Bill Creates Off-Road, Military Compromise

(December 12)  A compromise incorporating the requests of off-road enthusiasts and the military’s need for expanded live-fire training facilities was incorporated into the final form of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, which was passed into law by Congress on Tuesday.
The final language of the act significantly downscales an earlier proposed expansion of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base and its Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, retaining much of Johnson Valley, which is home to the largest off-highway vehicle area in the United States, for recreational use.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 preserves 99,870 acres of Johnson Valley as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area. The deal will allow the Marines to expand the Twentynine Palms Marine Base into a portion of Johnson Valley and would end the threat of military expansion to the remaining off-road area.
The new Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area is nearly as large as the Imperial Sand Dunes at Glamis and is explicitly designated for off-highway vehicle use under the new law. Included in this area is the entire “Hammers” area, both the front and back side. Spooners, Aftershock, Sunbonnet, the Riffle Monument, and the Cal200 Memorial (The Rockpile) are also located within the preserved off-road area. The majority of the Fry Mountains and full access to Soggy Dry Lake Bed are also guaranteed for off-highway vehicle use, as well as access to Emerson Dry Lake Bed.
This deal is the culmination of a years-long campaign to save the Hammers from base expansion. The famed “King of the Hammers” Race, which draws over 30,000 people to Johnson Valley every year, will continue under the new bill. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that Johnson Valley currently generates more than $71 million annually for local economies.
The Marines would be allowed to use a portion of the nearly 100,000 acre Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area for a maximum of 60 days per year. It would be open to the off-road community for recreational use during the remaining 305 days.
The Marine Corps released the following statement: “The expansion of 29 Palms is the best investment the Marine Corps has made to ensure combat success and the safe return home of our Marines, as it addresses the Marine Corps’ current training and readiness shortfalls. The Marine Corps will now be able to conduct fully integrated, live-fire exercises based on current training requirements, while still preserving safe public access for Off-Highway Vehicle recreation in Johnson Valley.”
A key player in driving the compromise was Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, who in addition to representing the area in Congress, was a former Marine colonel who was stationed at the Twentynine Palms base. He is now a member of the House Armed Services, Veterans’ Affairs, and Foreign Affairs Committees.
Cook told the Sentinel, “My biggest concern has always been public safety. This agreement ensures public safety, while also balancing the training needs of the Marine Corps with the rights of the off-road community. It preserves California’s most important off-road recreation area for future generations. After years in which off-roaders have lived in fear of the closure of Johnson Valley, this permanently ends the threat of base expansion into off-road areas.”
San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos, whose Third District includes a portion of the desert affected by the legislation, stated, “This compromise reached on the Johnson Valley OHV recreational area is a well-designed plan that will protect our residents, local economy, and our recreation community while allowing the military to maintain essential training operations. I applaud Congressman Cook for his leadership in the House of Representatives, Senator Dianne Feinstein for her support, and my fellow board colleagues for standing with them on this critical issue.”
San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood, whose First District also contains land impacted by the National Defense Authorization Act, said, “This is a victory for everyone. The Marine Corps gets land for training while preserving off-roading areas and the economic impact of the King of the Hammers event.”
Dave Cole, one of the founders of King of the Hammers, responded to the deal by saying, “While I am happy that we will be able to continue racing King of the Hammers in Johnson Valley, I am truly thankful that we have preserved the ability of future generations to enjoy this amazing area.”
Robert Lombardo, the Mayor of Yucca Valley said, “Saving a large portion of Johnson Valley not only allows for recreation to continue, but it makes it safer for the residents who would have been located so close to the proposed USMC boundary. I am excited to have the positive economic impacts of the off-road community continue, while allowing the Marines to meet their training needs.”
Mayor Dan Mintz of Twentynine Palms commented, “I’m proud that the voices of our communities were heard by our representatives in Congress, and I’m thankful that the Marines listened. We look forward to continuing our positive relationship with the Marines, while still being able to recreate safely. Off-roading has been a huge economic benefit to our city, and I’m thrilled that this deal will allow it to continue.”
Fred Wiley, the President/CEO of the Off-Road Business Association (ORBA), also weighed in on the deal, “The off-highway motorized recreation community considers this ground breaking legislation a ‘win’ for both the OHV community and the US Marines. A 5-year effort by the California Motorized Recreation Council (CMRC) has demonstrated that it is possible to share land in order to accomplish military training goals and protect motorized recreation areas. If not for Congressman Cook’s leadership, this shared-use agreement would not have been possible. As a result, Johnson Valley will soon be designated by Congress as the ‘Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area’ managed by the Department of Interior.”
The base expansion will reach to include 88,130 acres once used exclusively for civilian off-roading. The Marines had originally coveted 168,000 acres for use in simulated battle training that would allow a target to be set upon by three contingents originating at points beyond visual range. Under the act, the Marines will be allowed to utilize 56,000 acres of land located in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area for up to two months out of the year, during which time the public will be excluded from that land.

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