February 14, 2013

Twentynine Palms Base closer to expanding into Johnson Valley

U.S. Marine Corps wants to acquire most of the Johnson Valley area used for popular off-road rock crawling sports to expand its Twentynine Palms training center.

By Mark Muckenfuss

The U.S. Marine Corps has finalized a decision to annex 168,000 acres — including most of the Johnson Valley off-road recreation area — to its huge desert warfare training center near Twentynine Palms.

The only remaining obstacle to the expansion is action by Congress. Officials hope the addition will be included in the Defense Authorization Act for the coming fiscal year.

On Wednesday, Feb. 13, the Department of the Navy — parent agency of the Marine Corps — announced that it had signed a record of decision after studying various expansion proposals for six years, weighing the impacts and taking more than 19,000 public comments.

Much of that comment came from off-road vehicle enthusiasts who say the plan would kick them out of one of the last and best places to ride in the desert. Marine officials have said the expansion is necessary so that it can run maneuvers with three battalions simultaneously.

Of the 168,000 acres, 147,000 are currently public land maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The remaining 21,000 acres are privately owned.

Four-wheelers and motorcyclists say the open access in Johnson Valley allows them to drive for miles over open desert without having to worry about staying on trails. The area also includes rock-crawling terrain that draws some of the world’s best drivers. Most famously it is known as the site of the King of the Hammers, an annual race — held last weekend — that draws more than 30,000 people.

“It’s a wide-open area,” said Eric Anderson, 43, an off-road driver from Apple Valley. “This is one of the only places left where we can go forever, and we have such a large area that the impact is kind of minimized.”

Environmental studies of the Marine base expansion evaluated six options. The Navy adopted option six, which would permanently close 125,000 acres. Another 43,000 acres in Johnson Valley would be closed two months of the year when for annual large-scale military maneuvers. About 20,000 acres of Johnson Valley would remain open to the public full time.

Base officials have said they need the space in order to conduct simulated battles — with air support — for a Marine expeditionary brigade, an attack force of 15,000 troops. Such maneuvers, they said, require three corridors through which troops can advance. Currently, the base has only two such corridors.

The plan would also enlarge the base’s air space, which extends far beyond the physical boundaries of the combat center.

With the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, and the changing nature of warfare, some people have questioned the need for such large operations. Opponents of the expansion said Marine officials have other options. Among the six options is one that would add land on the eastern edge of the base instead of Johnson Valley, which is on the west.

Off-roader George Biddlecomb, 45, of Rancho Cucamonga is a past president of the Inland Empire 4 Wheelers.

“I think we have a good shot at turning the Marines eastbound,” Biddlecomb said. “It would keep live fire off the public lands.”

On Thursday, the off-roading community filed a petition with the White House opposing the westward expansion. The petition reportedly had 27,000 signatures. The White House has said it will respond to any petition with more than 25,000 signatures. The Obama administration has not yet taken a position on the base expansion.

However, the president recently signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. Included in the bill is a provision, referred to as the Bartlett Amendment, that requires the Marine Corps to present, among other information, a study of the economic impact of the base expansion at Twentynine Palms.

Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler, spokesman for the base, said the required report has been filed with Congress.

“The economic impact is kind of the center (issue) right now,” said David Cole, whose Lake Arrowhead company Ultra4 Racing, organizes the King of the Hammers. “The Marines have not really answered any questions that were proposed in the Bartlett Amendment.”

Cole said he invests $500,000 in the race each year. He estimated this year’s crowd between 35,000 and 40,000. There is no other place in the United States, he said, that offers a 105-mile course combining open terrain as well as rock crawling. If the land is lost, his event, which just completed its seventh year, will cease to exist

“We want the Marines to be trained as well as they can be trained,” he said. “But they’ve already identified (an alternate) training area that meets all their requirements. We’re fighting for the public to recreate on the desert. I don’t care about the race. I can go get a job again. We just want to make sure our grandkids can still come out her and recreate.”