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The San Diego Union-Tribune

Home On The Firing Range | On San Clemente Island, Military Mission Engages Environmental Preservation

BY James Hebert

June 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company.All rights reserved.

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND -- As isolated as a lifeboat alone on the ocean, San Clemente Island is home to a host of rare plants and animals. The water buffalo is not among them.

There is something by that name on this wind-swept crescent of land 70 miles out to sea from San Diego, but it's no beast. It's a 600-gallon water tank -- a vintage canteen bearing a faded Army star.

Normally, the "buffalo" would help slake the thirst of soldiers in the field. But on the high, grassy terraces of this Navy-owned island -- one of the U.S. military's most important training zones - - it's being used to water native seedlings planted by field biologists under contract to the Navy.

The worlds of conservation and the military meet in lots of surprising ways on San Clemente, where ecologists dine alongside camouflage-clad Seabees at the mess hall and shoot pool with sailors at the local pub, the Salty Crab.

The two groups are here on the same mission, but for different causes. The naturalists want to nurse the unique island ecology back to health; the Navy needs to comply with environmental rules to preserve the place as a training ground.

Conservation programs, which began on San Clemente about 30 years ago, have seen some success. The island night lizard, designated a threatened species in 1977, has come back in such numbers that it may soon be de-listed. That would be a first for the military.

The San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike, an endangered bird, is also mounting a comeback, thanks largely to a breeding program run by the San Diego Zoo and other organizations.

But for the armed forces, the island itself is a kind of endangered species.

With the closing of the Kahoolawe testing ground in Hawaii during the '90s, and the shuttering of the Vieques range in Puerto Rico last year, San Clemente is the Navy's only ship-to-shore live-fire range anywhere in the world, and one of few places available for many other training missions.

"This is it," says Cmdr. Bob Lockerby, the San Clemente base's officer in charge.

Only 2 percent to 4 percent of the island serves as a target area for live fire, but much of San Clemente's 57 square miles is used for other types of training and testing.

Navy SEALs practice amphibious operations; helicopters evade mock fire from gunners along the shoreline; fighter jets do simulated carrier landings at night on the island's airstrip.

The high-intensity training here isn't the prime cause of the ecological problems; those are a legacy of the island's ranching years, the spread of invasive, non-native plants, and the damage wrought by goats that once roved the hilly landscape in huge numbers.

But exercises on San Clemente have increased since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the Pentagon has been lobbying Congress to exempt military facilities like this one from provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

With such pressures on the island, the future of its ecosystem now rests in the curious alliance between those driven to defend nature, and those sworn to defend the nation.

Small-town living

The "capital" of San Clemente is Wilson Cove, a cluster of drab structures near the island's northeast tip.

Here, each Wednesday morning, a barge hauled overnight from Naval Air Station North Island nudges up to the solitary pier, carrying all the base's water, food and supplies.

Wilson Cove is also where the island's population of 400 or so people reside, in barracks and trailers of widely varying vintage that step up the hillsides around the cove.

Many are members of the military, either based here or on temporary training missions. Others are civilian employees or contractors. As many as 50 are connected with the Natural Resources Office, the Navy department that coordinates study and preservation of the island's plant, animal and archaeological resources.

Lockerby, a helicopter pilot who served in the first Gulf War, jokes that the only place he had visited previously on the island was a Porta Potti while touching down briefly on training flights.

"Nobody ever wanted to break down at San Clemente Island," he recalls, "because they all thought it was basically 10 guys in a trailer. And one goat."

Now, after eight months on the job, Lockerby is one of the island's biggest boosters, although he's finding that perceptions about the place -- as a duty station or a spot to visit -- are slow to change.

"I invite people out, and they say, `I don't want to get stuck out there,' " he says. "Well, there's no getting stuck. We've got a bar. Satellite TV. We'll feed you."

It's no surprise that the island is a mystery to many: Though its dramatic eastern bluffs are visible from the county's coast on exceptionally clear days, you can't visit without the Navy's permission.

That insularity -- coupled with the island's unusual mix of people -- adds to the sense of San Clemente being a world apart.

When Lockerby was getting ready to take the top job on the island, "I wasn't sure how it would be," he admits. "When you step into a place (like this), if you think about it, you go: `Wow, that's gotta be interesting.' "

He acknowledges that the natural-resources people and the military have "competing interests, at one level," and that not everyone in each camp understands the other's point of view.

"I've heard from people who wonder why we do some of the environmental projects," he says. "And I've heard from the other side: `Why does the military have to train here? Why don't they give up the island?'

"I've heard from both sides, and I think it's just a lack of understanding of what each other's mission is."

Flowering habitat

On a hazy spring morning, a Navy van trundles out of Wilson Cove and heads south along the island's spine, following the pockmarked main road. It's headed for a remote spot called Canchalagua, deep inside the restricted Shore Bombardment Area -- SHOBA, in the parlance of the acronym-happy Navy.

Today's mission is to check on the status of an orchid that an NRO plant specialist had stumbled across a week or so earlier. Jonathan Dunn, who is project manager for the island's native habitat restoration program through a Navy contract with SDSU, says it's the first time an orchid has been seen on the island.

Island landmarks dot the route. On a hilltop near Wilson Cove is the main, million-gallon water tank; a bit farther along are three windmills that together generate about 15 percent of the island's power. (In a place where basic resources are slim, wind is one of the few constants.)

Here and there sit burnt-out, battered vehicles and buildings. These are "training objectives," or, as Lockerby calls them, "simulated bad-guy areas" -- places for trainees to practice targeting and capturing.

Near the center of the island is the missile impact range. When tests are conducted here, Dunn notes, "everyone goes up to range control to watch. It's like a community event."

Also gracing the central plain is the San Clemente National Forest -- the tongue-in-cheek designation for what used to be a lonely stand of eucalyptus trees. Now the Smokey Bear-style sign represents even more of a jest: Only one tree remains.

Island humor likewise pops up in the name of a serpentine stretch of road near the island's summit -- it's called Spanish Curve, because the car-radio dial is suddenly dominated by Mexico-based stations at the spot. (The 1,900-foot summit itself is known as Mount Thirst.)

At the entrance gate to SHOBA, a warning sign depicts a bomb releasing a cloud of smoke, along with the word "BOOM."

There's no weapons testing on this day, though, and the area is quiet.

The spot where the orchid was last seen is a steep hike down the side of a narrow canyon, through patches of cactus and dry grasses. Nearby is a stand of island ironwood trees, sprouting lacy white flowers.

These trees, like virtually all the other native plants on the island, were ravaged by the goats that once lived here. No one is entirely sure how they first arrived -- whether left by early Spanish explorers or introduced by ranchers later -- but they proved an ecological disaster.

It took a nearly 30-year effort, led mainly by Natural Resources Office director Jan Larson, to get rid of the animals. The last goat was seen here in 1991.

Since then, ironwoods, island oaks, the pink-flowered island bush- mallow and other plants have started to recover. In all, 35 California native plants not previously seen on the island have been recorded since 1985.

That rebound, in turn, has created more habitat for such animals as the shrike and the threatened San Clemente sage sparrow.

As it turns out, the orchid is nowhere to be seen, despite Dunn's best efforts to locate it by GPS. On the hike back, though, there is one startling find, at least for a newcomer: several 5-inch- diameter projectiles, each about 2 feet long, and apparently shot from a ship at some point.

Now, fuses removed, they lay scattered and rusting among the prickly cholla.

Goats and boats

To people who have spent some time on the island, sights like that are not uncommon -- just another reminder of the fragile coexistence here between the island's natural landscape and the impact of people.

Larson, who has been studying and working to restore the island's natural resources for three decades, has no illusions about the environmental contingent's role here.

"What we're basically trying to do is ensure we have an ecosystem that will tolerate the kind of routine training that's required by our military," he says.

He's pleased with the progress that has been made so far, particularly since the departure of the goats, which he calls "a cancer that was killing the island."

But he understands there's still a long way to go.

"I always say I have a special deal with God that when I die, I'll be issued a pair of long-range binoculars, so I can keep track of what's going on down here," he says.

Along with the change in the landscape, there's also been some change of minds, says Rick Ebert, a former Navy warrant officer who now serves as a liaison between the military and the Natural Resources Office.

"It's kind of easy for me to relate to the (Navy) kids, because I've been there," he says. "I was the guy sittin' on the boat, dropping bombs in SHOBA. I was the guy doing exercises around the island for many years."

Not long ago, Ebert says, there often was a reflexive mistrust of environmental types among the military people.

"There's been a big turn here on the island, I think, in the past four years," he says. "To where people understand this is something that's really important, and it's part of our community.

"Now we've made this transition to where people don't see environmentalists as weird or odd. As people who are grubby or dirty. It's the new way of things. You just can't do anything in the world now without having to consider (the environment)."

Jessica Savage, who worked with the habitat restoration program for about a year before leaving recently to pursue a doctorate, says the reactions to her work were typically mixed.

"You get a whole spectrum," she says. "There are people who are really interested in our work. There are people who come up to us - - they can spot us as being NRO -- and they'll start talking to us about birds."

But, she adds, "I think there definitely is ignorance about it. I think there's overall a pretty low understanding of the diversity, and what an ecologically unique place this is."

Staffers like to recall the story of a serviceman who walked up to one of the naturalists at the Salty Crab bar one night and challenged him to do just two pull-ups.

The apparent implication was that environmentalists are wheatgrass-sipping wimps, although they good-naturedly counter that they're probably in better shape than anybody here, by virtue of clambering along the island's hillsides like those long-departed goats.

The habitat-restoration staff often works closely with the Seabees -- members of the Navy's construction battalion -- and Savage says she found them to be both helpful and interested in the projects.

Seabee Jeremy Nielsen says it's common for his crew to alter their work plans to accommodate environmental concerns.

"I'm all about protecting the environment," he says, over breakfast at the island's mess hall. "If we have to move concrete 4 inches to the left or right (to accommodate potential impacts), that's not a problem.

"I've been on a couple of hikes out here. I think it's beautiful, especially on a good, clear day. You see the foxes, the shrikes, the island lizards."

Fellow Seabee David Johnson says he's never been to a place that had so many endangered animals. Through the Natural Resources Office, he has been out to visit the shrike cages as well as normally inaccessible spots like the sand dunes on the island's northwest shore.

For Johnson, the island provides the best of both worlds -- a place that's a pleasure to live in and learn about, but not one he's confined to like a sailor aboard ship.

"What is nice is that every weekend, as long as you don't have the duty weekend, you are able to go home," Johnson says. "Which is a blessing.

"And the other blessing is, we're fortunate enough not to be in a hostile area right now."

It might be difficult to think of a place that serves as a bull's- eye for bombs as being non-hostile.

But Cmdr. Lockerby suggests the island's reputation as a pincushion for missiles and mortar shells might be a bit overblown.

"If you blow holes in a place," he points out, "you're not going to be able to use it very long."

Even so, paradoxes linger, a part of life on the island: The call of the shrike and the shriek of the fighters; the orchids and the ordnance.

In her time here, Savage has come to embrace the contradictions and the restrictions and the need to do "what comes with the game out here" in order to help in the vast task of restoring and protecting the habitat.

Along the way, she says, she has developed "almost like a personal relationship" with the austere, lonely landscape of this blip on the blue arc of the Pacific. And in more ways than one, she has savored the joys of finding the middle ground.

"I love it when you drive down the center of the island, and you can see water on both sides," she says. "It's incredible."

Saving the island's unique species

San Clemente Island is technically part of Los Angeles County, but it has been owned by the Navy since the 1930s. Most of the 400 people working there fly out by air shuttle from Naval Air Station North Island, the island's home command.

Some 35 to 50 of those people work on programs related to the island's plant and animal life. While several projects are devoted to endangered animals, the plant programs focus more on species that haven't yet been listed as endangered but are especially critical to the island's ecosystem.

"We'd rather get to things before they fall on that list," says Kim O'Connor, who directs the island's botany program. Fifteen species of plants exist only on San Clemente, and 29 grow only in the Channel Islands chain.

Here's a look at island species that have been listed as endangered or threatened by federal or state officials:


o San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike

o San Clemente sage sparrow

o Island night lizard

o Island fox


o San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush

o San Clemente Island larkspur

o San Clemente Island woodland-star

o San Clemente Island broom

o San Clemente Island bush-mallow

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