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Part of former Army base to become major new oceanfront campground

Fort Ord National Monument Badger Hill Trail Head, as seen on June 6, 2017, in Monterey Calif.

AMBER K. WHITTINGTON/U.S. ARMY

By PAUL ROGERS | Mercury News | Published: February 15, 2020

SEASIDE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — For 77 years, Fort Ord near Monterey was a sprawling Army base thick with artillery pieces, wooden barracks and infantrymen taking target practice with rifles and machine guns.

More than 2 million men and women served there between 1917 and 1994, including soldiers who battled in World War I, stormed the beaches in Okinawa during World War II, and fought in Korea, Vietnam and Panama. Clint Eastwood was based here when he was young and unknown. So were Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, rock star Jerry Garcia and actors Leonard Nimoy and Jamie Farr.

But this year, the oceanfront portion of the former base – four miles of majestic sand dunes hugging Monterey Bay – will begin a new transformation: It will become the first new state park campground of its size built anywhere on the California coast in more than 30 years.

"People love these wide open spaces," said Brent Marshall, superintendent of state parks' Monterey District, while hiking through the site this week. "The sand dunes are so dynamic. There is a long stretch of beach. You can get out on it and walk for hours."

State parks officials say they will put the $22 million project out to bid this spring, begin construction this fall and aim to open it in 2022. Plans call for 110 campsites – half for RVs and half for tents – on the southern edge of the property, with a campfire center, community gathering building, beach access trail, Monterey Bay overlooks and interpretive exhibits featuring wildlife and military history.

Funded with state parks bond money, the new facility will be the only state parks campground for more than 60 miles on the coast between southern Santa Cruz County and Big Sur. Years in the making, the project is part of an ongoing state effort to expand low-cost overnight accommodations on a coast where $300-a-night-and-up hotels are pricing out many working class families from beach vacations.

Fort Ord Dunes State Park has been open for a decade, for free, on the west side of Highway 1, near Seaside and Marina. The windswept park has minimal facilities but is a favored spot for bike riders, beachcombers and surfers, drawing about 100,000 people a year.

"There are pelicans and sea otters out here," said Marshall. "And whales. I've seen as many as six spouts."

Fort Ord was named for Civil War officer Edward Ord, a colorful character who sailed to Monterey around Cape Horn in 1847 with William Tecumseh Sherman. He helped survey the city of Los Angeles, was instrumental in the surrender of Robert E. Lee, and hunted buffalo across the Plains before dying of yellow fever in Cuba in 1883.

The base's 28,000 acres that bear his name are equal in size to the city of San Francisco.

After the federal government closed Fort Ord in 1994 and moved its 7th Infantry Division to Fort Lewis, Washington, Monterey-area locals feared a major hit to the economy and a huge drop in school enrollments. A new university, Cal State University Monterey Bay, was constructed there. The university, pushed by Panetta when he was the congressman from Monterey and Santa Cruz, today has 7,500 students.

Housing also was built on the former base east of Highway 1. Some of the land became a retail center, which now has a Best Buy and REI. A veterans cemetery was constructed, as was a VA medical clinic.

Despite years of demolitions, dozens of crumbling Army barracks buildings still remain, however, waiting for funding to remove asbestos and lead paint so they can be torn down.

More than half of Fort Ord's vast inland acres were left wild and set aside as a national monument by President Obama in 2012, a landscape where the Army has worked to remove and clean up old munitions.

But the base's four miles of stunning oceanfront, which were transferred to the state parks department, are the most breathtaking. To the south, Cannery Row is visible; to the north, Santa Cruz and Loma Prieta Peak. The park's 990 acres feature sand dunes towering more than 100 feet tall, flanked by the crashing waves of Monterey Bay like a central coast version of Point Reyes National Seashore.

As with other state parks, Fort Ord Dunes was short of funding during California's historic budget deficits after the Great Recession. The campground project stalled.

But after the economy improved and bond funding became available, the California Coastal Commission approved the plans in 2017.

"This is really one of the most exciting projects I've been involved with for a long time," said Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth. "It comes at a time when we are really pushing hard on affordable accommodations along the coast."

Ainsworth recalled how he was one of nine children, growing up in San Bernardino County. His family rarely went to the beach, but when they could afford to go, he said, it was life-changing.

"The experiences, the sights, the sounds, the smell, everything about the coast is wonderful," he said. "If I hadn't had that opportunity, I wouldn't be in the position I am today. It's out of balance right now."

Ainsworth has required companies building new hotels on the coast to provide some low-cost rooms or contribute to a fund that the commission uses to fund coastal campgrounds and other projects. He said the state parks department, which owns one-third of California's coastline, has a key role in making the coast accessible to everyone, no matter their economic background.

At Fort Ord, crews 20 years ago removed 700,000 pounds of lead bullets from firing ranges near the sand dunes with giant sifting machines and shipped contaminated soil to offsite landfills.

State parks planners have designed the campsite away from the firing ranges, on an area near ammunition bunkers that was partly covered with asphalt. As part of the project they will convert one of the bunkers to an interpretive exhibit on the military history.

Former soldiers say they are intrigued.

"It's been a long time since we had a campground built," said John Olson, a former Army captain who served at Fort Ord from 1991 to 1993. "One of the nice things about military areas is that they don't get widely used. The military can rough them up a bit, but they are left intact, by and large."

Olson, who now is an assistant professor of freshwater ecology at CSU-Monterey Bay, said that it will be important for state parks crews to construct the campground carefully and work to restore native plants on the dunes by removing invasive ice plant, to help local wildlife flourish.

He said he was proud to serve at Fort Ord, which was considered a top Army assignment because of its scenic location and the high morale of the troops.

Some things haven't changed, he said: "There are still lots of young people here. They just aren't in uniform."

And while much of the coast was developed over time, the Army's presence left this stretch intact, he added.

"It's this little untouched microcosm of California's coastline," Olson said. "People didn't go out there because there were firing ranges there for almost 100 years. And now its protected by the state. You get to see what the coastline looked like in California before all the development."

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