The battle for the Johnson Valley offroading area could be heating up with a Senate committee vote Nov. 14 approving the Marine Corps’ plan to expand the its Air Ground Combat Training Center at Twentynine Palms into the valley, taking about 106,000 acres permanently out of public use. (Picture below from Ultra4 Racing website.)
The federal bill, S. 1309, that would officially reserve and transfer the land from the jurisdiction of the Interior Department to the Department of the Navy was voted out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, as part of a package of three bills, according to an article on the Marine Corps Times website.
The report has Committee chair Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, saying that all three bills are not controversial and he expects they will be incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking Republican on the committee, also applauded 1309′s passage.
Wyden’s comments may come as a surprise to the offroading community and the residents of the small town of Johnson Valley, located directly across from the offroading area on the other side of State Highway 247 in the high desert of San Bernardino County.
They have been fighting the proposed expansion for several years, the offroaders mobilizing nationally to save the valley’s unique and world-famous offroading trails, while local residents said they already are subject to bed- and window-rattling noise from training exercises on the base.
The Marines had been moving ahead, slowly but inexorably with the plan, arguing they need the base expansion for live-amunition training exercises that are critical for the Corps’ evolution for its post-Mideast missions. The offroaders were offered small compromises in the form of a 36,000-acrs shared-use area — open to the public about 10 months a year — containing the valley’s rock crawling trails, home to the yearly King of the Hammers competition. The week-long event in February has become a major tourist draw and economic driver for the community and nearby high desert towns, all of whom oppose the expansion.
The possiblity of a different compromise with the Marines emerged earlier this when Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, introduced a bill, H.R. 1676, containing an alternative plan for the Johnson Valley. The bill, which was eventually incorporated into the House version of the NDAA, would designate the valley as a nationally protected off-roading and recreation area, allowing the Marines in twice a year for training exercises.
Cook, himself a retired Marine colonel, led the charge in the House, gathering bipartisan support for his plan, but appeared to drop the ball in the Senate. Neither he nor any offroaders were included in the July 30 hearing when the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mines considered S. 1309 along with several other similar pieces of legislation.
I have called and emailed Cook’s offices in Washington, D.C. and Apple Valley to see if he has any comment or strategy for the conflict ahead if the Senate version of the NDAA is passed with S. 1309 on board. No answer so far.
In the meantime, in a bit of significant synchronicity, an email landed in my mailbox Friday afternoon, announcing the opening of registration for the next King of the Hammers, now scheduled for Jan. 1-Feb. 8, 2014.
Ultra4 Racing, the event organizer, has also spearheaded at Save the Hammers campaign to lobby the Senate not to include 1309 in the defense authorization bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is particularly targeted for phone calls and letters.