The U.S. Forest Service is considering creating a Big Sur National Forest that could include the Hearst Ranch and Ft. Hunter Liggett, if the enormous U.S. Army base is shuttered in the Pentagon's coming round of base closures.
As envisioned, the new national forest could encompass an area yet to be acquired that alone would be nearly half the size of Orange County, plus northern portions of the Los Padres National Forest.
The concept, raised in a briefing paper for U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), details the Forest Service's interest in protecting vast reaches of the Central Coast at a time when state parks officials are short of cash and the National Park Service has shown no interest in purchasing additional land.
"We do see some good opportunities to conserve undeveloped areas and preserve the area's scenic and natural values," said Jack Blackwell, the top U.S. Forest Service official in California. "Sam Farr asked us to explore the idea. We took that idea of a Big Sur National Forest and said, 'If you want to explore that, this is how it should look.' "
If the Forest Service were to acquire about 80,000 acres of the Hearst Ranch, as is suggested in the paper, and take over the 165,000-acre Ft. Hunter Liggett, it would add about 382 square miles to California's inventory of protected public lands.
The Hearst Ranch, the grassy tablelands and mountains surrounding Hearst Castle at San Simeon, would be "a logical addition to the national forest and would complement the proposed Big Sur National Forest," the paper said. "There is very strong support for public acquisition of the ranch."
The Forest Service, under its policies, buys land only from willing sellers -- and there is no indication that Hearst Corp. wants to sell.
In recent years, the Forest Service has purchased 4,684 acres in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties on the northern boundary of the Hearst Ranch, said Brent Handley, who directs the management of the agency's natural resources in California.
Adding the Hearst Ranch would improve access for hikers, hunters and others to the forest lands and place the streams and rivers of the last remaining Southern steelhead trout and other protected species under the management of federal wildlife experts, the document said.
The paper also reveals the Forest Service's interest in acquiring Ft. Hunter Liggett, should the Army base be closed by the Pentagon next year as part of its effort to shed some of its vast landholdings.
Farr, whose congressional district includes the base, said Thursday that the Army base remained "in limbo" since the Pentagon had decommissioned most of the buildings but not the surrounding acreage.
"The jury is out on the fate of Ft. Hunter Liggett," Farr said. He said he was intrigued by the Forest Service's idea of adding the land to its holdings, which include the adjacent Ventana Wilderness -- a swath of protected federal forestland that Farr helped create.
"This is all federal property," the congressman said. "This is not a land grab. This is about consolidation and coordination between federal agencies. It's what the locals would like. They would prefer to have it go to the Forest Service, because they can continue to hunt."
The little-used Army base has about a fourth of the state's remnant herd of tule elk, and includes places where endangered condors and bald eagles are staging comebacks. It has some of the healthiest stands of live valley and blue oaks.
"The base also contains numerous Native American archeological and culture sites, and offers outstanding recreational opportunities, including hiking, mountain biking, equestrian use, camping, nature study, fishing and hunting," the Forest Service paper said.
About 40% of the base was national forest before it was transferred to the War Department during World War II. "If it's no longer needed by the military, I don't know why it shouldn't go back to the national forest," said Blackwell, the region's top U.S. forestry official.
The idea of acquiring the Hearst Ranch has surfaced as state officials negotiate with Hearst representatives over a $95-million deal to buy the development rights to most of the 120-square-mile ranch. Under the state plan, Hearst would keep ownership of that land, but abandon its previous plans to build a resort and golf course and instead limit any construction to a small hotel and 27 homes. Blackwell and other Forest Service officials presented the national forest idea to Harriet Burgess, the head of the American Land Conservancy, to see whether Hearst Corp. might be interested in selling the rest of the ranch. The conservancy is helping Hearst broker a deal with state officials.
"All interests in the ranch would be acquired with the exception of any property reserved by the Hearst Corp. for future home sites and other uses," the briefing paper said. The Forest Service paper has suggested leasing the land back to the corporation, so it could continue its cattle operations. The document also suggests working with state park officials to manage coast land, which includes a popular beach for surfing, windsurfing and observing elephant seals.
Burgess said she was "enthusiastic about the vision," but doubted that the Hearst family, which has owned the cattle ranch since 1865, would be interested in selling the land.
She mentioned the idea to Stephen T. Hearst, the grandson of William Randolph Hearst who is in charge of the ranch. She said she hadn't recommended the sale "and he didn't show any interest."
Hearst was unavailable for comment. But Roger Lyon, his lawyer, confirmed that the family-owned Hearst Corp. was not interested in selling any part of the ranch, other than a narrow strip beside Highway 1.
The state deal, as negotiations continue, would include the sale of that ribbon of land, which extends along most of the ranch's 18 miles of coastline.
Hearst wants to retain about 680 acres west of the highway, including San Simeon Point, a cove at Pico Creek and a beach at Ragged Point, and keep them as private property.
But it is willing to part with 1,202 acres along Highway 1.
This week, the California Highway Commission began a two-step process of amending its highway improvement program to authorize $23 million in federal transportation money to buy the coastal acreage, both for its scenic value and to move Highway 1 back from the fast-eroding shoreline.
A final vote will come in May.
That would leave Hearst Corp. in need of an additional $72 million in state bond money and $15 million in state tax credits for an agricultural easement that would restrict development on most of the rest of the ranch. Hearst lobbyists are pushing state lawmakers to amend the law so conservation bonds could be used to finance the tax credits.
The Forest Service, as a neighbor to the north, has participated in some discussions about the fate of the ranch.
Blackwell said the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Agriculture Department, is not interested in the Hearst Ranch or Ft. Hunter Liggett for commercial activities, such as mining, oil and gas drilling or timber harvesting. "Our interest in this land is in the preservation of natural resources," he said, not in exploiting them.
The National Park Service, an agency within the Interior Department, has spent nearly five years studying Ft. Hunter Liggett and a dozen historic buildings, including one designed by famous architect Julia Morgan, to see if they are worthy of adding to national park properties.
"It is our understanding the report looks beyond the building and specifies that the 165,000-acre property is suitable for inclusion in the National Park System, but that such a designation is not feasible at this time," the Forest Service paper states.
The National Park Service declined immediate comment, saying its study was not complete.
Forest Service officials note that it would take an act of Congress for them to take possession of Ft. Hunter Liggett, or to purchase the Hearst Ranch.
The briefing paper includes a map that lays out the boundaries that would incorporate both of the enormous properties into the new national forest.