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Steinbeck, Bikers, and Slimy Critters

Photo_credit-_Steve_WolfEric Morgan recalls guiding Interior Secretary Ken Salazar through the pastoral hills outside Fort Ord in Monterey, California. To the west, the maritime chaparral unfurled for miles beneath their feet before giving way to a peninsula, where the land crawls under the Pacific and great whites swim offshore.

 “He kept calling the place a crown jewel,” says Morgan, the project manager of habitat restoration at Fort Ord, which is under BLM jurisdiction.

Secretary Salazar is only the most recent "somebody" to pass through Fort Ord. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza slept beneath the hills on his journey from Tubac (now Tucson) to San Francisco, where he established the Presidio. John Steinbeck called the nearby Gabilan Range “beckoning mountains with brown grass love.” (Their westerly counterparts, the Santa Lucia’s, he said, were “brooding — unfriendly and dangerous”).  And from 1917 to 1994, the fort served as a military base. Unexploded shells still lurk behind Keep Out signs.

The fort is as worthy of exploration as it is rich in history. Hikers can search for threatened California tiger salamanders — amphibians known to slink through vernal pools and co-opt rodent burrows — and view Toro Manzanita, a fuzzy plant with 90 percent of its range on Fort Ord lands. Each year, 100,000 people travel Fort Ord’s 86 miles of trails, and half of them ride mountain bikes. Some say it’s the choice single-track on the Monterey Peninsula.

Fort Ord staff and a huge volunteer force are leading an initiative to restore the habitat. They rip out degraded roads and replace them with grasses and flowers. Local schools are in on it too: About 1,000 kids per year come to plant seedlings they grew themselves. “I really enjoy working with my community because there is such a large stewardship ethic,” Morgan says.

Problem is, BLM status doesn’t allow for planning decisions with a lifespan beyond 15 years, making habitat preservation and long-term protection of threatened species difficult. If President Obama sees the same flickering jewel that Salazar did, then local kids could be promised a natural classroom for years to come, and California tiger salamanders could nestle into gopher holes for generations.

--Jake Abrahamson/ photo courtesy of Steve Wolf

This post is part of a series on threatened American landscapes. President Obama can protect the Fort Ord area by naming it a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Sierra Club activists across the West are encouraging him to do so. Follow the campaign at www.sierraclub.org/habitat.

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