December 11, 2013

Marines, offroaders reach compromise on Johnson Valley

Detailed final Johnson Valley OHVRA map available here.

by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

It’s not often a bunch of off-roaders can wrestle the U.S. Marine Corps to a compromise, but that seems to be exactly what’s happened as U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, on Wednesday announced a deal on Johnson Valley that allows both the Marines to conduct live ammo training in the region, but still preserves more than half of its 188,000 acres for off-roading and other recreation for 10 months a year.

Located in the high desert about 20 miles north of Yucca Valley, the disputed land has been an almost sacred site for the off-roading community, known worldwide for its unique mix of wide open desert and rock-crawling trails – dubbed the Hammers – where drivers in custom-built four-wheelers bump and grind their way up hills strewn with massive boulders.

A yearly week of racing called the King of the Hammers draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area, turning the valley floor into an encampment called Hammertown, which is half Coachella and half “Road Warrior.” The 2014 Hammers is scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 8, and event organizers have said the deal will keep the race rolling for years to come.

The off-roaders and the Marines have been in a standoff for a couple of years over whether the Corps would take over more than half of valley, 103,618 acres, for expanded training exercises involving three tank battalions, helicopters and a whole lot of live ammunition. The Marines argued such training exercises would be critical to their post-Mideast evolution into a streamlined expeditionary force, and nowhere else offered the land they needed.

Off-roaders are generally a patriotic bunch, lots of former military, but the threat to Johnson Valley sparked a determined opposition, backed up by the multimillion-dollar offroading industry. The Marines attempted a compromise, offering with a 43,049-acre shared use area, including the Hammers, open to off-roaders 10 months a year.

The remaining section of the valley, open to off-roaders year round would have been all but separate from the shared use area, connected by only a narrow corridor of land.

High desert communities, led by Yucca Valley, also got behind the off-roaders, noting that the King of the Hammers and other off-roading events in Johnson Valley meant full hotels and a boost for small businesses in the region. Residents of the small community of Johnson Valley, located across the highway from the off-roading area, have also opposed the expansion, mostly because current training exercises on the base already set their windows and furniture shaking.

A map of the deal announced Wednesday cuts the Marines back to 88,000 acres covering the north central and east sections of the valley. The off-roaders get a total of about 100,000 acres starting in the southeast corner of the region and curving up to the northwest, including a 56,000-acre shared-use area the Marines will be able to use for training for two months a year, again with limited types of ammunition.

Cook, a Vietnam veteran and retired Marine colonel, emerged as the mediator between the two camps earlier this year, after a visit to the 2013 King of the Hammers.

He authored a bill in the House, passed with bipartisan support and inserted in the Defense Authorization Act, that would have kept the whole valley under the jurisdiction of the Burea of Land Management, with the Marines allowed to train twice a year, but not allowed to use what is called dud-producing ammunition, that is bullets larger than a certain caliber.

Meanwhile, the Marines got their plan through a first hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Nov. 14.

What happened between then and Wednesday is unclear. Cook’s release announcing the deal contains congratulatory quotes from all the stakeholders but no details of how the deal was struck.