Southern California Access Issues

Marines detail plan for Johnson Valley

Reprinted from The Desert Sun, May 8, 2014

YUCCA VALLEY – Off-road enthusiasts, conservationists and local residents got their first look Wednesday night at the new configuration of Johnson Valley after Congress handed over 132,000 acres of the off-road recreation area to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

About 25 people attended a joint presentation by the Bureau of Land Management and the Marine Corps during a meeting at the Yucca Valley Community Center.

On Dec. 26, President Barrack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, appropriating 79,000 acres to the combat center for exclusive military use, 53,000 acres for shared use by the public and the combat center, and designated the balance of the area — 43,000 acres — as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area.

Valerie Berube, combat center project manager, and Katrina Symons, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management, explained that the Shared Use Area would be used only twice annually for 30 days at a time, while for the other 10 months the land would be available for public use.

The meeting was also organized to solicit feedback from stakeholders — many of whom have been fighting for years to keep the land public — on how best to work together on managing the shared use area, including what time of the year the military should train there.

"The facilitation and management of the recreation in the shared use area, that's why it's so important to have the relevant state agencies and all the stakeholders — the OHV folks, the environmental folks and local citizens — come to the table and let's talk about that shared management," Symons said. "How can we further the immediate objective of training and recreation use? This truly is going to be a community endeavor."

Symons said the joint management of the land between the BLM and the military is the first arrangement of its kind in the country.

After the presentation, the meeting was opened up to questions, and among the concerns voiced by audience members was the need for better signage to mark the new borders of the area and that too many people were being cited for inadvertently encroaching onto these new off-limits areas, as well as worries about more noise from the firing of heavy weaponry.

Berube said a new website, designed specifically to provide updated information about the land transition and to collect comments and input from the community, will be launched online soon.

A 'workable' plan

Harry Baker, president of the California Off Road Association, said the new configuration is "workable," and besides, "it is, by law, a shared use area, and we get 10 months of exclusive use."

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 for live-fire combat training exercises it has said are critical for its post-Mideast role as a streamlined expeditionary force.

The combat center publicly announced its expansion plans in August 2007, originally expressing an interest in acquiring all or a portion of the 188,000-acre Johnson Valley OHV Area to meet requirements for a large-scale training range facility.

By that time, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates — who visited the base three months earlier, in May 2007 — had given the Marine Corps the green light to start the land and environmental studies required for expansion.

In 2008, officials began holding meetings to seek community input as they continued to study the best way to expand the base.

By late 2013, a compromise, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., took shape.

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 meeting that took place just weeks before the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act was signed.

The Johnson Valley compromise takes up 13 pages of the more than 1,100 pages of the National Defense Authorization Act.

"It's a very good thing — and a great compromise that came out of it is part of it is going to be maintained, still, by the Bureau of Land Management and part of it is an off-highway vehicle place where they can race their off road vehicles," MCAGCC Commanding Gen. David H. Berger said during a February luncheon meeting of the local Military Officers Association of America.

"This is one of those where everybody walked away with what they needed," he added. "We needed more terrain, they got what they needed — I think it worked out well."

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