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San Bernardino County supervisors/OHV enthusiasts fight to keep Johnson Valley open

By Joe Nelson, Staff Writer

San Bernardino County Sun

July 1, 2012

Two San Bernardino County supervisors, backed by off-roading enthusiasts,
are hoping a Congressional action will block a plan by the Marine Corps to
seize control of most of the Johnson Valley Off Highway recreation area.

The Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center says it needs
146,000 acres of the 189,000-acre off-highway vehicle recreation area, the
largest in the world, for live-fire and maneuver training, citing rapidly
evolving defense requirements due to the “global war on terrorism” and the
introduction of new weapons systems as the reasons.

Of the 146,000 acres sought by the Marines, more than 108,530 of them would
be for exclusive military use. The other roughly 38,000 acres would be used
for military training two months of the year, then the acreage would be
opened to off-road recreators for the remainder of the year, said Chris
Proudfoot, program manager for land acquisition at the Twentynine Palms
Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

In addition, a 45,000-acre swath on Johnson Valley’s western edge would go
unused by the Marine Corps and be available to off-roaders year-round,
Proudfoot said.

San Bernardino County Supervisors Brad Mitzelfelt and Neil Derry, both
former Marines who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm,
have another plan in mind: They recommend that Johnson Valley remain under
the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and that the Marine
Corps obtain a special-use permit to train on the land two months of the
year.

On June 1, the supervisors sent letters to Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon
(R-Santa Clarita) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta with their
proposal, but got no response.

Neither McKeon nor Panetta could be reached for comment Friday.

Mitzelfelt and Derry still support base expansion to the east, where the
impacts would be minimal to off-roading, filming and mining activity, all
of which are essential to the area’s economy.

“A lot of people in San Bernardino County use that area, and if it’s taken
away from BLM management, the military may not make it accessible enough
for it to remain as beneficial as it has been to the public,” Mitzelfelt
said Friday.

Proudfoot says the kind of training planned at Johnson Valley, which
involves the use of explosives such as hand grenades, air bombs and
artillery rounds, is not conducive to such a plan.

A percentage of explosive devices used during training do not detonate as
they were designed to and can accumulate along the valley floor, in crags
and crevices, posing a danger to civilians should they come in contact with
them. The areas of Johnson Valley where that type of training is proposed,
therefore, needs to restricted to the public, Proudfoot said.

“If we were to go the way that the supervisors suggest, it essentially
means we wouldn’t be able to do any live fire (training) at all,” Proudfoot
said. “And since that is a core part of the training paradigm we are trying
to establish, it’s really not compatible with what our proposal is trying
to get done.”

The Johnson Valley OHV area injects an estimated $70 million annually into
the local economy, with roughly 800,000 visitors each year. It is the
locale of King of the Hammers, an off-roading event in which contestants
race their 4-wheel-drive vehicles across the vast expanses of the valley or
maneuver them up and across its unique, rugged terrain.

The event began in 2007 with 12 drivers and has grown every year since.
This year, it drew 30,000 people and 246 racing teams from Japan, Italy,
Iceland, England and Australia, said Shannon Welch, spokeswoman for
HammerKing Productions, the company that hosts the event.

“This race has grown 10-fold during an economic recession in this country.
That tells you how popular this sport is and how popular Johnson Valley
is,” Welch said.

She said nearly all of the off-road vehicle associations, including the
California Motorized Recreation Council and the California Off Road Vehicle
Association, are behind Mitzelfelt’s and Derry’s joint-use proposal at
Johnson Valley.

Mitzelfelt said visitors to Johnson Valley are an economic boom to the
neighboring communities of Lucerne Valley, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms
and Landers, where they purchase gas, food, and other items. It’s a big
help for a region that continues to suffer unemployment at nearly double
the national rate of about 8 percent, he said.

The Marine Corps continues working on its final environmental impact report
on the proposed expansion. It has been working with the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service for the last seven months on a mitigation plan for the
desert tortoise, Proudfoot said, adding that the report should be ready for
public review within a month and a decision hopefully rendered by the
Secretary of the Navy by the end of September.

“That record of decision is the critical decision …,” Proudfoot said.

It doesn’t leave many options for those opposed to Johnson Valley sliced up
and portioned off.

Mitzelfelt said there is only one way to try and counter the Marine Corps’
proposal.

“I think the only alternative is for Congress to vote it down and have them
go back and modify it, or just pursue the permit approach, which we and the
off highway vehicle community are suggesting,” Mitzelfelt said.

Reach Joe via email, call him at 909-386-3874, or find him on Twitter
@SBCountyNow.

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