September 10, 2008

Expansion of desert base faces opposition

By Gidget Fuentes
Marine Corps Times

OCEANSIDE, Calif. — As the Marine Corps looks to expand its largest training base, off-road enthusiasts prepare to fight for a coveted piece of the Mojave Desert.

Marine officials have asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to set aside 442,000 acres adjacent to the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms so the service can study those parcels for the proposed expansion.

“Together with the [Bureau of Land Management] and the Federal Aviation Administration, we will study the best path forward for the Marine Corps to meet its training requirements, while analyzing and weighing the impact of the various alternatives on natural and socioeconomic resources,” Corps officials said in a news release.

The 589,400-acre base is located in the high desert three hours northeast of Los Angeles. The Corps and the Navy Department plan to conduct an environmental impact study, a lengthy process that begins with public “scoping” meetings tentatively set for December. It will analyze “reasonable alternatives” for meeting training requirements, officials said.

The plans have been poorly received by recreational groups and environmental conservationists. Local off-road riders fear they will lose access to the popular Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation area, which lies west of the base and is the site of rallies and races. Its rocky trails, including one boulder-strewn area called the Hammers, attract many four-wheel drivers.

The 189,000-acre Johnson Valley is owned by the BLM. Several groups have started petition drives and letter-writing campaigns targeting members of Congress.

Officials have not specified which land parcels the Corps wants to study. A federal notice published in March cited potential acquisition of 450,000 acres of public, state and private land.

Marine officials want to extend the reach of units that come to Twentynine Palms to sharpen their desert warfare skills and live-fire training. One of the military’s largest military training bases, the combat center can support only one unit at a time.

The Corps wants to stretch the base’s boundaries, providing enough space for brigade-sized forces to train, maneuver and fire their complement of weaponry, which can include air and ground assets. As is, only 40 percent of the base can be used for maneuver training, officials said.