out of an airplane with a parachute, and we’d jump out after it and after it hit the ground we’d pull it off the platform and drive it away.”
The vehicles will remain on the site as BLM interpretive exhibits, Collins said.
Eric Morgan, manager of Fort Ord National Monument for BLM, spoke at the event’s beginning and participated in the long walk.
When the monument opened about 10 years ago, it received about 300,000 visitors a year, Morgan said, but now that figure is up to about 1.5 million.
Morgan said one of the reasons he believes the monument is the best in the United States is because it has a rich history and has been home to unique inhabitants.
“It’s of course home of the Ohlone Esselen—this is their hunting grounds—but it also is a former home of one of the greatest militaries on the planet,” Morgan said. “It was the home of the 7th Infantry [Division] for quite some time, and we love to honor all the Soldiers that went through the gates of the former Fort Ord.”
Participants enjoyed the tour and found it informational.
Brittan Carlson, a walk participant from Pacific Grove, said that in addition to the beautiful scenery and nice weather, the volunteers did a great job of interacting with everyone and pointing out aspects such as flowers, points of history, the specific impact areas and the cleanup.
“I want to do this every time they have it and I hope they are able to keep doing it,” Carlson said.
Melissa Broadston, a contractor who runs the BRAC community relations office and leader of the event’s shorter walk, said the BRAC office has hosted the guided nature walks annually for the past 10 years, and usually they take place in May because that is when many wild flowers are in bloom after the rains at that time of the year.
Due to the COVID pandemic, organizers postponed this year’s walk, but the next walk will take place May 14, 2022, Broadston said. Watch for details on how to sign up and learn more about the project at www.fortordcleanup.com.