It hardly seems a fair fight: the U.S. Marine Corps versus a 40-acre patch of Idaho potatoes.
When the Marines went looking for somewhere to build housing for enlisted personnel at Camp Pendleton, they thought they found a dandy site on the western portion of the 125,800-acre base.
It was isolated from the heavy training areas and the firing ranges where 500-pound bombs are routinely dropped. It was removed from the base airport, the watershed area, the federally protected habitat for endangered species, and the grazing grounds of the base buffalo herd.
In fact, there did not seem to be any legal or logistical problem with the site. Its only use for decades had been for farming.
Under leases dating back to the early days of the base in the 1940s, local farmers have been allowed to grow vegetables, flowers and potatoes on 1,700 acres.
Of those, the potatoes proved to be the most politically potent. In the skirmish that followed, the Marine Corps learned that howitzers and tanks are often no match for political clout.
After farmers were notified last spring that their leases might not be renewed, Camp Pendleton received 30 inquiries from agribusiness-sensitive members of Congress. Leading the charge was Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Pendleton potatoes, it turned out, are vital to the $350-million-a-year Idaho potato industry, which grows one of every four potatoes eaten in this country.
Under a contract with the Idaho Crop Improvement Assn., a San Clemente farming concern grows a test batch of Idaho potatoes each winter on a frost-free site at Pendleton.
The potatoes are tested for insect and disease problems, in time for Idaho farmers to certify that their seed potatoes for next spring are healthy. “Without Camp Pendleton, Idaho potatoes could disappear,” said association official Colleen Thompson.
Meetings were held at the Pentagon between members of Congress, farm lobbyists and top brass from the Marine Corps. The story was front-page news in Idaho for months.
When William A. Ball paid a courtesy call to Symms’ office after being nominated as secretary of the Navy, Symms grilled him on the Pendleton potato patch.
“Sen. Symms is a former Marine, and he’s 100% supportive of the Marine Corps mission at Camp Pendleton,” said Symms’ aide, Trent Clark. “But given the importance of the potato certification, he felt the Marine Corps could continue to find room on that huge base.”
When the battle was over, Ball had won confirmation from the Senate and a compromise on the potatoes had been reached.
The potatoes will remain at Pendleton, the housing will be relocated slightly, and the acreage given over to flowers will be reduced.
“It was a learning experience for us all,” said Brig. Gen. Richard Huckaby, the quiet-spoken Texan who is the commanding general at Camp Pendleton.
Huckaby likes to tell the potato story to illustrate two facts of life at the sprawling base:
First, that everybody seems to have a proposed use for Camp Pendleton for something other than training Marines for combat. And second, that the Marine Corps’ control over the base is much more precarious than the public imagines.
“You can’t condemn federal property, but you sure as hell can put a lot of public pressure on us to concede,” said Lt. Col. Ray Spears, Pendleton’s community planning and liaison officer, a kind of flak-catcher who fields requests to use Pendleton for non-military activities.
The military term is encroachment, and it’s a growing concern for military bases throughout the country as suburban sprawl reaches out toward once-isolated bases such as Pendleton.
Spears’ job was created two years ago as part of a command structure that has officers at all bases watching for encroachment pressures and then meeting regularly to discuss common problems.
In the age of NIMBY--Not In My Back Yard--Camp Pendleton is a tempting target, located between two fast-growing residential areas.
“It’s very easy for surrounding communities in Orange and San Diego counties to see Camp Pendleton as the logical place to put things that would arouse public opposition in their own neighborhoods,” said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad).
At latest count, Pendleton’s official list of “encroachment pressures” enumerates 56 items that restrict, or threaten to restrict, the use of Pendleton as a training base.
Some are things that are on base now and want to remain--like the farm leases, the state park near San Mateo Creek, and the San Onofre nuclear plant.
Also included on the list are noise complaints, electromagnetic interference from surrounding communities, and the presence of poachers, scavengers and illegal aliens.
Hunk of Base Targeted
The most exotic portion of the list, however, is given over to ideas put forth for a hunk of the base.
Among the ideas are a nude beach, a low-level radioactive waste storage facility, a liquefied natural gas terminal, a training site for the Border Patrol, a bullet train route, a state prison, a garbage dump, a toxic waste dump, cellular phone and FM-radio towers, additional Coast Guard facilities, and a public golf course.
“Everybody wants a piece of Camp Pendleton,” Spears said. “I even had a retired Navy captain from San Diego say he was representing a group interested in a Formula One race track. Now, that’s getting ridiculous.”
Possible Freeway Routes
An auto race track is easily rejected--and not likely to acquire much political momentum--but four other possible encroachments are being taken more seriously. They are: a freeway in the northwest portion of the base to relieve congestion on Interstate 5; a nuclear-powered desalination plant; a civilian airport; offshore oil- and gas-drilling operations.
The freeway is the most likely to win support from the Marine Corps.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies, a regional body composed of the county and cities in Orange County, is evaluating four possible routes to relieve I-5 starting south of San Clemente and stretching northward. Two of the routes would cross Camp Pendleton for 2 to 3 miles.
“After initially being very frosty to us a year ago, now the Marine Corps is being very receptive to at least looking at alternatives,” said TCA executive director John Meyer. “We’ve had to show them that there is something of benefit to them too.”
Spears said, “I think we’re looking at the real possibility of a freeway on Camp Pendleton, on property now leased to the state parks.”
The desalination-plant idea is being studied by GA Technologies Inc. of San Diego under a $300,000 contract from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The GA study is due in January, and no site has yet been selected.
But Camp Pendleton has been on MWD’s “short list” of coastal possibilities since the 1950s for such a project. Desalination could prove attractive to the Marine Corps because it could solve their water problems--as well as provide water for MWD customers, said Gary Snyder, assistant chief engineer at MWD.
Adamant on Two Matters
The base is self-sufficient in water. However, one of the encroachment problems is possible contamination of the underground water supply by continued growth in Rancho California on the eastern edge of the base.
If there is possible movement on a freeway or desalination plant, the Marine Corps remains adamant on airports and offshore oil.
“Encroachment pressures range from annoyance to catastrophic,” Huckaby said. “A civilian airport would put us out of business as a training base. Offshore oil drilling in our boat lanes would put us out of business.”
The Department of Defense is negotiating with the Department of Interior to ensure that if offshore drilling ever comes to Southern California, it is located far enough away to not interfere with landing exercises at Pendleton, some of which are launched from 20 miles at sea.
Where you stand on Camp Pendleton often depends on where you sit in Southern California. Of late, pressures on the base come more often from the north than the south.
“The bottom line is that people in San Diego County see Camp Pendleton as a natural buffer from the larger metropolitan area, and they have strong ties to the Marine Corps,” said Tim Merwin, aviation program manager for the Los Angeles-based Southern California Assn. of Governments.
View From the North
“The farther north you get from San Diego County, the more enthusiasm there is for using Camp Pendleton for all sorts of things. By the time you reach Los Angeles, Pendleton just seems like this large unused area, just out of reach.”
Merwin, a former pilot in the Air Force, said a SCAG study concluded that Camp Pendleton is unsuited for a civilian airport because of tricky winds in the northern portion and possible interference with training facilities, including Pendleton’s own runways, in the southern portion.
Still, the Airport Site Coalition of Orange County, a group of business and civic leaders looking for an alternative to the crowded John Wayne Airport, has Camp Pendleton among 17 possible sites--on the theory that concerns about the wind and training activities may have been overstated.
“Previous studies have always thought in terms of long-range or international airports,” said coalition executive director Al Bell. “Our study will evaluate, but not be limited to, sites that could be for medium- or short-range flights, possibly using vertical takeoff planes. That could change the evaluation.”
Spears attends every meeting of the coalition in hopes of talking them out of looking to Camp Pendleton. No decision is expected before 1990.
Bell, a planning consultant, is not fazed by the seemingly implacable opposition of the Marine Corps.
“The Marine Corps is part of government, and governments have been known to change their minds,” he said.
A suggestion has already been floated that an amendment be attached to the next military appropriations bill to order Camp Pendleton to accommodate civilian air traffic.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Assn. of Governments has launched a study of its own to find relief for San Diego’s Lindbergh Field--a study that is sure to look north to Camp Pendleton, as have other such studies.
Border Patrol Plan
Packard, who served two years at Camp Pendleton as a Navy dentist, says he sees his job as protecting Pendleton from intrusion but also encouraging the Marine Corps to cooperate with projects of regional importance.
He backs consideration of a Pendleton route for a foothill corridor freeway in southern Orange County, as well as a Border Patrol plan to enlarge its I-5 checkpoint station.
On the other hand, he finds the idea of a landfill at Camp Pendleton--a frequent suggestion--as too dangerous to consider.
“Imagine the terrorist possibilities with a hundred trucks a day coming on the base,” Packard said.
A freeway might reheat the push for a golf course near the base’s border with San Clemente.
James Hendrickson, the city manager, said the golf-course idea was making progress until 1983 when the Marine Corps shifted into an “anti-encroachment” strategy. Depending on what route is chosen, the freeway could isolate part of the base, he noted.
“It would be hard for the Marine Corps to argue that the property is needed for maneuvers,” Hendrickson said. It would not be the first time the Marine Corps has sold or leased part of the base to a surrounding community.
In recent years, the Marine Corps approved the relocation of a railroad switching yard from downtown Oceanside to a portion of the base west of I-5.
Airport in Oceanside
In the early 1960s, 100-plus acres of beachfront land was sold to Oceanside so it could build a marina. Land was also made available for a small airport in Fallbrook.
Through congressional fiat, Southern California Edison Co. received a 60-year lease on 83 acres in 1964 for its San Onofre nuclear plant. In 1982, Edison signed a 50-year lease for another 130 acres east of I-5 for a warehouse and training center.
Encroachment No. 5 on the Pendleton list is that maneuvers have been curtailed near San Onofre since an incident in 1983 when tear gas allegedly wafted over to the nuclear plant.
Huckaby and Spears insist that, far from having excess land, Camp Pendleton is actually running out of room to train, house and feed its 43,000 Marines. They want to continue the Marine Corps’ “good neighbor” policy toward surrounding communities, but priority must be given to the training of Marines.