October 21, 2008

Public meetings set on proposed Marine expansion at Twentynine Palms

The Press-Enterprise

People who want to learn more about Marine Corps plans to add as much as 424,000 acres to the Twentynine Palms training center will have a chance this week at three public meetings.

Military officials have said they need the additional territory for weapons testing and live-ammunition exercises to enhance their ability to fight terrorists.

The expansion would include almost 76,000 acres of private property and most of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a 189,000-acre mecca for motorcyclists and other off-roading enthusiasts. It also would include habitat for desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

The meetings -- one Thursday in Twentynine Palms and two Friday in Victorville -- are an early step in the three- to five-year expansion process. The plan will be scrutinized in a detailed environmental study and ultimately would require approval from Congress and the president.

Military and U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials will make introductory statements and then be available at tables to answer questions, said Capt. Amy Malugani, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

Military officials said the land added to the training center would be used to test weapons systems on the MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff aircraft and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Marines' first stealth jet.

The military's contention that the training grounds are needed for national security isn't necessarily a slam-dunk justification, according to a study published this week by a North Carolina State University professor.

"The government can no longer rely solely on the 'war on terrorism' and 'national security' as arguments to maintain a crisis situation where local people willingly sacrifice protection of their 'homeland,' " Kenneth Zagacki said in a university news release.

The study examined how the U.S. Navy abandoned plans this year to acquire more than 30,000 acres for a landing field in rural North Carolina -- land the Navy had been saying for five years was needed for national security, Zagacki said.

Residents there opposed the expansion and put the Navy in an "awkward position" by arguing that the landing field would destroy the very homeland the military was trying to protect, wrote Zagacki, a professor of rhetoric, in his study published in the Southern Communications Journal.

Malugani said the military has made no final decisions on the Twentynine Palms proposal and could use the information gathered at the public meetings to develop alternative plans.

"No lands have been acquired," she said.