December 16, 2013

Johnson Valley: Deal will have Marines, public sharing access

There were many twists and turns leading up to the compromise between off-roaders and the U.S. Marine Corps over access to Johnson Valley. (Pirate 4X4)

Written by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

A nudge from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., may have helped seal a compromise between off-roaders and the U.S. Marine Corps, ensuring that more than half of Johnson Valley’s 188,000 acres of prime off-roading trails and desert vistas will remain open to the public most of the year.

Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, recently announced the deal that would limit an expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms into the valley to 88,130 acres and create a federally designated off-roading area on the remaining 99,690 acres.

Located in the high desert about 20 miles north of Yucca Valley, Johnson Valley is an off-roading mecca known worldwide for its mix of dry lake beds, open desert and rock-crawling trails — called the Hammers — where custom-built vehicles with massive tires fight their way up hills littered with rocks and large boulders.

But the same terrain that draws off-roaders and its location due west of the combat center also made it prime real estate for the Marines. The Corps has been working for years to expand the base at Twentynine Palms to allow for live-fire combat training exercises it has said are critical for its post-Mideast role as a streamlined expeditionary force.

Its plan for the valley, which the U.S. Navy approved earlier this year, would have appropriated more than 103,000 acres of the off-roading area for training at the base, plus another 43,000 acres that off-roaders would be allowed to use 10 months a year.

The deal, part of the National Defense Authorization Act the House passed late Thursday, would also allow the Marines to use 56,439 acres of the off-roading area for combat training up to 60 days a year but limits the kind of live ammunition that can be fired during combat exercises.

A Senate vote on the bill could occur sometime this week, said Matthew Groves, Cook’s legislative counsel.

While labeling the deal a victory, off-roaders also said the land the Marines will take includes some of the region’s most popular trails and isolated, back-valley areas.

“The trail systems we fought so hard for are still there,” said Larry McRae, an avid off-roader and president of Poison Spyder of Banning, a company that builds custom “armor” for the Jeeps and other off-road vehicles that batter themselves against the rocks in the Hammers.

“There’s a lot of open desert that’s been taken. What it takes away is some of the exploration opportunities. A lot of people enjoy the trail-making process.”

“Saying we lose 70-80,000 acres and calling that a win is tough,” said Dave Cole, co-founder of King of the Hammers, a week-long off-road racing event that yearly draws tens of thousands of visitors and significant tourist dollars to surrounding high desert communities.

The area going to the Marines also contains about 85 percent of the 112-mile course that was used for the King of the Hammers in 2013, he said. While the 2014 event, set for Jan. 31-Feb. 8, should not be affected by the Marines’ move into the valley, Cole said a new course on the remaining land will have to be developed for future races.

Residents of the small community of Johnson Valley, located across the highway from the off-roading area, also have mixed feelings about the deal. Many already experience noise and rattling windows during training exercises at the base, including recent combat exercises that ended Monday.

“I’m glad the Hammers were saved,” said Jim Hanley, 74, a Marine vet who served in Lebanon in the 1970s. “The shared use — it will bring the noise closer to us. The other night I thought something had hit the house, the noise was so bad.”

Keeping residents and off-roaders safe, while ensuring the Marines could train, were the issues allowing Cook, a retired Marine colonel, and Feinstein to find common ground during a recent meeting.

Feinstein had previously pushed the Corps to find a way to share the valley with off-roaders, representatives from her Washington office said.

The Corps also cited safety in their reasons for accepting the compromise.

“We feel this course of action is the best balance for military and recreational use of the land,” Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman, wrote in an email response to questions from The Desert Sun.

“Safety is a high priority for the Marine Corps and we want to ensure that both Marines and recreational users stay safe throughout the year.”

Many details of how the shared-use arrangement will play out are still to be determined, but Johnson Valley will not be the first time the Marines have shared land for recreational use, Krebs said.

The Marines share 45,000 acres of Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada, where they conduct mountain warfare training, and hunting and fishing are allowed on a number of bases across the country, she said.