Off-roaders and Marines in contention for rugged desert


Rough and rocky, Johnson Valley is considered the perfect place to test the mettle of men and their machines.

An estimated 200,000 people a year flock to the desert valley for recreational pursuits: hiking, camping, rock-hounding, star-gazing and a new sport called “geocaching,” a treasure hunt using GPS technology. Moviemakers use the desert floor for chase scenes.

But the valley has gained its greatest acclaim in recent years as an untamed, unregulated venue for off-road vehicles. Off-roaders take their Jeeps, motorcycles, dune buggies, ATVs, “rock crawlers” and other souped-up vehicles over, around and through the rills and hills and rocks.


The annual King of the Hammers race, billed as the toughest desert race in the nation, draws more than 20,000 participants and spectators.

“There’s not another place in the country where we could hold our race,” said Dave Cole, one of the race organizers. “This is our Daytona 500.”

The Marine Corps, whose Twentynine Palms base is directly adjacent to Johnson Valley, also likes the valley’s challenging terrain — for similar yet different reasons.

The Marine Corps would like to include the land inside the boundaries of its Air-Ground Combat Center as a training area for large-scale, live-fire exercises where three battalions could simultaneously practice assaulting a fixed location. The land is controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Johnson Valley would give the Marine Corps a large-scale training capability it lacks at any of its bases, according to Marine brass. Even in a budget-tightening season when other projects are being dropped or trimmed, the Marine Corps has allocated $60 million for the expansion project.

Gen. James Amos, the commandant, considers the expansion “absolutely essential to providing the requisite training area for preparing Marines to meet the challenges of the future security environment.”

The off-roaders look at the valley and see an exciting, irreplaceable place for their sport. Amos looks at the valley and sees a place to provide training that will enhance the “survivability” of Marines in combat.

The off-roaders and the merchants who depend on all the recreationalists are not going down without a fight. When the Marines opened up their expansion proposal for public review in May, more than 25,000 responses were received.

The Marines have offered a compromise: the heart of the Johnson Valley racing area would be available 10 months a year and closed for two months when a major exercise is planned.

But expansion skeptics feel that the dual-use idea would be withdrawn as soon as the first civilian wanders innocently or defiantly into the midst of Marine training or is hurt by ordnance left when the training is over.

The dispute features two sides that, philosophically, are aligned. Both believe in living life on the edge, facing down danger in the desert.

The Marine Corps sent a color guard to this year’s King of the Hammers. Off-duty Marines have their own desert racing team. And expansion opponents, many of them military veterans, feel a twinge at opposing the Marines during a time of war.

“It’s going to have a devastating effect on recreation,” said Ray Pessa, a Yucca Valley activist. “National defense comes first, and if they say they need it, so be it. But I’m not sure they’ve looked at all the alternatives.”

The Marines agree there are other expansion alternatives on the eastern and southern edges of the base but insist that none is as good as Johnson Valley on the west.

The final environmental impact statement is set for completion in early January. The Department of Navy’s decision on which, if any, alternative to select is scheduled for April, in time for the issue to be sent to Congress for inclusion in the defense appropriations bill.

Beyond the effect on off-roaders and business owners, Betty Munson, with the Johnson Valley Improvement Assn., sees a loss of the freedom that lures people to the austere and often blisteringly hot desert.

“Johnson Valley is all that is left of the California desert where you can travel without any restrictions, go camping without a fee, go anywhere, any time,” Munson said. “There’s a lot of freedom out there that people won’t have anymore.”

Ninety percent of Marines deploying to Afghanistan come to the Twentynine Palms base for live-fire and other training called Mojave Viper. A re-created Afghan village has 1,500 buildings and is populated by up to 1,000 Afghan “role players.” Marines are also taught to detect and dodge roadside bombs, the Taliban weapon of choice. Training is continuously tweaked to include lessons learned from the battlefield.

But what the base lacks is space to have three battalions converging on an “enemy” location.

Although the Twentynine Palms base is sprawling — 600,000 acres, compared to 125,000 acres at Camp Pendleton — there are various impediments to having a simultaneous live-fire exercise involving three battalions on the move. Among those impediments are federally protected tortoises.

The tortoise issue annoys the off-roaders. If there were more tortoises in Johnson Valley, that would probably kill the idea of annexing it to the base, said Cole, who loves Johnson Valley so much that he was married on one of its promontories.

“If I was having a tortoise race, that would be seen as valuable,” said Cole. “But I’m having a people race, and that’s not seen as valuable.”

The Marine Corps has been studying expansion of Twentynine Palms for nearly a decade, with each study coming to much the same conclusion: Johnson Valley is the best alternative.

Under the Marine Corps’ preferred alternative plan, 108,530 acres of Johnson Valley would be permanently closed to the public. An additional 38,137 acres would be open 10 months a year.

Although the issue involves federally managed land, members of California’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission toured Johnson Valley in late May and, after hearing testimony from all sides, sent a letter to the Marine Corps saying it could not support the expansion plan.

Commission members suggested that the Marines look at sharing one of the spacious bases in California or Nevada belonging to other branches of the military, possibly the Army’s Ft. Irwin, the Navy’s China Lake, or Edwards Air Force Base. The Marines say that such an agreement would be overly expensive and impractical for a variety of reasons.

Daphne Greene, deputy director of California State Parks, said the Marines are to be complimented for seeking off-roaders’ opinions and looking for a compromise. But the inclusion of Johnson Valley in the expansion plan would be too great a loss of a natural asset that Californians have long enjoyed, she said.

“We wouldn’t let the Marines take over Yosemite,” Greene said.