May 18, 2011

Marines invade Johnson Valley

Big Bear Grizzly

Johnson Valley -- Off-road and outdoor enthusiasts are doing their best to prevent losing the largest open area in the country to the Marine Corps.

Johnson Valley is thousands of acres bordered by the San Bernardino Mountains, Lucerne Valley, Yucca Valley and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. The Marine Corps states that Twentynine Palms is the only location in the country with the potential to expand the land area to meet training requirements for marine expeditionary brigades.

What that means is taking over approximately 168,000 acres of open land now known as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area.

“I don’t like it,” says Quinn Thomas, owner of All J Jeep products in Big Bear Lake. The off-road enthusiast says there are serious safety concerns with the proposal as well as the significant loss of recreation land. “There aren’t many places left to go,” Thomas says.

May 26 is the end of the public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement. Thomas and other off-road and outdoor recreational enthusiasts are among the thousands who have submitted comments and urge others to do the same. Ray Pessa of Yucca Valley, who is a member of the Friends of Giant Rock, says the Marine Corps expansion will have a huge impact on the off-roading community. Friends of Giant Rock is an off-roading club in the high desert.

Alternative 6 is the preferred option by the Marine Corps. It leaves about 80,000 acres for recreational uses, according to information provided by the Marine Corps. About 44 percent of the land is available 10 months of the year.

The proposal calls for closing a majority of Johnson Valley permanently for use by the Marine Corps. Another section on the north side remains open while another parcel on the south corner will be used by the Marines about 48 days a year. The remainder of the time it will be available to the public.

That has Pessa and Thomas concerned. They question how the public knows there is nothing left behind from the live-fire exercises. They want guarantees no live ordinance is left before the public uses the area.

Additionally, there is no barrier between the public and Marine land, Pessa says. Fences are set up to protect wildlife, but not the public he says.

Pessa says he is also concerned that once an area is taken away, even though it’s promised to be a shared use, the public won’t get it back. He says off-road and other recreation activities will be crammed into a smaller area, which will lead to injuries and accidents.

More than 90 percent of the Marines that deploy to combat train in Twentynine Palms. Marines must train at a high state to be ready to respond to crises anywhere in the world. The expansion would provide space for a full scale exercise to be conducted twice a year for 24 continuous days during each cycle.

Pessa is torn. “I want them to have the best training they can get,” Pessa says of the Marine Corps. He would prefer the expansion went east instead of west as proposed.

Alternative 3 is preferred by off-road enthusiasts, which expands the base to the east, but was rejected in favor of Alternative 6. After several scoping meetings held in 2008-09, the Marine Corps responded by developing Alternative 6.

Comments on the Draft EIS are due by May 26. Comments can be made online at A copy of the EIS is available online, along with maps and other information on the proposal.

Pessa says Johnson Valley is the largest public land area still open to the public. It’s a true wilderness, where you can go get lost and experience the desert. “I hate to lose it,” Pessa says.