Friday, August 3, 2012

Desert Marine Base Expansion Nears Final Approval

The Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in July took one more step closer to expanding the boundary of its facility when it released a Final Environmental Impact Statement -- a document that takes a close look at the impacts of the plan on the environment and current uses of the area.   Once the plan is approved, the base will acquire an additional 262 square miles of adjacent land--well over twice the size of Orlando, Florida--for training scenarios in the open desert, but the expansion would also deprive off-highway vehicle riders of a major recreation area and pose a new burden to desert widlife.   The Marine Base expansion is just one of many demands on desert wildlands that will continue to challenge the stability of the ecosystem and the recovery of already-beleaguered plants and animals.

OHV Area Takes a Hit
The base expansion will declare a significant portion of the existing Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Area off limits, generating significant concern in the OHV community.  After the base expansion,  129 square miles of the OHV area (about 44% of the original Johnson Valley OHV Area) will remain open to the public for  ten months of the year.  About 69 of the 129 square miles will be available to the public all year.  The portion that is open to the public for ten months of the year  would be along the southern edge of the base expansion area.

The map from the environmental report (above) shows the original Johnson Valley OHV Area outlined in yellow, with the shaded area outlined in blue constituting the new base expansion, and the dark shaded areas in the south are the portion of the base expansion that will be open to the pulic for ten months of the year.
The Department of Defense impact report notes that there are still six other OHV areas in the region, totalling 169 square miles of public lands, which are in addition to thousands of miles of open OHV routes throughout the desert.

Desert Tortoise in Jeopardy...Again
According to the final environmental review, the Marine Corps' preferred alternative would require the displacement, injury, or death of at least 645, and as many as 3,769 desert tortoises -- the official reptile of the State of California and an endangered species. Based on the environmental review, it appears much of the most sensitive habitat lies in the eastern portion of the Johnson Valley, where OHV use may have caused less damage to the ecosystem compared to the western portion.  Some of the habitat hosting higher densities of tortoises will be used for training exercises that involve significant amounts of ground disturbance, according to a map released with the environmental review.

Although the Marine Base will relocate tortoises to "special use areas" where disturbance will be minimized, past translocations of tortoises after Fort Irwin conducted a similar base expansion resulted in many of the tortoises dying within two years of being relocated. The Marine Base expansion is just one of many significant projects in motion, or being proposed, that are likely to significantly challenge the recovery of the desert tortoise.

The failure of translocation as a "mitigation" strategy,  the loss of tortoise habitat, and the loss of genetic connectivity between tortoise populations has concerned desert conservationists, but there does not appear to be any relief in sight.   The Bureau of Land Mananagement (BLM) has authorized 34 square miles of desert solar projects and associated transmission lines, while there are 247 square miles of proposed solar projects still pending in the California desert, many of them on lands within the tortoise's range.   Meanwhile, wind energy companies are exploring development options on nearly 700 square miles of desert habitat. 

With so much desert habitat put in harms way, and so many more proposed destructive projects, it's clear that the Department of Interior should be considering seriously considering conservation alternatives that take an equally hard look at how to maintain a sustainable ecosystem in our southwestern deserts.

Public Comment
You can submit public comments on the final environmental impact statement for the Marine Corps base expansion by following this link

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