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Marines seek public comments to proposed land expansion

12 Apr 2011 | Gunnery Sgt. Sergio Jimenez

To meet tomorrow’s challenges, Marines must train as they fight. To do this, the Combat Center must expand to be able to meet large-scale, combined-arms, live-fire and maneuver training requirements conducted by a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and its supportive elements, which can be as large as 20,000 personnel.

These were two key messages Marines and civilian personnel relayed to the public as they sought input during three public comment meetings held in the local communities of Joshua Tree, Ontario and Victorville April 12-14, 2011.

The meetings were part of a Department of the Navy effort on behalf of the Marine Corps to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to study alternatives to acquire training lands and establish airspace to expand the Combat Center boundary, according to a Marine Corps release.

The meetings were organized by a Marine Corps land acquisition public liaison team, composed of Marines, civilians, and Bureau of Land Management personnel, and in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration. Liaison officials described the meeting as a “respectful” and “cordial” exchange of information between the Marine Corps, private citizens, local, state, and national government officials, various off-road enthusiast groups, environmentalists and other stakeholders.

Attendees were asked to comment the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, a report released Feb. 25, which analyzes the impacts six land acquisition and associated airspace establishment alternatives, will have on affected stakeholders and 13 resource areas to the north, south, east and west of the installation.

The Draft EIS is undergoing a 90-day public comment period that ends May 26. According to an official Marine Corps statement, this period is double the 45 days required by law. According to officials, a total of 654 people attended the three public meetings and provided 368 written and 44 verbal comments. Comments may be made on the Internet at http://www.marines.mil/unit/29palms/las.

Following the public comment period, updates to the Draft EIS will be made and a Final EIS will be published January 2012. After a 30-day wait period that allows for public review of the Final EIS, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy will choose an alternative and issue a Record of Decision to be published in the Federal Register in April 2012. The chosen alternative will be submitted to Congress for a final decision.

During the public meetings, the public liaison team, composed of several dozen Marines and civilians, answered questions and addressed stakeholder concerns using 26 color posters at eight stations, set up in a circular pattern in an open house format. Officials designed the layout to make it as easy as possible for the maximum number of attendees to ask questions about their specific concerns and to submit comments on the spot.

The posters used visually appealing images and graphics to present detailed information and mitigation efforts and impacts on subjects such as biological and cultural resources, air quality, recreation, economic factors, noise impacts, public health and safety. 

Stacks of comment sheets were placed on tables in the center of the room, several computer terminals were provided for online comments, and even a stenographer was available to take oral comments. The comment system also allows for comments submitted in foreign languages.

The subject matter experts informed the public on the Marine Corps’ mission and role in the process and helped translate military-speak found in the Draft EIS, such as their requirement for “a minimum of three maneuver corridors for a ground combat element comprised of three battalions that are simultaneously maneuvering for 48-72 hours with combined-arms live fire and the accompanying special-use airspace,” into layman’s terms.

The Marines were also there to speak directly to the public about the importance of realistic training based on their personal experience.

“Combat requires detailed coordination between hundreds of intricate moving parts,” said Gunnery Sgt. Michael A. Lamar, a member of the public liaison team. “This forces the commander to focus not just on the mission, but on the logistics that support that mission. If you don’t have the beans, bullets and bandages when you get to the fight, you won’t be successful,” he said.

“Lack of coordination on the battlefield can have another, more significant impact,” said Lamar. “It’s an environment where you only get one chance to get it right, and where getting it wrong, can have deadly consequences.

Throughout our history, Marines have been successful, in large part, because of our ability to destroy our enemy’s will to fight by using tactics and techniques developed through the coordination of combined arms and an overwhelming force,” said Lamar. “The realistic training available at the Combat Center enables us to practice this art in a safe setting before we deploy.”

Bottom line, many lives and towns are saved when the enemy has no desire to fight, he said.

Many opponents of the expansion in attendance told the Marines, that although they have a deep and sincere respect for the military, they remain adamant in their opposition to any proposal that takes large portions of their recreational land.

Opposition by some groups is understandable and expected, said Stephan Lomax, a range safety inspector at the Combat Center and member of the public liaison team. The Marine Corps welcomes all constructive comments to find an alternative that balances the needs of the Marine Corps and the affected residents and groups.

In fact, “Alternative Six” was created in response to the nearly 20,000 comments received from interested stakeholders at the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) public scoping meetings held in December 2008, said Lomax.

As a result, this is currently the Marine Corps’ preferred alternative because it accommodates continued public access to about 40,000 acres in the West Study Area for 10 months out of the year when Marines are not using the area during two months of MEB training, he said.

Although many attendees said they appreciated the time and effort the Marines took to present their analysis, many vocal opponents, such as small business owners, came to have their voices heard.

“I want to make sure we can preserve what we can, because the Johnson Valley OHV [Off Highway Vehicle] area is very important to the off-road community,” said Tony Pellegrino, who owns an off-road vehicle parts company in Simi Valley, Calif.  Pellegrino also said he has “great” concerns about the negative economic impact he claims the expansion will have on his and other businesses. “That’s why many of us want the expansion to head out east instead of out here.”

Some residents who own land near the study areas said they are anxious about any drop in property values that may result by any real or perceived increase in noise and deterioration in air quality. Some environmentalists and other natural biological and culture resources groups, attended to laud the Marine Corps for their preservation efforts, and to hear how officials will mitigate any possible negative impacts on these resources if land expansion is approved.

Meeting organizers said although great efforts went into addressing these and other concerns in the Draft EIS, they were very interested in public comments on how they could do better and for ideas on possible solutions in areas of disagreement.

In general, many opponents agreed with Pellegrino, and were against expansion to the west, claiming it will have negative impacts to the off-highway vehicle community. Most opponents favored Alternative Three and expansion to the east, while some stakeholder groups indicated modification of Alternate Six boundaries may reduce opposition to that alternative.

Overall, officials hailed the public meetings as a success and said they appreciated the attendees’ respectful tone, their openness and willingness to seek a balanced alternative.

Finding a solution is critical to organizers, who cite a Center for Naval Analysis study, which found that the Combat Center is currently the only place in the nation capable of supporting large scale live fire exercises.

Expansion of the Combat Center is the best way to ensure Marines are trained as they fight, said Lamar. The installation already has the organization, infrastructure and the capability limited only by space.

“More than 90 percent of the Marines deploying to combat receive pre-deployment training at the Combat Center,” he told an off-road enthusiast at the Alternative Six station.

Communication and collaboration is the key, said Lamar. This is why the most important message his team sent out at each of the three meetings was “Please provide us with your comments before you leave.”

Public comments give the community an important and necessary voice in the process. “Your comments will help us provide the most accurate analysis to Congress and the President,” Lamar said to a young off-road enthusiast. “They will make the final decision.” 

For more information on the Draft EIS and Land Acquisition/Airspace Establishment Study please visit the official website at http://www.marines.mil/unit/29palms/las/.

Editor’s note: Cpl. M. C. Nerl contributed to this story.

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