December 4, 2008

Marine expansion plans don't sit well with off-roaders

The Press-Enterprise

VICTORVILLE - Off-roading enthusiasts and military officials appeared to be on a collision course Thursday at a meeting hosted by the Marine Corps, which plans a major expansion of its training center at Twentynine Palms.

The Marines shared five expansion scenarios for enlarging the center, but the one that works best for maneuvers and live-fire training takes in all or part of the Johnson Valley, a 189,000-acre mecca for off-roaders in the San Bernardino County desert southeast of Barstow.

The revelation didn't go over well with many of the 167 people, most of them off-roaders, who attended the meeting in a hotel conference room.

"Any alternative that takes in the Johnson Valley would be catastrophic for our community," said Jim Arbogast, a regional director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.

Arbogast, an Anaheim resident who likes to trek through Johnson Valley in his Ford Bronco, would prefer to see the military expand into wilderness areas on the more remote east side of the training center.

Others said they wanted no military expansion at all.

"We don't want to lose a grain of sand, nothing," said Rich Wohlers, a four-wheeling enthusiast from Apple Valley.

Lt. Col. James McArthur said final decisions are at least two years away. The military must still evaluate the expansion options to determine how well communications, logistics, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other criteria will work in each area, he said.

Officials determined the Johnson Valley is best for live-fire exercises and maneuvering because it provides a natural extension of training corridors on the base, McArthur said.

The military also must review environmental issues in a study expected to be ready for public review in 2010.

Meeting participants were asked to make their comments in writing at several tables or to speak to a court reporter, who would create a transcript.

Marie Brashear, a rock collector from Lucerne Valley, said the comment format was self-serving for the military.

"The only purpose is to defuse and disarm people who may be opposed to the expansion," she said.

Helen Baker, director of the Partnership for Johnson Valley, said she liked the format because it prevents a few vocal people from taking over.

The Marine Corps wants to expand the 932-square-mile Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms to handle new training.

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 supported by other troops.

The expansion area covers almost 76,000 acres of private property and most of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a 189,000-acre public playground for off-roaders. Environmentalists have said the expansion could take territory from wild animals and plants at a time when desert habitat elsewhere is being claimed for solar and wind projects.

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