Monterey’s Lower Presidio: Keeping a park from slipping away

Peninsula Premier Admin

MONTEREY – In 2015, the Old Monterey Foundation struck a deal with the city of Monterey to restore the Lower Presidio Historic Park. The agreement took some pressure off the city in preserving and improving the 26-acre space, an ambition Monterey promised to see through – but never quite realized – when it leased the property from the Army in 1996.

The Old Monterey Foundation volunteered to offset the financial shortfall. New walkways and interpretive signage soon followed and enlisting the extra help seemed a soaring success for the city. Even after the partnership formally ended last year, the nonprofit retained lofty development plans on its own.

That is, until the unexpected erosion of the park grounds, a known Native American burial site, directed attention from upgrades to upkeep. The disturbance? Gophers and ground squirrels burrowing into the park’s hillside.

The erosion is cause for alarm, especially with a host of government regulations protecting the area and its cultural resources. Now, officials are tasked with finding a timely fix. But even the simplest solutions are producing challenges.

Layered past

The Lower Presidio Historic Park is central to local history.

Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald
Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald

It’s the land Sebastian Vizcaino claimed for the king of Spain in 1602. And more than a century later, it’s where Captain Gaspar de Portola and Franciscan Father Junipero Serra met to celebrate the finding of Monterey in 1770. But the area was occupied long before the Spanish laid claim to its soil.

The lower Presidio holds evidence of indigenous tribes tracing back thousands of years, said Laura Prishmont-Quimby, cultural resource manager with the Presidio of Monterey.

In 1967, for example, archaeologist William Pritchard located seven Native American burials on the lower Presidio. Human male crania, shell material and tools have also been detected, as listed in a 2004 Integrated Cultural Resources Management Plan by the Army. The Presidio as a whole “is considered traditional homelands to various tribal groups,” the report said.

The Lower Presidio Historic Park is a known Native American burial site, with evidence of indigenous tribes tracing back upwards of 10,000 years. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
The Lower Presidio Historic Park is a known Native American burial site, with evidence of indigenous tribes tracing back upwards of 10,000 years. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

“Beginning with the Native Americans probably 10,000 years ago, there’s been governments and Spanish exploration, Argentinian privateers in 1818, Californian statehood, the military,” added Prishmont-Quimby. “You can literally see all these layers in the (park’s) stratigraphy. It’s a very significant site, even at the surface …”

Significant – but sensitive, particularly with underground forces posing a risk to tiers of records carefully laid to rest.

The fallout of burrowing

Signs of erosion at the Lower Presidio Historic Park were first brought to the Army’s attention in 2017, Prishmont-Quimby said. Notice came from Monterey, which was pursuing a city project near the park at the time. In response, the Presidio contracted with the Army Engineer Research and Development Center to conduct a study of the erosion problem and develop possible solutions.

The study was completed three years later in 2020, after facing delays through the pandemic.

The Herald submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to read the study but was advised the report would be redacted. Regardless, the request was made in early August and no official response had been issued as of this publication.

Speaking to findings generally, Prishmont-Quimby said “surprisingly, gophers and ground squirrels are creating much of the erosion.” The impact is visible from Lighthouse Avenue, which the Lower Presidio Historic Park overlooks.

Gophers and ground squirrels are burrowing into the Lower Presidio Historic Park's hillside, causing some soil to fall onto the sidewalk below. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
Gophers and ground squirrels are burrowing into the Lower Presidio Historic Park’s hillside, causing some soil to fall onto the sidewalk below. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

While inspecting the area, geologist Doug Smith, a longtime professor and current interim dean of graduate studies and research at CSU Monterey Bay, verified the rodents’ activity and influence on the slope.

“The whole hillside is riddled with burrows,” he said, walking the grounds.

Smith, who has experience in erosion problems, explained that the space’s bedrock geology is granite. What’s eroding is a thin layer of soft material sitting on top.

“My feet are caving in wherever I step,” he said. “There’s very fine-grained soil, and it’s a steep slope. The combination is creating significant erosion right onto the sidewalk down there.”

Burrows from gophers and ground squirrels have coalesced on the Lower Presidio Historic Park's hillside overlooking Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey, making for a weak substrate that can easily let loose soil fall to the sidewalk below. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
Burrows from gophers and ground squirrels have coalesced on the Lower Presidio Historic Park’s hillside overlooking Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey, making for a weak substrate that can easily let loose soil fall to the sidewalk. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

Park soil accumulating on the sidewalk below, however, cannot be removed without prior consultation with a federally recognized tribe to prevent possible disturbance to cultural resources, as laid out in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The Presidio of Monterey became subject to the law in 1971 when it was declared a National Register Historic District. To ensure protection when cultural resources are at risk of intrusion – albeit due to suggested programs or activities on the historic site rather than an active animal  – the law emphasizes consultation with affected parties to figure out how properties can remain intact.

The lower Presidio’s grounds are also protected by the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979,  the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites. Together, the trio of regulations define terms for excavation and discovery of archaeological resources on federal or tribal lands.

With protections, and liabilities, to consider, Prishmont-Quimby said “the erosion issue is something that needs to be taken care of.” But how and through what parties is still in question.

Coming up with a solution

To keep soil in place, two strategies are possible: mechanical and biological.

The former is a matter of controlling the thin layer of soil that’s sloughing off the granite, according to Smith. To control the slow creep of material, Smith said a retaining wall, or a barrier that supports soil laterally so it doesn’t slip away, would “be the easiest thing, and the longest lasting.”

“It seems like a pretty simple operation,” he said. “An engineering approach will work on that. … If it’s done well, a retaining wall will last for decades.”

Speaking to the hillside’s rate of erosion until a retaining wall can be put in place, Smith said the soil’s stability will depend on how wet the Peninsula’s winters are and, more importantly, how intense rainfall is.

“That’s what really triggers our landslides,” he said. “Large numbers of inches per hour, as well as just generally having a wet winter. If we continue in our drought, that slope will be stable for quite a long time. … But if (climate change) is bringing us more intense rainfall, as is predicted, then slope stability will become worse. It really depends.”

Another, and possibly simultaneous approach is controlling the rodent population plundering the park. But that can be a little tricky.

Jenny Duggan, associate professor of applied environmental science at CSUMB, boiled the challenge down to atoning some unintended consequences of urbanization.

“Both (the California ground squirrel and our local pocket gopher) are native species, and both of them are pretty adaptable to a number of conditions – conditions that humans are good at providing,” said Duggan, who specializes in working with small mammals. “They like open habitats and not very dense vegetation.”

Exacerbated by a lack of predation in the area, and the wildcard factor of humans feeding the animals (plus their notoriously high reproduction rates), populations have exploded.

Populations of ground squirrels and gophers have grown in urbanized areas like the city of Monterey, where open spaces, extra feedings from visitors and invasive species allowed for and contributed to higher densities of the animals. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
Populations of ground squirrels and gophers have grown in urbanized areas like the city of Monterey, where open spaces, extra feedings from visitors and invasive species allowed for and contributed to higher densities of the animals. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

“When there’s a decrease in predation, they’re reproducing like crazy and surviving like crazy, you see really high densities of these animals in the area – because of us,” said Duggan.

And it will take human beings to reverse the trend. Duggan said the first advice she offers anyone looking to pursue population control is modify the habitat of focus into something that is not as appealing to the animals. That means planting more trees and creating denser vegetation – modifications not entirely conducive to a park setting. As an alternative, Duggan suggested officials devise a way to reduce supplemental feedings from visitors. She also said trapping is always an option but conceded pest management is labor intensive.

“There’s been enough complaining and concern throughout different areas of Monterey that I think modifying the habitats…and reducing the feeding of wildlife are all reasonable recommendations,” she said.

Team effort?

Weighing its options, Prishmont-Quimby said the Army has “some ideas and some methods we could use to mitigate the animal problem,” but that the immediate focus is constructing a retaining wall.

Prishmont-Quimby has put in a request for funding to the Presidio’s Master Planning Division to have the barrier built.

According to the Presidio’s Master Planner Scott Ellis, the proposal has been submitted to the Army, which will ultimately approve or deny funding.

“That’s about as far as I’ve gotten in terms of the planning aspect of (the wall),” said Ellis, adding that the project’s scope and total cost is uncertain. Ideally, the Army would like to work with Monterey in designing the wall, as maintenance and protection of the lower Presidio’s grounds falls within the city’s responsibility as a lessee.

Signed in 1996, the pair’s 50-year agreement requires that “the Lessee shall take appropriate measures to prevent or control soil erosion within the premises.” It also says that “it is the responsibility of the Lessee to maintain the historic property and all its contributing elements…”

  • While the Army explores the possibility of installing a retaining...

    While the Army explores the possibility of installing a retaining wall to control erosion at the Lower Presidio Historic Park, the city of Monterey is undertaking a near-term solution on city property closeby. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • The bedrock geology of the Lower Presidio Historic Park’s hillside...

    The bedrock geology of the Lower Presidio Historic Park’s hillside overlooking Lighthouse Avenue is granite. A thin layer of soil, however, is sitting on top – and eroding away. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • “Curves in the trees – that's a classic sign of...

    “Curves in the trees – that’s a classic sign of slow soil creeping downhill. As the soil moves it rotates the trunk down but the top of the tree corrects itself, because trees like to go up, and it gets that swoop,” said said geologist Doug Smith, a longtime professor and current interim dean of graduate studies and research at CSU Monterey Bay, as he surveyed the Lower Presidio Historic Park in Monterey. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • “Well the squirrels are definitely disturbing the shallow soil. You...

    “Well the squirrels are definitely disturbing the shallow soil. You can see Native American midden artifacts brought up to the surface,” said geologist Doug Smith, a longtime professor and current interim dean of graduate studies and research at CSU Monterey Bay, as he surveyed the Lower Presidio Historic Park in Monterey. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • The Lower Presidio Historic Park is protected by a host...

    The Lower Presidio Historic Park is protected by a host of federal regulations, including the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

When asked of Monterey’s contribution to preventing erosion so far, Prishmont-Quimby said a lack of movement on the issue by city officials left her with “no other choice” but to come up with a course of action.

“Because we’re so concerned about the situation, we decided to put in a request for funding,” she went on. The Army is still eyeing for collaboration.

In the meantime, Monterey is undertaking a near-term solution with a small-scale wood retaining wall on city property close by.

Monterey Assistant City Manager Nat Rojanasathira said in an email that the city “is in the process of finalizing plans for constructing a retaining wall that will be located on the city’s property (outside of the leased area).” Essentially, it’s a quick fix as a more comprehensive correction for the park’s border comes to fruition. And that’s going to take some time.

The earliest Ellis could get a funding request into the Army was for the Presidio’s 2025 fiscal year, he said. From there, actually getting the wall up and in use could take anywhere from 18 to 24 months, assuming the Army backs the venture.

“The project depends on whether funding becomes available from the Army,” said Ellis. “The Army gets hundreds and hundreds of project requests.”

The Presidio is holding out for an eventual resolution.

“It’s a very concerning issue,” said Prishmont-Quimby. “If the park erodes, there’s going to be no more park. We need to take care of the situation. … It would be to the greater benefit of the community and the nation because this is a site that’s significant to our nation’s history.”

Unfinished business

As erosion at the Lower Presidio Historic Park attracts Army and city of Monterey attention, the Old Monterey Foundation is still eyeing aspirations for the area. Though, in their present state, those ideas are on unsteady ground.

When the nonprofit took on the obligation to renovate the site more than seven years ago, it did so with the intent to make the area the jewel of the city’s park system – a dream that, though superseded by the foundation, had always been a part of the Lower Presidio Historic Park’s imagined future. The city said as much nearly two decades back, in a 2002 park Master Plan erected as a requirement of its lease to the Army.

  • In 2015, the Old Monterey Foundation signed a Memorandum of...

    In 2015, the Old Monterey Foundation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the city of Monterey to carry out improvement plans at the Lower Presidio Historic Park. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • Over the course of two years, the Old Monterey Foundation...

    Over the course of two years, the Old Monterey Foundation completed the first phase of an imagined improvement project at the Lower Presidio Historic Park. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • From 2015-2017, the Old Monterey Foundation helped upgrade and improve...

    From 2015-2017, the Old Monterey Foundation helped upgrade and improve the Lower Presidio Historic Park in Monterey, a venture that included new interpretive signage, two pathways and a replacement wooden slot fence. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • The Old Monterey Foundation has completed several improvement projects at...

    The Old Monterey Foundation has completed several improvement projects at the Lower Presidio Historic Park., including anything from a new welcome sign to two new pathways along Presidio Hill. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

  • Walkways equipped with interpretive signs are one of several additions...

    Walkways equipped with interpretive signs are one of several additions to the Lower Presidio Historic Park installed over the last few years as part of a multi-step improvement project by the Old Monterey Foundation. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

“Not only will the Lower Presidio be at the physical center of the community, it will create new opportunities to communicate a spectrum of archaeological and cultural histories not currently available on the Monterey Peninsula,” the plan reads.

Yet potential sat untapped for years, as financial constraints limited the city’s bandwidth to upgrade. Dissatisfied by delays to progress, the Old Monterey Foundation decided unanimously to take on the project in 2014. A year later, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of Monterey to carry out its Lower Presidio Master Plan.

From 2015-2017, the Old Monterey Foundation completed Phase 1 of a multi-step approach to restoration. Phase 1 upgrades included a welcome sign at the site’s entrance, interpretive signage contextualizing park monuments, a replacement wooden slot fence to make the property more historically accurate and two new pathways along the Presidio Hill.

Funding for improvements came from Monterey’s Neighborhood Improvement Program, the Community Foundation for Monterey County, the Monterey Peninsula Foundation and the Monterey Regional Park District. The Old Monterey Foundation could not give an estimate of how much has been spent, donated or fundraised, to finance progress.

Momentum, however, has recently slowed. While most initially sought-after upgrades have materialized, prospective ploys to revamp the park are stalling. Namely, filling an open space previously occupied by old calvary stables.

Over the course of two years, the Old Monterey Foundation completed the first phase of an imagined improvement project at the Lower Presidio Historic Park. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
Over the course of two years, the Old Monterey Foundation completed the first phase of an imagined improvement project at the Lower Presidio Historic Park. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

Constructed in 1922 when the lower Presidio served as a modern military post for the Army, the stables were demolished by the city of Monterey a year and half ago. They were too dilapidated to stay up, explained Bill Wojtkowski, former president of the Old Monterey Foundation.

In their place, the Old Monterey Foundation wanted to construct a stable replica that could double as a multi-use community center. Those plans are in the works, but current foundation president Rusty Ward said the group took a step back when it heard the park had an erosion problem.

“The city and the Army, at this point, are trying to solve the issue, so we’re kind of on the sidelines,” he said. “We put our hands up for the time being, but from a historical standpoint we’re still committed to doing something.”

Hesitation is also fueled by standing pushback from the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, which represents over 600 tribal members descended from the ancestral community who lived in villages historically located within the present-day greater Monterey Bay. Their ties to Monterey County date back more than 7,000 years.

Louise Miranda Ramirez, Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation tribal chairwoman, explained that the Lower Presidio Historic Park “is very important to us” and that “it needs a lot of protection as far as we’re concerned.”

On the possibility of further construction in the area, Ramirez said the nation does not support any development. She noted that nation representatives were there when the city tore down the stables to make sure cultural resources were not dug up, and added that “our goal is to definitely protect our ancestors and not to have any construction at all.”

But if a new Old Monterey Foundation endeavor goes forward, Ramirez said “I hope it’s done the right way.”

Monterey City Manager Hans Uslar likewise made it clear that the nonprofit’s conceived project is “not condoned by the city, the Army, or, most importantly, the local Native American tribes.”

“Ideas proposed by the Old Monterey Foundation are just their ideas,” he said.

Still steadfast in its goal, the Old Monterey Foundation has plans to meet with the Presidio’s commander in October to pitch its community center idea. Until then, Ward said progress has been paused.

Meanwhile, the Presidio is open to change – even as it manages erosion – just as long as the Old Monterey Foundation has a clear vision and funding to back ambitions.

“Improvements have not been put on hold,” Prishmont-Quimby assured.

“It’s a great park. There’s a lot of picnics on weekends, free parking, and the museum is open on weekends. We see a lot of people just sitting up here. One of the greatest views and one of the most historic areas in all of California,” Bill Wojtkowski, former president of the Old Monterey Foundation, said of the Lower Presidio Historic Park in Monterey. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

Contributed by local news sources

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