Marines, off-roaders compromise over area near Twentynine Palms

Trails used by off-road vehicles go through Johnson Valley west of the Twentynine Palms Marine combat training base. For a decade, the Marine Corps and off-roaders have argued about who should be able to use the area.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

A near decade-long dispute between the Marine Corps and off-road vehicle enthusiasts over a rocky patch of desert west of the base at Twentynine Palms has ended in a compromise brokered by Congress.

Neither side got all it wanted in the tussle over the nearly 200,000 acres of forbidding Johnson Valley -- a place of rugged beauty that off-roaders say is virtually without peer for their sport. The Marines say the same about their training needs.

As included in the 2014 defense bill signed by President Obama, approximately 43,000 acres of Johnson Valley will be for recreational use only, 79,000 acres will be for the Marine Corps, and 53,000 acres will be shared between the off-roaders and the Marines.

Just how that sharing will be accomplished has yet to be decided.

“Generally we’re pleased,” said Steve Egbert, a Tulare pig farmer and president of the 6,000-member California Assn. of Four-Wheel Drive Clubs, one of several off-road organizations involved in the issue.


“As long as it works out the way the bill intends, we can live with that,” Egbert said Friday. “We would have preferred something different. But this is probably the best we can get.”

Maj. Gen. David Berger, commanding general of the base at Twentynine Palms, said that without the additional training area, Marines would not be able to train effectively to fight at the brigade-level.

With the additional area, he said, Marines will “learn to fight the way [they’re] actually going to fight in a conflict, at that size level.”

For the off-roaders, the annual King of the Hammers race, billed as the toughest desert race in the nation, drawing more than 20,000 spectators and participants, will continue, although its course will have to be redrawn slightly, officials said.

At a public meeting this week in Yucca Valley, Bureau of Land Management field manager Katrina Symons said the arrangement calling for the Marines and off-road community to share part of Johnson Valley is the first of its kind.

About the only thing that comes close is an agreement that allows the public to use the beach near Vandenberg Air Force Base except when the base is launching a missile or satellite, officials said.

The Johnson Valley plan allows the Marines to use the shared area for two 30-day stretches a year for combat training. Just when those 30-day stretches will be has yet to be decided, BLM officials said.

The off-roaders had posted a petition on the White House website calling for Congress to turn down the Marine Corps bid to annex the Johnson Valley land: “The Marines current expansion plan is unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible..Expanding the world’s largest Marine base will cost taxpayers millions.”

The petition gained 29,456 supporters.

In response, a post by a deputy under-secretary of defense said that while the military places a “high value” on community relations, lack of the Johnson Valley area for training would force the Marines to “rely on classroom instructions and simulation which cannot provide realistic and practical experience.”

The Marine Corps has long insisted that it needs additional land at the 640,000-acre base at Twentynine Palms for large-scale, live-fire training exercises including infantry and air power.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Paul Cook (R-Apple Valley), a retired Marine colonel, worked to bring the two sides together.

After the bill was signed by Obama, Cook said that the agreement “ensures public safety, while also balancing the training needs of the Marine Corps with the rights of the off-road community.”

While the Marine Corps had issues of national defense on their side, the off-roaders talked of their impact on the local economy: an estimated $71 million annually.

The area set aside exclusively for the public will be known as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area and is nearly as large as the Imperial Sand Dunes at Glamis in the Imperial Valley, Cook noted.

The area includes topographic features that draw off-roaders and others: Spooners, Aftershock, Sunbonnet, the Rockpile and more.

For the shared area, training is not set for anytime soon. It will probably take at least 18 months for the Marine Corps to resolve three iron-ore mining claims and also to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and complete an environmental review involving how to protect the desert tortoise.