February 28, 2013

Off-roaders, military wage a dirty battle

Some are up in arms after the Marine Corps says it wants to take a stretch of wilderness for training.

Marines train with an Abrams tank at the Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms in February. The Marines are seeking to claim 103,600 acres of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle recreation area in Lucerne Valley. (CPL. SARAH DIETZ, U.S. MARINE CORPS)


Wayne Raimey sped over a sandy wash, leaving plumes of dust in his wake, as his family and friends idled on their ATVs. For the better part of a Saturday, the six had roamed the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle area north of Big Bear, enjoying unencumbered landscape that stretched to the horizon as they rode machines that climb rocks and skid through the sand with ease.

Raimey, who lives in Santa Ana, used to quad closer to home, but he started visiting Johnson Valley because "It's just so much easier going," he said. "You can ride for a while without seeing anybody. It's more open. It's more free."

But that is likely to change.

Spanning 188,000 acres, Johnson Valley is the country's largest off-highway vehicle area. Under a plan the Secretary of the Navy announced in February, however, 103,600 of its acres would be absorbed by the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms for live-ammunition training; 43,000 acres would be shared by the Marines and the off-road community; and the remaining 41,400 acres would be designated as a Johnson Valley National Recreation Area.

The plan, which needs Congressional approval to take effect, has inspired a rare coalition among ordinarily disparate off-road groups, who have hired a Washington, D.C., lobbyist to fight on their behalf.

"We're not opposed to the Marines being able to meet their training objectives," said Jeff Knoll, co-founder of the annual King of the Hammers off-road race in Johnson Valley and member of the California Motorized Recreational Council.

The coalition of eight off-road groups collected 28,303 signatures in 30 days and sent them to the White House to protest the base expansion one day before the Secretary of the Navy published its Record of Decision to take over the majority of Johnson Valley.

"We're asking them to use this area under a permit like any other event would. Just don't absorb it into the base," said Knoll, who estimates the Johnson Valley OHV area draws between 300,000 and 1 million visitors each year.

The Marines' plan would reduce the amount of such land in California by about half, Knoll said.

The proposed land division, known as Alternative Six, was one of a half dozen proposals the Marines considered to expand the 935-square-mile Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. Despite being the largest Marine Corps base in the country, just 40 percent of the property is available for training due to terrain and wildlife issues, said Twentynine Palms spokesman Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler.

He said the Johnson Valley land is needed to conduct training operations involving tens of thousands of Marines using aircraft, tanks and heavy weapons, such as laser-guided bombs, missiles and artillery that can travel as far 14 miles.

Some have questioned the need for such training when the Iraq War ended in 2009 and combat operations in Afghanistan will be terminated next year. According to Mannweiler, the training that will take place in Johnson Valley has nothing to do with either war. The training is preparation for future conflicts that are likely to include assaults on land and water and may involve the global supply of oil, half of which is shipped "through strategic choke points that a hostile country could block off," he said.

"This land expansion is needed to support the men and women asked to go into harm's way to handle situations that could have very severe effects on our nation, our well being and our way of life if not handled appropriately," Mannweiler said. "The best way to support those Marines is to provide them with tough, realistic training."

The battle for Johnson Valley began in August 2008, when the Marines first filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management to add the OHV area to the Twentynine Palms base. That application has its roots in a 2004 U.S. Navy study that reported none of the country's military bases was spacious enough to support large-scale live ammunition training.

The Marines are legally obligated by the National Environmental Protection Act to look at adjacent lands when expanding.

"If you go to the west toward Johnson Valley, you've got open terrain, no major infrastructure obstacles," Mannweiler said.

The largest military base in the country, Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, was suggested as an option by the off-road community, but it wasn't available for expansion for multiple reasons. Logistically, it would have required shutting down a portion of I-10 and I-40 for two months annually so the Marines could move 15,000 troops and 8,000 vehicles.

Under the plan now pending Congressional approval, the northern and western areas of the Johnson Valley OHV area would be permanently closed to the public due to the weaponry involved in the training, much of which contain fuses that could potentially malfunction and injure or kill civilians if accidentally run over with off-road vehicles, Mannweiler said.

The smaller Shared Use Area would be open to off-roaders 10 months out of the year and closed during the two months the Marines use the land to shoot machine guns and rifles that don't have fuses and can be cleaned up when the exercises are complete, Mannweiler added.

The Shared Use Area was created in response to 20,000 comments the Marines received from the public.

It is now up to Congress to pass legislation authorizing the land transfer, which could take place as early as next year, with live-ammunition training in the former off-road area taking place in 2015.