November 20, 2013

Off-roaders would lose land to Marines in Senate bill

Johnson Valley
By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

JOHNSON VALLEY — A bill in the U.S. Senate is helping to push along the Navy’s request to expand military training grounds into Johnson Valley and Wonder Valley.

Last week, the Military Land Withdrawals Act cleared the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The legislation now heads to the Senate before it goes to the House of Representatives.

The bill would allow the military to use public lands in Johnson Valley and Wonder Valley, as well as land in Imperial and Riverside counties and Montana for military training exercises.

Military: Land is needed for training

As proposed, the bill would set aside 154,663 acres of land in San Bernardino County for training. That includes a 36,755-acre shared-use area between the military and public in Johnson Valley.

It would also give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to close public lands when deemed necessary for military or public safety or national security.

The Department of the Navy and local Marine Corps representatives have repeatedly said the extra land is necessary to conduct training exercises that can’t be done at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center as it exists today.

“The training conducted would be tailored to suit a Marine Expeditionary Brigade-level unit, comprised of about 15,000 Marines,” Capt. Justin Smith, public affairs officer at the combat center, said via email. “Essentially, the training would be customized to ensure components of the unit would begin at different locations, spread apart by distance and terrain, with the purpose being to merge upon a single objective. The benefits of having a base that will allow for this type of training are unprecedented.”

Smith said having the extra land would allow Marines to train as they fight, rather than relying on classroom instruction and simulations.

Smith said the land chosen wasn’t the Navy’s preferred alternative, but it was carved out in response to public feedback.

Locally, the base expansion would bar public access to more than half of the area currently designated for off-road-vehicle use in Johnson Valley. As a compromise, the Navy designated a shared-use area, which allows for training exercises two months out of the year and gives the Secretary of the Navy management authority over the area during that those times. The Secretary of Interior would manage the shared lands for the rest of the year.

Earlier this year, Congressman Paul Cook suggested an alternative strategy for the base expansion. His recommended alternatives weren’t included in the Senate bill, which could become part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“If that should happen, the House version of the NDAA contains Congressman Cook’s wording to protect Johnson Valley, and it will contradict the Senate’s version, which will contain the Marines’ request for Johnson Valley,” Dawn Rowe, a representative with Cook’s office, stated via email.

“If these two bills contain language that conflicts with each other, both houses of Congress must convene a conference committee to resolve the conflict.”

Under the Senate bill, an Exclusive Military Use Area would be created within the Morongo Basin, divided into four areas: about 103,000 acres to the west of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center; another 21,000 acres south of MCAGCC; and two other areas, each about 300 square meters, inside the boundaries of the shared-use area.

The Department of the Navy would have access to the public lands for combined-arms live fire and maneuver training.

‘How much worse is it going to be?’

The military proposal has been met by heavy resistance within the Basin. Off-road-vehicle enthusiasts say the move infringes on public lands in Johnson Valley that are vital to recreation.

Johnson Valley is the nation’s largest ORV recreation area.

Residents in Johnson Valley fear noise during training periods and loss of revenue from the ORV community.

“I can sit here in my living room and I’m literally looking at where they’re gonna be training,” Betty Munson, a longtime Johnson Valley resident and vice president of the Homestead Valley Community Council, said Tuesday.

Munson characterized the land swap as “another disaster” for her community and the ORV recreation areas.

She said she and her distant neighbors already hear and feel the vibrations of ordnance training in Twentynine Palms, which rattle the house and scare her animals.

“How much worse is it going to be?” she said Tuesday, sighing at the thought of her future in the homestead cabin her family owns.

“It never occurred to us that something would happen to the Johnson Valley recreation area because as far as we were concerned, it had been set aside for ORV use,” Munson said. “We’ve been shut out of every other part of California.”

She said what’s most disturbing to her is that the Senate bill has been called “non-controversial” by legislators, yet more than 40,000 public comments were logged in the plan’s Environmental Impact Report.