August 2, 2012

Navy prefers Johnson Valley for Marine base growth

By Kurt Schauppner
Hi-Desert Star

MCAGCC — The final environmental statement for a proposed expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center suggests growing the installation by about 146,667 acres to the west and 21,304 acres to the south.

If approved, the plan would close 57 percent of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area to the public.

The alternative also foresees damage to the local desert tortoise population.

The intent of the preferred alternative, according to the Department of the Navy report, is to allow the Marines to train on a large scale while providing restricted public access to a portion of the acquired public lands in Johnson Valley.

It allows for two Marine Expeditionary Brigade training exercises, lasting 24 days each, every year.

The 146,667 acres of Johnson Valley property included in the proposed expansion would be divided into two sections.

The larger section, 108,530 acres, would be exclusively for military use. Marine expeditionary brigades would use the land for exercises and live-fire training. In some cases, they would use ordnance with explosive charges.

The smaller section, 38,137 acres, would be open for restricted public access when training is not taking place. During exercise periods, about 60 days a year, the section would be closed to public use.

Only weaponry that does not have an explosive charge would be used in this area.

Two locations within the restricted public access area, each measuring 984 feet by 984 feet, would be permanently closed to the public year-round.

The Navy document notes this plan would cause significant impacts to land use, recreation and air space that can’t be mitigated.

The military’s training program is not compatible with the federal government’s Johnson Valley OHV Area Management Plan, the environmental statement acknowledges.

Training activities also could cause the deaths of between 645 and 3,769 desert tortoises over the life of the project; between 503 and 834 of those would be in the acquisition study areas, the report noted.

It called the deaths of the tortoises, a species designated as threatened by the federal government, “significant and unmitigatable.”

Johnson Valley residents fire back

The Homestead Valley Community Council sent packages with protest letters to 19 federal legislators opposing the Marine base expansion into Johnson Valley.

“Two months for air-ground combat, 10 months for public access not workable,” is the headline on a news release the council issued about its campaign.

The council is a group representing the community associations in Johnson Valley, Landers, Yucca Mesa and Flamingo Heights.

“We think shared use of Johnson Valley between the military and the public is doomed to end in the closure of this immense land to public use, due to the very size of it and cost of managing it,” the letter reads.

San Bernardino County Supervisors Neil Derry and Brad Mitzelfelt wrote their own letter urging the Navy to expand the base eastward, into the Wonder Valley area, rather than in Johnson Valley.

The Homestead Community Council asks legislators to urge the Navy to follow the board’s recommendation: “Please heed Supervisors Mitzelfelt and Derry where they urge base expansion to the east, not into Johnson Valley.”

The council has opposed the base’s westward expansion for several years. A 2009 resolution warns a loss of off-roading access will lead to more illegal riding and take money from businesses whose customers are off-roaders.