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Off-roaders voice displeasure with Marines Corps plan

April 15, 2011

By KRIS REILLY, Editor

VICTORVILLE • People from throughout Southern California showed up Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn to voice their concerns about a U.S. Marine Corps proposal that could close a large part of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area.

The Marine Corps is considering several alternatives for expanding its Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center training area at Twentynine Palms.

Its preferred plan, Alternative 6, would permanently close most of the Johnson Valley OHV Area, with a smaller portion used by the Marines two months a year and another small portion permanently open to the public.

The plan was unpopular among many of the 180 people who showed up in the first 90 minutes of the open-house-style meeting, with more expected as the night went on. They ranged from out-of-town business owners to off-roading enthusiasts to High Desert residents wondering how it will affect their daily lives.

“The Johnson Valley OHV area is the premiere terrain in this country,” said Tony Pellegrino, co-owner of a Simi Valley-based company that produces after-market modifications for Jeeps. “All of our product testing is done there. It’s the single largest OHV area in the state and it’s also the closest adjacent to the greater Los Angeles area.”

Pellegrino said his business — and the off-roading industry as a whole — would take a huge hit if most of Johnson Valley was lost to Marine Corps training.

Jim Clements, of Barstow, is the president of MORE (Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts), which hosts three races a year at Johnson Valley OHV on courses that utilize much of the territory that the Marines would take over under Alternative 6.

“If this happens, I’m out of business,” Clements said, adding that it could also affect local businesses in places such as nearby Lucerne Valley. “It’s going to put people out of work.”

Like many in attendance Thursday night, Clements would like to see the Marines expand to the east of their Twentynine Palms facility rather than going west into Johnson Valley.

But the Marines have designated Alternative 6 as their preferred proposal.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Nicholas C. Mannweiler called it “a good-faith effort ... to develop what we thought was a compromise between our training needs and what’s best for the community.”

Mannweiler said the expansion would allow 15,000 Marines to safely train all at one time. He said the Marine Corps doesn’t currently have that capability at any of its bases.

He said the ability to train so many Marines at once — and the capability of using weaponry at its maximum ranges — would better equip them for real-life mobilization, regardless of whether U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan.

“This is not an Afghanistan-centered training operation,” Mannweiler said. “These are the basic techniques of how Marines fight. ... With the current facility, it’s just not possible.”

Helen Baker, of Encino, a longtime off-roading enthusiast who helped stage the most recent running of the famous King of the Hammers race at Johnson Valley OHV, remained optimistic that the plan could be changed, encouraging others to submit public comments.

“If your comments are substantive, they will make a difference,” Baker said.

Visit www.marines.mil/unit/29palms/LAS for more information on the expansion.

Comments can be submitted online through the website or by mail at Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Southwest, Attn: 29 Palms EIS Project Manager, 1220 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92132-5190. Comments will be accepted until May 26.

A final Environmental Impact Statement is expected by December, and concerned parties will have an opportunity to comment on that document as well.

Kris Reilly can be reached at kreilly@vvdailypress.com or at (760) 248-7878.