Marine Base Expansion: Running Out Of Room In The Mojave

Searching for simulated explosives in the Mojave Desert| Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Navy released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the long-planned expansion of its Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base two weeks ago. Despite a sustained campaign of opposition, it looks as though the Marines intend to plant their flag on more than half of the Johnson Valley off-road vehicle recreation area. The protest period for the EIS ends August 25, after which the EPA will evaluate the EIS and Congress must make a decision. Off-roaders and locals are upset and the battle is almost certainly far from over.

And the war over Johnson Valley underscores what is, increasingly, a fact of life in the arid parts of California: we no longer have enough desert to go around.

At issue is the Marines' desire to be able to hold training exercises in which three battalions of tanks converge on a single target area after traveling separately through forty or so miles of desert. According to the Navy, the base -- whose formal name is the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) -- is unable to hold that kind of training given current boundaries and topography. The expansion's EIS includes seven alternatives, including a "no action" alternative. Under Alternative 6, the Navy's preferred alternative, the base would acquire just under 168,000 acres of new territory -- 146,667 acres of which is currently part of the Johnson Valley off-road area between Yucca Valley and Barstow. The remainder would be in the northwest corner of Wonder Valley, north of Twentynine Palms.

That's a problem for off-roaders. The Johnson Valley off-road area, the largest in the U.S., covers 188,000 acres. The 146,667 acres wanted by the Marines is a huge chunk of that. Of the new base lands, 38,137 acres would be designated a Restricted Public Access Area, open to off-roaders except during two one-month periods each year, at the end of which the Marines would clean up any hazards left over from their training and reopen the area.

The remainder, more than 108,000 acres, would be permanently closed to the public. This is due to the incompatibility of military training and public access. For instance, the EIS's Alternative 6 would involve live direct-fire exercises around Galway Dry Lake, now contained within the off-road area. It's kind of hard to clean up enough after that activity to make the area safe for civilians on dirt bikes.

So the Navy is asking for 57% of the largest off-road area in the country. Off-roaders are upset. Business owners in Landers and Lucerne Valley, who survive on purchases made by off-roaders, are worried. Environmentalists fear that closing more than half of Johnson Valley may cause off-roaders to look elsewhere in the desert for wide-open spaces to drive around in.

Some environmentalists are also concerned about the damage the Marines would do to the land even if they do displace off-roaders. The Sierra Club's George Barnes told the Riverside Press Enterprise last week, for example, that the Club wasn't sure tanks were any better for the land than quads. And off-roaders aren't the only ones currently using the land the Marines would like to take over. The EIS estimates that Alternative 6 will lead to "take" -- death, injury, harassment or other inconvenience -- of "between 645 and 3,769 federally threatened desert tortoises over the life of the project." Between 503 and 834 of those torts would be in the newly acquired lands.

In 1890, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the nation's western frontier had closed. The Bureau had described that frontier as the line past which population density was less than two people per square mile. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner made his reputation by arguing that the presence of that frontier had given America its egalitarian, self-reliant character, and that its closing meant an important epoch in American history had ended.

There were a few problems with Turner's thesis. Most obviously, the idea of the Frontier gives very short shrift to the Native people who were living perfectly well beyond that frontier, who were mainly uncounted in the Census Bureau's figures. The notion that the frontier was settled due to self-reliant Americans shaping their nation ignores the massive Federal investment in Westward expansion, from land grants to railroads, miners and homesteaders, to constant military presence along migrant trails.

Most relevant to this story was the fact that in large parts of the West, the frontier as defined by the Census Bureau never closed. Outside of the desert's urbanized areas, it's not at all hard to find broad stretches with fewer than two people per square mile. The desert has been a leftover, internal frontier for more than a century. It's a place to pass through on your way somewhere else, or to take advantage of the wide open spaces either for your own solitude and enjoyment, or to conduct activities that would be out of place in polite company.

Now that frontier is closing as well, in a sense. As demands on desert land increase for energy development, recreation, environmental protection, and other pursuits, the desert's wide open spaces aren't so wide or open anymore. The Twentynine Palms base expansion, in the works since 2005, is the largest recent example, but there are hundreds of others. A common practice for development on tortoise habitat, for instance, is to ask the developer to protect five acres of other habitat for every acre they destroy. Such 5-1 mitigation is getting harder: as more projects fill the desert, potential mitigation land is increasingly spoken for.

The era of limits has arrived in the desert, in other words, and it has done so with a vengeance. Those of us who use the desert will need to learn to live within those limits, and soon.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.