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  •   San Francisco Keeps Marines at Bay

    By Cassandra Stern
    Special to The Washington Post
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A25

    In its latest battle, the U.S. Marine Corps is staggering in retreat, hoping the opposition won't force them from the shores altogether. The enemy: San Francisco.

    As part of a program called Urban Warrior, the Marines have been playing war games in cities across America. Until they got to San Francisco, the missions went off without a hitch. However, as soon as the Marines released a draft environmental proposal detailing exactly what they planned during their four-day proposed exercise in the Presidio National Park, the city rallied in opposition.

    "The common response is, 'What in God's name are they thinking,' " said Michael Alexander, chairman of the Sierra Club's Presidio Task Force. "This is an absurdly over-scaled proposal for a national park in peacetime," he said, referring to the military's plan for a mock three-block war utilizing helicopters, hovercraft, smoke grenades, theatrical explosions, thousands of rounds of blank arms fire and hundreds of troops.

    To the Marines, Operation Warrior is an essential training program for the 21st century. Nearly gone, they say, are the days when battles between uniformed enemies are fought on open plains or in dense jungles.

    Recent military missions to Panama, Mogadishu, Kosovo, Sarajevo were all dangerous and complex--and in crowded cities. Soldiers need to know how to navigate cities, the Marines argue, and where better to learn than a 1,480-acre former military base on the water with lots of empty buildings?

    That reasoning doesn't, however, sit well with many San Franciscans. "This city is anti-war," said Dan Cooke, 33, who writes humorous newsletters. What amuses him most is an image he and most people share of the Marines storming Baker Beach, San Francisco's favorite nude sunbathing spot. "They've had to charge up beaches under gunfire, but they've never had to face hundreds of naked bottoms."

    The National Park Service quashed the landing plan last week, not so much out of fear of anything the Marines would do, according to B.J. Griffin, general manager of the Presidio, but because of a possible secondary invasion of gawkers and protesters who might trample fragile dunes and protected grounds.

    No problem, say the Marines. They'll land at the Coast Guard facility near the airport and catch a bus to the Presidio.

    There is a problem, according to the Presidio Trust, which administers much of the land and most of the buildings the Marines want to use. The Trust said it may deny use permits in deference to the Park Service's assertion that this mission, because of its scale, is not appropriate for a national park.

    "The military has always trained in national parks," said Lt. Col. Gary W. Schenkel of the Marine War Fighting Laboratory. "The U.S. Army were the first park rangers."

    Schenkel said the Marines have designed Operation Warrior to be as unobtrusive as possible. All exercises are planned for weekdays, and contrary to the popular public image, the Marines never planned to storm the beach. They just need a place to land the troops.

    He said the mission would provide vital, life-saving training for troops and give the military a chance to test whether off-the-shelf cellular phones, laptop computers and global positioning systems can work in a combat situation. If they do, the military could save a huge sum on equipment.

    Bill McDonnell, co-chairman of a group representing 11 exclusive neighborhoods around the Presidio, said an abandoned hospital across the street from a residential neighborhood would be one of the places where the heaviest fire is planned. Schenkel, however, said that although thousands of blank rounds will be fired, most of it will be inside the dilapidated building, which has 35-inch-thick walls.

    "The Presidio is to the Army what Yosemite is to the National Park Service," said Griffin, "a flagship." Every time she talks to someone who once lived there they regale her with memories of the place. The Presidio has a magical quality, she says, and people who have been a part of it feel a close emotional bond with the land.

    Built on rolling hills, the Presidio lies on a peninsula jutting out into San Francisco Bay and commands spectacular views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Groves of eucalyptus and pine trees give the park a unique scent. Inside the Presidio it's easy to forget the city.

    The 222-year-old fort with houses dating back to the Civil War was declared a national historic landmark in 1962 and became a national park in 1994. The Presidio is home to many threatened and endangered plants, most notably Raven's Manzanita, a one-of-a-kind shrub. "It's arguably the rarest plant on earth," Alexander said.

    The Park Service has been painstakingly coaxing native species and rehabilitating marshlands since taking over the Presidio. According to Griffin, it took more that 100,000 volunteer hours to restore the dunes to Baker Beach. "We wouldn't ever want to undo any of that restoration," she said.

    Griffin stresses that the military has been extremely sensitive to environmental concerns. However, she says, there is no way for the Park Service to guarantee the safety of protected areas given the number of spectators and protesters that are bound to come.

    Both Griffin and Alexander said that they have no problem in general with the military using national parks for training, but that this mission is too big. "We did not expect to be shut down like this," Schenkel said. "If we don't train here, then where do we train?"

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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