February 25, 2009

The Dispute Over Johnson Valley

Johnson Valley Map. Look closely. One of off-roading's most beloved places could be lost. Photography by Kevin Blumer.

By Kevin Blumer
Off-Road Magazine

As off-roaders, we're used to getting closed out, locked out, and legislated off of the lands we dearly love to recreate on. Anyone who remembers the California Desert Protection Act will recall how millions of acres of the Mojave Desert were systematically removed from vehicular access with the help of the Sierra Club, the late Senator Alan Cranston, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. Off-roaders had little say in the matter even though we were directly affected by this legislative juggernaut. Senator Feinstein, a longtime ally of pro-Wilderness, anti-OHV special interests, turned a deaf ear to our cries. This time, it's different.

For those who haven't heard, the U.S. Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California, is looking to expand and is considering the acquisition of the Johnson Valley OHV area. The new expansion area will be used for live-fire exercises as Marines train for combat.

Those who think this means only the loss of the infamous Hammer rock-crawling trails, which directly abut the western border of the Twentynine Palms Marine base, need to think again. The Marines might end up taking the whole Johnson Valley OHV area. This means we'll also lose access to the areas off of Camp Rock Road, Bessemer Mine Road, and Boone Road. This isn't just a threat to rock crawlers. This is a threat to truck and buggy racers, prerunner enthusiasts, dirt-bike riders, quad riders, and side-by-side UTV drivers. As off-roaders, we're all lumped into this together.

As U.S. residents, we depend on the Marines to keep us safe in the world. We deeply appreciate the service they provide and the freedom we enjoy. On an individual level, many Marines are avid off-roaders and appreciate the need for open land on which to recreate.

The Johnson Valley OHV area is to the west of the Twentynine Palms Marine base. But the Corps is also considering expanding eastward for training and war games. The off-road community needs to respectfully request the Marines' planning commission look elsewhere for new training grounds. We need to encourage eastward expansion, and discourage any westward movement.

A Chance To Speak Up

Why is it different this time? It's different because off-roaders have a listening ear in the Marine Corps. "We want to expand our base of operations in the way that will do the most good and will negatively impact the fewest people,"said Dr. Jim Cassidy of the Marines during an Open House Scoping Meeting in Ontario, California. His colleague, public-affairs specialist Captain Amy Malugani, concurred: "As we've held these meetings, we've heard lots of anecdotal evidence about how much the off-road community loves Johnson Valley. People have shared lots of emotion about their connections to Johnson Valley. While we appreciate the anecdotes and the emotion, we need quantification and hard facts in order to make our decision."

What does quantification mean in this instance? Cassidy shed some light: "We need to know how many people use Johnson Valley for recreation. We need to know how much money they've invested in their recreational equipment. We need to know where they're from and how long they've been going to Johnson Valley. Recently, a couple told us that they use off-road trips to Johnson Valley as a reward to their grandkids for being good. That example means that Johnson Valley has inter-generational significance. These are the types of quantification we're after."

How The Process Works

There are seven milestones along the way, three of which include opportunities for public comment. These are opportunities to make our voices heard.

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, federal agencies must analyze the environmental impacts of their proposed activities, producing an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS.

Here Are The Milestones:

1. Notice of Intent to Prepare an EIS. This milestone was passed on October 30, 2008, and was an official public announcement of the military's intent to expand the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base.

2. Scoping Period. The Marines "scope" around for the public's input and presents a range of alternatives for the proposed expansion. There are six alternatives being presented. The Scoping Period began October 30, 2008, and ended January 31, 2009. It's December 15, 2008, as this is being written, and our lead time doesn't allow us to get this news in print any sooner. For this reason, we put this same information on our website, www.off-roadweb.com, during December '08. Even though the period for public comment ended on January 31, there are still two more opportunities for public comments down the line.

3. The Draft EIS is prepared. The Draft EIS will be prepared beginning February 1, 2009, and be finished by Spring 2010. No public comments are taken during this time.

4. Notice of EIS availability, followed by public meetings and comment period. Here's when we get to speak up. A federal register will notify the public that the Draft EIS is available. This will happen during Spring 2010. After the Draft EIS is available, there will be a 90-day period for public meetings and public comment.

5. The Final EIS will be written, taking public comments into account, during Winter 2010.

6. The Final EIS will be available for public comment for 30 days, and the public will be informed of its availability. This is another chance to voice opinions and state facts from our point of view.

7. A final decision will be made and announced during Spring 2011.

How To Take Action

Speak up! This means writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls. You don't have to go through your Congressional representative. You can go directly to the Marines. When the next public comment period comes around in Spring 2010, be ready with your comments.

Our basic message to the Corps: The off-road community wants the Marines to expand the Twentynine Palms base to the East.

We need to tell the Marines how much we love playing in Johnson Valley, and we need to tell them how many people we bring with us and for how many years, and we need to tell them how much money we've invested in off-roading. The Marines recognize emotion, but they need the hard facts, too.

The Marine Corps has set up a website for this project. The site includes maps, links, and other information pertinent to this proposed expansion.

The website: www.29palms.usmc.mil/las