December 28, 2008

Marine base targets off-road area for expansion

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

The Johnson Valley Off Highway Vehicle Area comprises about 188,000 acres of desert playground off Highway 247 and Camp Rock Road - about 55 miles southeast of Barstow and 25 miles east of Victorville.

It is an ideal spot for the off-road enthusiast, punctuated by steep, rocky mountains, open valleys, dry lake beds and sandy washes.

It's not a place one would typically associate with America's so-called "War on Terrorism," but the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center is pushing to expand its base onto the bulk of this shimmering desert landscape for live-fire and manuever training.

The military cites rapidly evolving defense requirements due to the "global war on terrorism," "new emerging threats" and the introduction of new weapons systems as the basis for neccessitating the Marine base expansion. An application for the withdrawal of public lands was submitted to the Bureau of Land Management by the Department of the Navy in August.

It's part of an ambitious plan by the military to acquire about 420,000 acres of BLM and non-federally owned lands to the west, south and east of the world's largest Marine base for military training purposes.

If the bulk of Johnson Valley is lost to the military (about 135,000 of about 188,000 acres), officials say it would kill the tourism dollars that pour into desert communities from off-road recreators.

What makes this situation unique is that those who oppose the base's expansion into Johnson Valley aren't necessarily opposed to the expansion plan as a whole. In fact, they support it, but would like to see the base expanded to the east and south.

"This is a very, very tough issue that we're facing, because the economy of Yucca Valley is affected by the Marine base, but it is also affected by the off-roaders," said Cheryl Nankervis, executive director for the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce.

One anticipated side effect of losing Johnson Valley would be an increase in illegal off-roading activity in and on the outskirts of established desert towns like Yucca Valley, Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley, officials said.

"We'll have more illegal off-roaders around town going onto private property. And that is a big concern as well," Nankervis said

At its Dec. 11 meeting, the Yucca Valley Town Council approved a resolution granting it stakeholder status in the base expansion project, meaning town officials will be kept in the loop with the latest updates on the project and its potential impacts on Yucca Valley.

Mike Kelliher, chairman for the business advocacy task force of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce, told councilmembers at the meeting that the base's expansion into Johnson Valley would mean a loss in revenue from film productions, as well as profit losses for off-highway vehicle suppliers, hotels and motels, restaurants and gas stations.

He said grant money associated with off-highway vehicle enforcement would dwindle from $50,000 a year to $5,000 a year.

"If the base decides to move with the plan of taking the Johnson Valley OHV area, it will create a double-edge sword for our community and the enforcement of OHV's," Kelliher said.

Marine Capt. Carl Redding stresses that nothing is set in stone. The Marines have held a series of public scoping meetings this month and will continue to take public comment until Jan. 31 on the project.

"We're going to take all the comments into consideration and go from there," Redding said.

Once the public comment period closes, an environmental impact statement will be prepared.

First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, a former Marine and Desert Storm veteran, doesn't want to see the towns he represents at the county level hurt financially from the base's westwar expansion. And while there are some serious issues that would need to be mitigated if the base were to expand to the east, he still prefers that option.

One reason is because the area to the east is not being used, and the other reason is because it could serve the military's need for training, as it did from 1942-1944 and again in 1964.

"It would certainly be preferrable to me because those lands are not being used right now and Johnson Valley is," Mitzelfelt said.

The primary issue with the base expanding to the east would be Amboy Road, a county-maintained road that connects the eastern Mojave Desert to the Morongo Basin. It would require some kind of mitigation, perhaps a realignment of the road so the public could still use it, Mitzelfelt said.

"It will be a multi-year effort, and it will be a challenge," he said. "I want to see the Marines get their needs taken care of, but I want to minimize the impacts on the public."