Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. --
Josh Hurley and Stina Jacobson bonded over broken glass and rusty old cans Saturday, sharing life stories as they filled bag after bag with trash at Section 33 in Joshua Tree.
The 21-year-old private from Indiana who never saw the desert before arriving at the Combat Center a few weeks ago to attend classes at the Marine Corps Communication Electronics School and the Joshua Tree resident who loves seeing native plants and animals during her regular evening walks were among 200 Marines, sailors and civilians who spent their morning cleaning up the 623-acre site.
“We’re a good team,” he said. “He’s a nice guy,” she said. “I like working with the Marines.”
Together, volunteers collected three tons of trash that ranged from broken tile, clay pigeons and shotgun shells to weathered kids’ toys and discarded clothing.
Celebrating the planet, partnerships
The cleanup was organized for Earth Day and to celebrate the partnership that allowed land that was once targeted for a 2,400 home development and used as illegal dumping ground for years to be preserved indefinitely in its natural state.
Section 33, which lies just south of Twentynine Palms Highway between La Contenta Road and Joshua Tree Memorial Park, was purchased by the Mojave Desert Land Trust for $1.4 million in conjunction with the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, The Trust for Public Land and the California Wildlife Conservation Board.
The Marine Corps’ participation in the project was made possible through REPI — the Department of Defense’s Readiness Environmental Protection Initiative. REPI allows for Congress-authorized cost sharing partnerships between the armed forces, private conservation groups and state and local governments. Conserved lands benefit communities by preserving wildlife habitat and linkages near installations and ranges where the military operates, tests and trains.
“This is not only good for our community but directly supports the mission of the Combat Center,” said Jim Ricker, assistant chief of staff, Community Plans Liaison Office.
Ricker, who worked closely with MDLT Executive Director Nancy Karl and others involved in the project, said preserving Section 33 is a win-win for the Morongo Basin.
“This area lies directly under a heavily utilized designated helicopter route. As part of the REPI program, other than flying over this area, the Marine Corps will never train here,” he said. “Our kids and their kids will always have this area to enjoy what we enjoy today. Some may ask why would the Marine base be involved in land conservancy? Retired Maj. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert summed it up very succinctly: ‘A country worth defending is a country worth preserving.’”
Completed in 2012, Section 33 was the Combat Center’s second REPI project. The 2010 Quail Mountain REPI project, completed in 2010, preserved 955 acres of pristine desert tortoise habitat in the Joshua Tree Highlands adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. That land also lies under airspace used by helicopters coming to and from the installation.
United for a cause
Karl was ecstatic as she watched 67 Marines stream off two Morongo Basin Transit Authority buses Saturday morning.
“This is fantastic. This is fantastic,” she said as the young men and women from the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadrons 1 and 3, Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment and 1st Tank Battalion headed toward a check-in table set up by Armed Services YMCA staff and volunteers who handed them gloves and bright red T-shirts.
MBTA partnered with the land trust to provide transportation for the single Marines and sailors who volunteered for the cleanup. An additional 33 service members and their families drove themselves to the site.
“This is a perfect example of collaboration between federal agencies, private organizations and public support,” Karl said, noting that the cleanup was the land trust’s largest volunteer event to date. “We’re able to protect this land, restore it and offer it back to the public.”
After Karl welcomed and thanked volunteers that included two captains and two firefighter from CalFire in Yucca Valley, they were given a safety brief, then MDLT board President Curt Sauer addressed the enthusiastic crowd.
“It’s a little early, but happy Mother Earth Day,” the retired Joshua Tree National Park superintendent said. “We’re helping preserve a real old lady. I want to say thank you to all of you for what you’re doing today and I want to say thank you to the Marines for all you do every day.”
Bob Johnson, MCAGCC community plans program manager, thanked the crowd on behalf of Combat Center commanding general Maj. Gen. David H. Berger, then volunteers divided into five groups and posed for a group photo taken by MDLT volunteer Vera Topinka before fanning out into the open desert to began cleaning.
A day of discovery
Cpl. Bobby Kesler, a North Dakota native who discovered Joshua Tree National Park shortly after arriving in Twentynine Palms three weeks ago to serve with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, jumped at the chance to participate after learning about the cleanup.
“I like to do a lot of hiking, and (the park) gave me a free pass,” he said. “I thought this would be a good way to give back to the community.”
Saturday was a day of discovery for Kessler and for many of the service members on site.
Pfc. Benjamin Livingston and Pfc. Kristopher Hammond, both of MCCES, made what was likely the strangest find of the day — a bag of clams.
“Who would drive all the way out in the desert to throw away a bag of clams?” Livingston asked before the pair moved on, laughing as they scoured the desert for more finds.
Picking up an aftershave bottle that had seen better days, Livingston tossed it into the bag Hammond held open.
“It’s so hot even the desert can’t handle it,” he joked.
Pvt. Michael Guillard and Pvt. Mason Beasley, also from the communication-electronics school, hung onto one of their finds, a photograph of a family dated 1955, in hopes they might find the owners.
The two men, both newcomers to the desert, also learned what those big, spiky trees dotting the landscape were called. “Joshua trees,” they echoed, looking closely at the community’s namesakes. “That’s what it’s named after.”
Following the three-hour cleanup, volunteers again congregated near the check-in booths, sharing stories for a few minutes before the Marines boarded the buses and headed back to the Combat Center.
As Karl stood next to the lead bus, shaking hands and saying “thank you” over and over, Sauer summed up the day.
“One of the most amazing partnerships MDLT has is with the USMC,” he said. “It was stunning to see this many people out here. It was an opportunity for the community to learn more about the Marines and for the Marines to learn more about the community.”
"As you look around today, it is so awesome to see all of the people out here working so hard to clean up this area,” he said. “Can you point out a Marine or Marine family from a community member? No, you cannot. Many of the Marines and their family members consider this their community. From coaching Little League to mentors in the local schools, this is their hometown, too.”