February 25, 2011

MOJAVE DESERT: Military seeks OHV area for exercises

The Press-Enterprise

The military wants to expand its Twentynine Palms training grounds to take in more than two-thirds of the popular Johnson Valley off-road recreation area southeast of Barstow, according to U.S. Marine Corps documents released Friday.

Under the Marines' preferred plan to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, the military would control 146,667 acres in the Johnson Valley that now is a designated off-highway vehicle recreation area. The valley draws tens of thousands of off-road enthusiasts each year.

The 932-square-mile combat center also could add another 21,304 acres at its southeast corner, northeast of Twentynine Palms.

The proposal is among six alternatives being considered by the military to prepare troops for desert and urban warfare.

All but one alternative involves taking most of the 189,000-acre Johnson Valley OHV area.

The disclosures contained in the 941-page environmental study fit with earlier statements by Marine Corps officials. Military officials at Twentynine Palms did not return a call Friday.

Lt. Col. James McArthur said in an interview in late 2008 that Marine officials had determined that the Johnson Valley is best for live-fire exercises and maneuvers because it provides a natural extension of training corridors on the base.

The expansion is needed, the military has said, so that Marines have 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.

Ray Pessa, a Yucca Valley resident who builds dune buggies, said the preferred plan is not a complete loss to off-roaders.

He was part of a group that met with military officials and explained the importance of the Johnson Valley to various groups, including hikers, campers, wind sailors and rocket clubs.

The preferred plan would allow public access on 38,137 acres in the southeast part of Johnson Valley for about 10 months each year. That would allow the popular "King of the Hammers" four-wheel-drive rock-crawler race to continue, he said. The annual event attracts about 8,000 people, Pessa said.

Still, 108,530 acres of the Johnson Valley would be for military use only, including the Rock Pile and Bessemer Mine Road areas.

"I am not in a position to argue with the military," Pessa said. "If the U.S. Marines say they need that area, then they do."

Pessa added that off-roaders also are being pushed from public land because of new wildlife protections.

"All over the country, public lands are being taken away," he said.

The military's environmental impact statement will be open to public comments through May 26. It can be viewed at www.marines.mil/unit/29palms/las. Comments can be mailed to Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Southwest, Attention: Twentynine Palms EIS Project Manager, 1220 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92132-5190.

The Marines will host public meetings on April 12, 13, and 14 in Joshua Tree, Ontario and Victorville, respectively.

The military's news release did not state when a final decision is expected.