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Off-road groups fight combat center expansion
By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Friday Mar 14, 2008 10:23:48 EDT
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Southern California off-road enthusiasts took to the Internet on Wednesday for a “virtual rally” to oppose the potential loss of recreational lands to an expansion of the Marine Corps’ desert training base.
Web organizers wanted to draw attention to plans to expand the 598,000-acre Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center with a combination of federal, state and private lands. Among the land parcels eyed for potential study is the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle, 180,000 acres of Mojave Desert lands owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The Johnson Valley OHV abuts the combat center’s western boundary, north of Yucca Valley, and is pocked with extreme rocky terrain popular for off-road riding and rock crawling.
John Stewart, a natural resource consultant with the California 4WD Club, estimated that as much as 50 percent of Johnson Valley could be taken in the expansion.
“It would decimate some of the dual-sport riders that use that part of Johnson Valley,” said Stewart, a Navy veteran who lives near San Diego.
During the four-hour online rally hosted by Pirate4x4.com, more than 27,000 people viewed the site, and nearly 1,500 people posted personal photos and tales of a rocky trail in Johnson Valley known as the Hammers that’s popular for rock-crawling.
“This is really kind of a Mecca for the rock-crawling side of four-wheel driving,” said Kurt Schneider, who runs the Pirate4x4 Web site. “We totally support the Marine Corps, 100 percent. We’re not busting on the Marine Corps. That’s not our intent. The OHV community is generally supportive of the armed forces.”
Word of the virtual rally appeared to reach combat center officials, who issued a press release Wednesday morning to deny that any decision has been made about Johnson Valley or other areas being studied for the expansion ahead of its plans for a full-blown federal environmental impact statement.
“Base officials continue to study areas along its boundaries for potential acquisition to meet Marine Corps training requirements,” the statement read. “They stressed that no decision has been made on which areas would be most appropriate to the Combat Center’s training mission.
“Once this internal analysis is complete, the Marine Corps will publicly release the proposed alternatives and study them in full compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act,” the statement added. “The Marine Corps is looking at areas contiguous to the base, including the Johnson Valley, but no final decisions have been made regarding what alternatives will be pursued and analyzed through NEPA. When the alternatives are finalized, we will inform the public.”
Military officials have not yet detailed the extent of the expansion plans or what particular lands they are studying. Potential land parcels targeted for the expansion would be announced in a “notice of intent” when the EIS is published.
According to a federal notice published March 1, however, the EIS “will analyze the potential environmental effects of acquiring approximately 450,000 acres of public [specifically Bureau of Land Management (BLM)], state and private land, the establishment of special-use airspace overlying the acquisition area, and extension of the current Military Operation Areas over surrounding areas.”
The EIS process, which is required under NEPA, will analyze the existing activities at the combat center and analyze potential impacts on people and the environment, including air and water quality, native plants and endangered or protected species, for each potential land addition. The process, which can take more than two years to complete, would include public information meetings and input.
In the combat center statement, Jim Ricker, the center’s assistant chief of staff for community plans, urged “patience as this process of simply figuring out what land the base might actually need to meet the Marine Corps training requirements and how it affects other interests could take anywhere from three to five years.”
The Mojave has long lured off-roaders and recreationalists, but in recent years, access to some federal lands popular for camping and hiking has been limited because of endangered habitat, or the land has become off-limits, as with ongoing expansion of the Army’s Fort Irwin.
Off-road groups remain worried at the Corps’ latest plans.
Johnson Valley’s trails “are world-renowned for their access,” Stewart said. “It’s highly prized.”