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The Press-Enterprise, November 2, 2008

SB County supervisor wants Marines to expand into wilderness areas, not off-roading site
By David Danelski

A San Bernardino County supervisor is proposing that the Marine Corps leave a popular off-roading mecca intact and instead expand its Twentynine Palms training center into two wilderness areas.

The military is considering enlarging the 932-square-mile base to the west, taking in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, and to the east, right up to the edges of the Sheephole Valley and Cadiz Dunes wilderness areas.

But the federally protected wilderness could become new live-ammunition training grounds in an alternative plan suggested by San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt.

The supervisor has asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office to consider removal of the wilderness designation from more than 150,000 acres in the two areas to accommodate the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion.

He contends the land has little value as wilderness. And keeping Johnson Valley open for the estimated 800,000 recreational visits a year is essential to the economies of the High Desert towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, Mitzelfelt said.

"There needs to be some flexibility with some of the wilderness areas that just might not be of the highest quality," Mitzelfelt said in a telephone interview.

Feinstein, D-Calif., indicated in a statement that opening wilderness areas for military maneuvers is not likely.

The senator, who supported the wilderness designations 14 years ago, said she will work with local officials but added: "Any proposal to remove protections for desert wilderness should not be part of that conversation."

Wilderness areas are public land but are off-limits to vehicles, mining, energy development and any permanent building. Hiking, hunting, fishing, camping and grazing is allowed.

People familiar with the wilderness areas say the Sheephole Valley is one of the few places where a desert valley between two mountain ranges remains virtually untouched by roads and where bighorn sheep can move freely between ranges.

The shifting sands of nearby Cadiz Dunes offer visitors what federal officials describe as a pristine display of desert plants, including Borrego milk vetch, a rare, low-growing plant with grayish leaves and purple flowers.

Mitzelfelt's suggestion is to turn over the dunes and as much as two-thirds of the Sheephole Valley wilderness to the Marines.

Environment, Economy

His idea is drawing enthusiastic support from some off-roaders, who fear losing what they describe as the nation's biggest off-roading area.

Harry Baker, chairman of the Partnership for Johnson Valley, a group formed to fend off a military takeover of the off-highway vehicle area, said the Marine Corps proposal would be devastating to those who use the area for recreation, and would also harm the local economy.

The group's Web page thanks Mitzelfelt and urges viewers to forward to elected officials a letter the supervisor wrote to Feinstein's staff.

The concept of giving up wilderness to preserve an off-road area is vehemently opposed by some environmentalists.

"We will certainly fight it, and we expect to win," said Eldon Hughes, a Joshua Tree resident and Sierra Club member who lobbied Congress in the 1980s and early 1990s to establish wilderness areas. Environmentalists also oppose military expansion in other areas that they say is valuable habitat.

Hughes said the Cadiz Dunes were worthy of wilderness protection because the area has an array of plant life and the dunes regularly shift positions with the winds, he said.

The Sheephole Valley serves as a passage for bighorn sheep that live in the Sheephole and Calumet mountains on opposite sides of the valley, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. Military maneuvers in the valley would separate sheep populations in the mountain ranges, and that could lead to inbreeding and reduced genetic diversity, she said.

Marine Corps officials have said they need additional territory in order to simultaneously train three battalions, each with 1,000 troops, using live ammunition and bombing.

In a Sept. 24 letter to Feinstein's office in San Diego, Mitzelfelt said the 21,298-acre Cadiz Dunes Wilderness and the eastern two-thirds of the 194,861-acre Sheephole Valley Wilderness have little wilderness value because both areas were damaged by tank training during World War II and again in the early 1960s.

Mitzelfelt's staff provided a 1990 U.S. Bureau of Land Management wilderness study that described the Sheephole Valley and Cadiz Dunes as unsuitable for wilderness designation. The area "does not include any noteworthy special features and would not contribute to the diversity of the National Wilderness Preservation System," the report said.

Old Arguments

Hughes said Mitzelfelt is unearthing old arguments that were settled years ago when Congress approved the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

"It was a law that was carefully considered and long negotiated" to preserve 7 million acres of California's pristine desert lands, Feinstein said in her statement.

Hughes recalled that the bureau began surveying public land in the California desert in the 1970s for possible wilderness protection. In the years that followed, everyone aired their views in several public hearings, he said.

Hughes acknowledged that tanks tracks from World War II still can be found in the wilderness areas, but said the wildlife doesn't seem to mind. This desert habitat is slowly recovering after more than 60 years and now supports bighorns and other wildlife, he said.

Baker, of the off-roaders' group, also followed the wilderness designation process in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Baker said Sen. Alan Cranston, his successor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Feinstein -- all Democrats -- worked to forward the cause of the Sierra Club, resulting in too much wilderness.

Hughes' solution would be to save both the wilderness areas and the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area.

"I don't think Twentynine Palms needs to be expanded at all," he said. "They got a big chunk of land."

© 2008 Press-Enterprise Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton