The Persian Gulf crisis has sharpened a dispute over the U.S. Army’s desire to expand its main desert warfare training center at Ft. Irwin, a sprawling, 1,000-square-mile facility in an isolated area of San Bernardino County.
The expansion plan, which would add almost 250,000 acres to the Army’s land, has moved slowly because of local opposition. An environmental impact statement was delayed last year after the desert tortoise, whose habitat would be affected, was added to the endangered species list in an emergency declaration.
Now, with the Army contending it needs more room quickly to meet the troop training demands of the Persian Gulf crisis, opponents of the expansion say the conflict is being used as an excuse by the military to gain control over more land. About 10 days ago, Col. Hal Fuller, garrison commander at Ft. Irwin, broached the idea of a smaller but immediate 125,000-acre expansion to accommodate the Army’s stepped-up training schedule.
This is about half the 242,000 acres that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said last year should be added to the 642,000 acres already within Ft. Irwin’s boundaries.
Specifically, Fuller proposed seizing by January the publicly owned land between the eastern boundary and California 127. Virtually all the land is part of a desert preservation area controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
But Gerald Hillier, the bureau’s district manager in Riverside, said his agency would be unable to carry out any environmental assessment quickly enough, and that only Congress could suspend the environmental laws that must be addressed before any expansion takes place.
Fuller said in an interview Friday that for now, the Army has dropped its idea of an emergency expansion and will pursue the proposal for a larger expansion through the regular process. The final environmental impact statement is not expected before 1992.
The garrison commander, however, kept the emergency expansion idea alive just a flicker. If President Bush declares a national emergency and the mission of the training center changes abruptly, an emergency expansion might be pursued, he said. It presumably could be accomplished by presidential order. In the meantime, these are days of improvisation for the training force of 650 at Ft. Irwin. First, commanders were told to expect as many as four National Guard brigades from the Deep South, a total of 21,000 troops, for desert warfare training beginning just after Christmas. Three of the brigades were called up last week.
The numbers of guardsmen could cause problems for Ft. Irwin. The facility normally can accommodate only 4,000 troops at one time during its regular 20-day training cycle, according to Maj. John Wagstaffe, a Ft. Irwin spokesman. The troops use large sections of the training center for simulated combat exercises that require live ammunition. Wagstaffe said that because guardsmen have relatively little preparation for desert warfare, the Army is considering a longer training cycle for them. With Ft. Irwin’s present capacity, it could be April before all the Southern guardsmen would be finished with their training, perhaps well after a Gulf war with Iraq would begin. But Wagstaffe said the training cycle might be shortened if the first guard unit goes through it well.
It was in 1988 that the Army first formally proposed expanding Ft. Irwin to the east, west and south, bringing it closer to Barstow and to I-15, the main route between Southern California and Las Vegas.
The plan has had considerable opposition from environmentalists, miners, small property owners in the area, real estate speculators, even monks at a Coptic monastery on land that would be taken. The Gulf crisis--and the ensuing public focus on U.S. military training--has only slightly assuaged the opposition, said Karla Swanson of the Barstow office of the Bureau of Land Management. She is in charge of reviewing the expansion request.
Swanson said that before Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, the mail was running 150 to 1 against the Army’s proposal. Since then, the negative letters outnumber the positive 10 to 1.
Some opponents wonder why the Army needs more land when the military already controls an area of the California desert almost as large as Connecticut. In addition to Ft. Irwin, there is the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, the Navy’s weapons center ranges around China Lake and Edwards and George Air Force bases.
“I’m afraid they’re trying to use this Iraqi situation as a wedge,” said Jesse Collins, a retired Marine and geological expert who has been showing the desert around Barstow to visitors for many years.
“We’ve got zeolites, tungsten, gold mines ready to be worked again on the land they want,” Collins said. “There are beautiful forests of Joshua trees and the old Indian trails. Well, they’re crazy. A lot of these generals would like to use the flare-up in Saudi Arabia and Iraq to get more land. Never mind that the Russians are down the drain, they’re going to use this as a new excuse.” A local historian and high school teacher, Cliff Walker, agreed. “Until Kuwait, I was pleased to think this probably wouldn’t go through,” he said of the expansion. Len Smith, a field deputy to San Bernardino County Supervisor Marsha Turoci, noted that the proposed expansion is not the only possible new military incursion into local life. “Edwards Air Force Base wants to expand its airspace for low-level flying in the area north of the Barstow-Mojave highway,” he said. “Just take Ft. Irwin, Edwards and China Lake and the amount of air space they’re tying down is ludicrous.” But Wagstaffe said Ft. Irwin simply needs more space to provide realistic training. “We’ve learned that if you don’t train the way you would actually combat, you don’t do well in combat. . . . We are short 240,000 acres to be able to train a full brigade at a time,” he said.
Of Ft. Irwin’s 642,000 acres, only 430,000 are usable for training, he said, mentioning that NASA’s Goldstone tracking facility uses 25,000 acres, other Army facilities occupy the remaining land and some of the terrain is too steep to be used. Live fire training takes place only in the northern part of the facility, and the Army says that would not change. In the new areas it wants, the soldiers would practice laser-tag warfare and perform other lighter training exercises. Reports have circulated in Barstow that the Army really wants to move south to obtain fresh water, and that it has spoiled much land by leaving unexploded ammunition on the ground.
But Fuller discounted both claims. He said that the water supply is adequate and that the extent of explosives-contaminated land is exaggerated. Before 1970, he and Wagstaffe said, careless soldiers contaminated some areas, but since the National Training Center opened in 1980, much more care has been taken. Fuller said that because of Ft. Irwin’s shortage of space, he received assurances last week that the Southern guard units would arrive sequentially, rather than two or three at a time, with a short break between each brigade. He also said he has considered asking the Marine Corps for permission to use the Marines Air-Ground Combat Center outside Twentynine Palms for training one battalion.
“We are critically short of space,” the colonel said. “But in order to use Twentynine Palms we would have to transport equipment and run a continuous supply system between the two bases.”
He noted that such a plan would require a new right of way between the two bases and the permission of federal and state agencies. Ft. Irwin and the Marine base are about 40 miles apart. A Marine spokesman said, however, that if the Army requests the use of the Marine training base, “we would certainly accommodate them.”
Created in 1981 in response to the changing nature of warfare, the Army’s National Training Center at Ft. Irwin allows the sort of large-scale maneuvers not possible on smaller posts. Army commanders design scrimmages--which include tanks, a variety of aircraft and tear gas to simulate chemical warfare--to apply to any potential fighting environment.