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Key U.S. lawmaker opposes Navy takeover of California's Johnson Valley riding area

April 19, 2013

PICKERINGTON, Ohio -- In a blow to U.S. Navy efforts to expand a military base into the popular Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle riding area in Southern California, a key federal lawmaker is offering a proposal to block the effort, the American Motorcyclist Association reports.

The Department of the Navy wants to expand a Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., into Johnson Valley. But U.S. Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.), who represents the area, said on April 19 that he would offer a proposal to designate Johnson Valley as a national off-highway vehicle recreation area, protecting it from a Navy takeover.

The bill also would authorize limited military use of the area.

"The training of the U.S. Marine Corps is vital to the safety of the American people, and the exercises taking place on the Twentynine Palms base enable our Marine forces to defend our nation and its allies throughout the world," Cook said. "However, I can't support the expansion plan offered by the Marine Corps, which would hand them ownership of Johnson Valley. Marine Corps ownership would prevent many public-space activities, including big public off-highway events like King of the Hammers, from taking place. Off-roaders and other users of Johnson Valley make huge contributions to the economic well-being of the Morongo Valley, and losing that revenue during slow economic times would be devastating.

"Protecting the Marine Corps' budget is extremely important to me, and I believe the funds set aside for purchasing this land for the Marine Corps could be put to better use," Cook said.

"Instead, I'm authoring a plan that would create the Johnson Valley National Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area and keep the land in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management. Marine training could still take place at specific times, but only with agreement by the Bureau of Land Management and only at times that would not interfere with the many off-highway motor vehicle events in the area," he said.

The military hopes to begin training on the Johnson Valley land next year. But it will be up to Congress to decide whether the base can expand.

A coalition of groups is working to stop the Navy takeover of Johnson Valley, including the California Motorized Recreation Council, which is a non-profit association that includes the leadership of the largest off-highway vehicle recreation organizations in California. CMRC membership includes the Off-Road Business Association, California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs Inc., California Off-Road Vehicle Association, the AMA, American Sand Association, California-Nevada Snowmobile Association, AMA District 36 (Northern California, Northwestern Nevada) and AMA District 37 (Southern California) Off-Road.

In July 2012, the Navy released a final environmental impact statement for the expansion of the Marine Corps base. Under the Navy's plan, it would allow public use of only about 40,000 acres of the 190,000-acre Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area, and for only 10 months a year.

The Navy began the formal process several years ago to take over some 365,906 acres of public land near San Bernardino to use for live-fire training for the Marines, including Johnson Valley. At that time, the Navy filed an application with the U.S. Interior Department seeking control of the public land under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

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