October 24, 2008

Marines Corps' plans to acquire land raise residents' concerns

The Press-Enterprise

Desert residents said Thursday that they fear Marines Corps plans to expand the 932-square-mile Twentynine Palms combat training center will take their homes, curtail their off-road recreation and destroy wildlife habitat.

More than 50 people attended the first of three public meetings the military and U.S. Bureau of Land Management are hosting this week to answer questions about the proposal to expand the training center by as much as two-thirds.

"I'm very concerned," said artist Thom Merrick, of Wonder Valley, a rural area that borders the eastern side of the existing military land.

"It's like living next to a giant that knows no end to its hunger."

Merrick said he and several other Wonder Valley residents can't tell from the maps provided by the military whether their homes are inside the proposed expansion area.

In introductory remarks, Col. Wes Weston assured the crowd of about 100 gathered Thursday at Twentynine Palms Junior High School that nothing had been decided yet.

"It's very early in the process," he said.

There will be many public meetings and a thorough environmental study, and the final plan ultimately would require approval from Congress and the president.

The military contends additional land is needed to test weapons systems on the MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff aircraft and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Marines' first stealth jet.

Military officials want enough space for three battalions to maneuver simultaneously using live ammunition accompanied by air support. Each battalion would have about 1,000 Marines aided by other troops performing command and logistics duties.

"This is to make sure we train the Marines and make sure they are ready for combat," Weston said.

But many of the residents who showed up Thursday were more worried about losing land than fighting wars.

The 424,000 acres identified by the military cover almost 76,000 acres of private property and most of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a 189,000-acre playground for motorcyclists and other off-roading enthusiasts.

Veteran off-roader Pat Geer, of Yucca Valley, said she is worried about the possible loss of Johnson Valley to dirt lovers like her.

"I've been off-roading for decades, and it's in my heart," she said. "There's not much free land left."

The expansion area encompasses an array of geological features, such as Bristol Dry Lake, known for its salt mining; Amboy Crater and the surrounding lava fields; and the Sheephole Mountains and Cadiz Valley.

Several wilderness areas border the land the Marines are seeking.

D-Anne Albers, who lives in Wonder Valley and works with Defenders of Wildlife environmental group, said the expansion area includes prime desert tortoise habitat north of Johnson Valley and bighorn sheep habitat east of the training center.

The expansion could take territory the animals need at a time when desert wildlife habitat elsewhere is being claimed for solar and wind projects, Albers said.

"It would be very bad. The desert is just getting eaten up."

A Navy research group looked at 11 other potential training sites in the nation, including Fort Bragg and Camp Pendleton, but only Twentynine Palms has sufficient airspace and land, according to the Navy's application to acquire public lands.

Two additional public meetings are scheduled today in Victorville: 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, 12603 Mariposa Road.