Archeologists, botanists and wildlife biologists are stationed alongside missilemen and satellite launchers here at the nation’s third-largest Air Force base.
While others at the base worry about launching satellites into space and weaponry across the Pacific, these scientists are busy protecting endangered two-inch fish and tiny birds that squeal zeek, zeek, kitti-kitti-kitti.
This 100,000-acre Air Force base in a National Park setting, hugging 35 miles of undeveloped Central California coast, includes one of the largest pristine areas left in the state. It is the last stronghold of numerous plants and animals.
The Air Force base has been cited by the secretary of defense and leading environmentalists as having the best conservation program of any military installation in the country.
“You can find all kinds of people concerned about environmental matters at Vandenberg that you don’t find at other military bases,” said Ken Wiley, 43, Central California area manager for the Nature Conservancy.
Earlier this year Nature Conservancy and Vandenberg signed what Wiley described as “the first agreement of any real significance between a military base and an environmental organization.” The agreement calls for the development of a coordinated management plan for wildlife and plant habitat in a unique botanical treasure, 9,000 acres of untouched sand dunes.
It is along the edges of the towering dunes that the yellow-billed, yellow-footed, white-and-gray California least tern with the zeek, zeek, kitti-kitti-kitti chirp nests from mid-April through August.
Foot and vehicle traffic is prohibited on a 3,315-acre posted section of Vandenberg Beach during the 4 1/2-month least tern nesting period. An electric fence has been installed to keep out coyotes and other predators.
Running through the dune area and spilling into the ocean is San Antonio Creek, home of the endangered, two-inch, unarmored three-spine stickleback, a scaleless fish poised on the brink of extinction.
The Vandenberg dunes are unequaled in California for lush growths of dune lupine, beach primrose, fiddleneck, dune pennyroyal, surf thistle and other rare wild flowers. The base is a refuge for at least 41 plants identified as rare or endangered.
Walking along a 10-mile stretch of beach on a balmy day near the least tern sanctuary, Allan Naydol, 38, the air base’s civilian chief of natural resources, observed:
“Here we are on one of the longest, widest beaches in the United States, framed by giant sand dunes, and we’re all alone. This is what California used to be 100 years ago. Yet, 150 miles to the southeast is Los Angeles where beaches today are teeming with people.”
Only a small part of the huge base is actually used for military activities. The rest of it forms a huge buffer zone needed to minimize possible hazards from aborted missile launches.
“Vandenberg has one of the last sections of unspoiled coast left in California, marvelous tide pools, large harbor seal and sea lion colonies, 5,000 acres of choice wetlands, thousands of acres of native grass and woodland,” said Col. Orville (Robbie) Robertson, 47, director of environmental management here the last two years.
“For that reason, the position of chief environmental planner for the base was created in 1973 to study and implement steps necessary to protect, preserve and enhance these natural resources in a manner compatible with the military mission.”
Jim Johnston, 41, a civilian and a Vietnam War veteran awarded the Purple Heart, has held the job ever since. The first four years he was the only professional environmentalist at the base. In 1977, Naydol, a civilian wildlife biologist formerly with the National Park Service, was hired as chief of natural resources.
“Johnston took the plants. I took the animals,” Naydol explained.
Johnston was the first to record the nesting of California least terns on the base. Naydol discovered the endangered stickleback fish in San Antonio Creek.
Now, 16 years after Johnston was hired, there are 35 full-time people on Vandenberg’s environmental staff, two-thirds of them civilians, one-third military, working directly under the base commander. Vandenberg’s environmental task force was the first organization of its kind in the military, Robertson noted.
“People on the outside looking at a military installation think the military can do whatever it wants to do, that we’re not accountable to anyone when it comes to environmental abuses,” the colonel said.
“Not so. The military is supposed to follow the same environmental laws as everyone else. It just so happens a greater effort has been made in that regard here at Vandenberg than at any other military base.”
The Nature Conservancy’s Wiley echoed the sentiments of other environmentalists who know Vandenberg’s track record when he said:
“I can tell you the military at Vandenberg has done an outstanding job protecting the environment. Botanists and wildlife biologists from all over the nation and outside the country will vouch for that. Vandenberg’s environmental record is well known in the scientific community.”
In conjunction with the state Department of Fish and Game, 191 underground diesel storage tanks left over from World War II are being dug up, cleaned and readied with 300,000 tons of stockpiled concrete to establish the world’s largest artificial reef in the Pacific off the Air Force base.
It is a long-term project that is expected to take several years.
Routinely, every facility on the base is inspected to make sure all is environmentally in order. A new hazardous-waste management system is being developed to ensure that hazardous materials and wastes are tracked and properly controlled from start to finish.
Two resident archeologists, Larry Spanne, 48, and Sarah Berry, 26, are taking an inventory of prehistoric Chumash Indian villages and campsites. So far, 650 sites have been recorded, including one 9,000-year-old camp that was occupied until the early 1800s. Well preserved prehistoric rock drawings are on several hillsides.
The archeologists are working closely with local Indians on the project.
“At Vandenberg, no one is allowed to put a shovel in the ground without proper environmental assessments. Environment is a sacred word at this military base,” Naydol insisted.