Apparently the deserts of Nevada, so similar in terrain to the Pentagon's other main target practice area, the Iraqi outback, simply aren't challenging enough for the Navy's top guns anymore. Now they want to bomb around Big Sur, natural jewel of California's Central Coast, home of the Henry Miller library, the Esalen Institute, FDR's famous tin house, Nepenthe and much more.

A new plan issued by the Navy's Strike Fighter Wing in January calls for nearly 3,000 bombing practice runs a year from Lemoore Naval Air Station in the Central Valley and aircraft carriers in the Pacific to Fort Hunter Liggett in the Santa Lucia Mountains, whose oceanward slope is Big Sur. Lemoore is the home base for the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter planes. The scheme calls for the jets to drop 25-pound "test" bombs onto a 500- foot in diameter target painted on the grounds of Fort Hunter Liggett. One Navy flack terms the plan "kindergarten for bombers."

Pressed by Congressman Sam Farr (D-Monterey) to explain itself, the Navy, perhaps trying to capitalize on the current fuel crunch, says it all comes down to conserving energy. By bombing next to Big Sur, instead of Fallon, Nev., they can save nearly $3 million a year in fuel costs. Of course, the Navy doesn't display such a penny-pinching attitude when it comes to funding for Trident submarines, F-22 jets or aircraft carriers.

The 150,000-acre military base, nestled next to the Ventana Wilderness Area, was sold to the Pentagon at a handsome profit by William Randolph Hearst in the 1940s, who had evicted the remaining Salinan Indians from the site when he purchased it as his private pleasure ground in the early 1900s. Today, the upper Stony Valley area, wedged in the mountains, is still largely an intact ecosystem, a thriving oak savannah of the type that is becoming increasingly rare as so much of the coast falls to the bulldozers of developers.

Indeed, a 1981 report commissioned by the Fort's top brass concluded that the base probably contained a "greater conservation of resources (of grassland, oak savannah and woodland, and chaparral) than any other contiguous parcel in the state of California." The land is so special that National Park Service has tried to get the Army, which manages the Fort, to turn it over to them.

This part of the California coast is home to some of the nation's rarest and most prized species, starting with the California condor and the sea otter. There are also endangered fairy shrimp, Pogogyne clareanna, a rare mint endemic to the area, bald eagles and 450 Tule elk. There also a dwindling number of perfectly preserved specimens of homo sapiens bohemiensis in the Henry Miller tradition, though the ecosystem of these creatures have been similarly ravaged by rich lawyers and e-millionaires rampaging through their previously secluded habitat.

Not to worry, says the Navy, we have the best interests of these creatures at heart, and no harm will come to them. This is a rather robust bit of eco-consciousness from the same group that is even now attempting to secure the right to permanently bombard humpback whales in the Pacific with mega-shots of high-range sonar. The sonar pulses have been known to cause the whales to issue screams of agonized distress as they get hit with decibel levels that would instantly kill any human. The whales become disoriented and beach themselves. The Navy's underwater soundings have also been linked to ear hemorrhages in the giants of the deep.

Those bullseyes for the Navy fighter jets' bombs would nearly mark the precise area that the now landless Salinan tribe considers the center of the creation. And indeed, the area harbors one of the richest clusters of archaeological sites on the California coast, including painted caves and a delicate and fragile sandstone natural arch used for vision quests. "It only takes one bomb to land in the wrong place," says Gregg Castro, head of the Salinan tribal council. "The arch is unique. Once it's gone, it's gone. There's no repairing it."

There are also several private inholdings within the proposed bombing range, including the San Antonio de Padua Mission, founded in 1771. The Franciscans -- the closest you get to a nature sect in the Catholic Church -- aren't too pleased about their ancient sanctuary being buzzed by F/A-18 fighter jets 10 times a day. The Friars are joined in opposition with the Benedictines, who have just built and opened the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a hillside retreat meant for quiet meditation and worship a few miles away.

Nevada has been rocked by dozens of nuclear bomb tests, but what people are mostly complaining about these days is the arrogance and nastiness of the Navy's fighter pilots, who are relentless in bombing the desert out by Fallon. The Navy has succeeded in doing what seemed impossible: uniting ranchers in the anti-environmental Wise Use movement with activists from the Sierra Club.

Bombs aren't the only peril. Last Oct. 29, Navy pilots opened fire with live 20 millimeter ammunition on telephone company workers outside of Fallon. Fortunately, the pilot missed the workers, but hit their truck. Navy officials said the pilot, from the same F/A-18 Strike Force Wing at Lemoore that now wants to bomb inland from Big Sur, mistook the telephone tower for his intended target.

The plan to bomb in the Santa Lucia Mountains is really an attempt by the Pentagon to keep from losing its dwindling empire. Fort Hunter Liggett was supposed to be closed down in 1995 as an unnecessary and costly facility under the Base Realignment and Closures Act. This scheme is largely an attempt to give it a second life as a bomb crater. But surely there are better uses. Perhaps, part of it should become a national park. But most of it should be returned to the Salinan tribe, as they were promised in the 1860s.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.