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Desert Tortoise 

The Desert Sun, August 23, 2012

Johnson Valley off-road lovers fight Marines to stay on trails

Twentynine Palms base looks to expand onto majority of desert riding zone

By K. Kaufmann

JOHNSON VALLEY — Saturday morning in Johnson Valley, there's only one place to be — the weekly breakfast at the community center where $5 gets you eggs any way you want, pancakes or French toast, bacon or sausage, hash browns and toast — cooked to order.

You're also likely to get an earful about the proposed expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms into the community's 189,700 acres of federal land that is one of the nation's largest and most spectacular off-roading areas.

“It's the best riding in the world; this place is just legendary,” said Preston Mattecheck, 50, of Altadena.

He and his wife, Paula, 46, are about to move to the small community — about 21 miles north of Yucca Valley — specifically for the off-roading.

His views on the expansion sum up what many in the community feel about the valley and its off-roading area: “Keep it the way it is; just leave us alone.”

That's not likely.

According to a final environmental impact report the Department of the Navy issued last month, the expansion could whittle down the off-roading area by more than half and cut off access to some of its most popular areas for two months a year.

A 30-day review period for the report ends Monday, with a final decision expected a month later.

The current plan — one of six alternatives reviewed in the report — represents the Marines' attempts to find a workable compromise with Johnson Valley residents and the off-roading community following an outpouring of opposition.

An earlier draft of the report drew more than 22,000 letters and comments, most of them negative. In recent months, a coalition of off-roading groups has mounted a national campaign to keep the entire area open.

“It's managed by the Bureau of Land Management as an open recreation area; it is one of the few areas where you can go wherever you want,” said Fred Wiley, president and CEO of the Off Road Business Association, an industry group in Bakersfield.

Wiley and other off-roaders talk not only about the area's size, but its varied terrain, ranging from dry lake beds to craggy, rock-covered hills, all under a sky that goes on forever.

“You could go for a two-hour ride and ride single-track trails, jeep trails; it's got all kinds of trails,” said Dennis Greene, 58, of Sky Valley, who's been riding motorcycles at Johnson Valley since the 1960s.

“We don't have very many places left; that's the main special thing,” he said. “Where else do you want us to go?”

In fact, a BLM analysis of the expansion plan found cutting more than half of the off-roading area could mean the permanent loss of regionally and nationally recognized events.

At special risk is a huge off-roading race called the King of the Hammers that draws thousands of people to the valley each February.

The agency also predicts the valley could lose more than 200,000 visitors a year because “there is no (similar) area large or safe enough, free from competing established uses, or environmentally suitable.”

Stephen Razo, a spokesman for the BLM's California Desert District, said the agency is continuing to work with the Marines on unresolved issues.

With a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., the coalition has enlisted the help of Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who chairs the Tactical and Air Land Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

Bartlett authored an amendment to the defense authorization bill now in Congress that would limit the use of certain funds until the Marines submit a report detailing how the Corps will ensure continued access to off-roading areas in Johnson Valley.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, supports training at the base but has also supported the Bartlett amendment, spokesman Jim Specht said.

“He believes the Marines can do a better job of explaining why this (area) will be of benefit to them and why they did not move in different directions,” Specht said.

Capt. Kendra Motz, a spokeswoman for the Marines, said the Corps is working on the report.

A different mission

The base needs the extra land to expand its training capabilities to help the Corps prepare for its post-Middle East role as a slimmed-down, rapid response force, said Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler, a base spokesman.

The base has been heavily involved in training troops for the Iraq war through its Mojave Viper program.

An expanded Twentynine Palms is one of the few places the Corps will be able to conduct complex training for Marine Expeditionary Brigades — forces of up to 20,000 troops — with three tank battalions starting from different points advancing to a set meeting place.

Such exercises would also involve combat planes and helicopters and live ammunition.

“We're going back to what we were before Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mannweiler said.

“If you send in the Marines, it's like shock troops. Once we get off the ship, we're going to secure or create air fields that let the Air Force bring in the Army.

“This is to get us back to the bread and butter of what the Marine Corps does,” he said.

But some Johnson Valley residents say they already feel bombarded with noise and tremors from periodic training exercises on the base, which borders the east end of the off-roading area.

“When they bomb, my house shakes,” said Myllicent Combs, 80, a former off-roader who's lived in the area for more than 20 years. “If I'm in bed, the whole bed moves. If we're going to have more, closer, what's it going to be like?”

Divided loyalties

Off-roaders are a patriotic bunch by nature — many are veterans, reservists or active duty — so opposing the base expansion does not come easy.

Jarrett Smith got on his first motorcycle, a 19-inch-high Yamaha PW50, when he was 3 years old and has been riding in Johnson Valley ever since. Now 21 and an Air Force reservist, he's two weeks back from an eight-month tour in Afghanistan.

Sitting with friends at the community center on Saturday, he said he's all for the Marines training, but thinks reducing the size of the off-roading area will lead more people to off-road in a smaller area and create more illegal off-roading in the region.

“There'll be more injuries, more deaths, people riding through people's yards,” he said.

For Dawn Rowe, 43, the conflict over the off-roading area has been especially poignant and difficult. Rowe, who is mayor of Yucca Valley, first came to the high desert with her husband, a Marine officer and off-roader, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

As a mother, mayor and widow, she now feels pulled between loyalties.

The off-roading community in Johnson Valley provided her with emotional support after her husband's death, she said. Staying with the sport has also helped her children, ages 11 and 13, maintain a link to their father, she said.

The possible reduction of off-roading space, and the dampening effect it could have on off-roading events in Johnson Valley, such as King of the Hammers, would also be felt by small businesses, she said.

“It's an economic development tool we use to attract people up here,” Rowe said. “It's the hotels; it's the tow trucks, beer, ice, camping gear people stop to buy.”

The Yucca Valley Town Council has opposed the current base expansion plan.

“You want to support Marine training,” Rowe said. “Does base expansion save lives that would otherwise be lost? Does that infringe upon personal liberty in public lands?”
Unlikely allies

The battle for Johnson Valley has made temporary allies of off-roaders and environmental groups — factions that have traditionally been at odds over the use of public land.

The environmentalists are concerned about the loss of habitat for sensitive desert plants and animals — particularly endangered desert tortoises.

The final environmental impact report estimates that over the 50-year life of the expanded training area, between 645 and 3,769 adult desert tortoises could be lost to “translocation, crushing due to vehicle or Marine movements and ordnance explosions.”

Between 3,040 and 17,766 juvenile desert tortoises could also be lost.

“That's appalling, particularly in that part of the species' range,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity.

A small wildlife management area north of the base expansion area is a stronghold for desert tortoises in the south Mojave Desert, she said, which is why preserving Johnson Valley is so important.

“Having a hit of that many animals in Johnson Valley puts the remaining animals at that greater of a risk,” she said.

Like Smith, both off-roaders and environmental groups are concerned illegal off-roading will pop up.

“Whether it's dust and activity on the dirt roads or illegal or irresponsible activity, it's hard to tell what will happen,” said Kim Floyd, conservation chair of the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“There are parts of Johnson Valley that have survived the off-road vehicle activity that will be under additional pressure from live ammunition and military heavy equipment.”

Off-roader Dennis Greene agrees with the Sierra Club's position that the Marines should go with a “no action” alternative and keep their training within the boundaries of the current base.

“I would like to see the military say, ‘Hey, we don't really need it.' But I'm sure they think they do. I'm sure they have a profound reason to want it.

“It seems they have so much land out there, they don't have to take mine.”

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton