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Friday, March 14, 2008

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Desert Military Bases aim to expand

More High Desert land eyed for training troops

Lauren McSherry, Staff Writer

03/08/2008

http://www.sbsun.com/search/ci_8508079

Two military bases in the High Desert are undertaking expansion plans that will widen the territory used for war games crucial to training soldiers and Marines being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms has announced its intention to extend its boundaries. The process could take years.

Gunnery Sgt. Chris Cox, a public affairs officer, estimated that 50 percent of the combat center - which encompasses 932 square miles, an area about half the size of Rhode Island - is unusable.

This is because tracts of land are too mountainous, provide habitat for endangered species or are too close to civilian areas, which would be disturbed by the noise and tremors that accompany explosions.

"That's the conundrum: Where do we go? What do we do?" Cox said. "That's why it's going to take such a long time to figure out a course of action."

The extent and timeline for the expansion remains unclear.

Cox would not disclose what areas are under consideration - or even what geographical direction the expansion might take.

The problem is the base needs more space to execute training exercises, and military leaders are anticipating a future increase in Marines undergoing battlefield exercises, Cox said.

All Marines that go to Iraq are sent to the base for the monthlong "Mojave Viper" training.

The training prepares Marines for the hardships of living in the

desert, for vehicle checkpoint procedures and for combat operations.

Up to 450 Marines can participate in the training at one time, but the goal is to be able to train an entire battalion, up to 1,000 Marines, at once, Cox said.

The planning process is being led by the Defense Department and the Navy, he said.

Notices were sent to residents in July about the expansion plans, Cox said.

The expansion is necessary because it will enable training that is crucial to limiting Marine casualties in war zones, he said.

"The Marine Corps in the High Desert realizes we are part of the community," he said. "We're not in the business of keeping secrets or doing things that aren't good for our neighbors.

"At the same time, we are in the business of saving lives."

The Bureau of Land Management confirmed Friday that the combat center had not submitted an application to change its boundaries, which typically involves a review of environmental impacts.

Meanwhile, Fort Irwin is moving ahead with its expansion, which was divided into three phases.

The first phase, extending the eastern boundary to include 45,000 acres, was completed last summer, said Col. Chris Philbrick, garrison commander at Fort Irwin.

The second phase, moving the southern boundary to encompass 22,000 acres, is still undergoing environmental impact assessment, but could be complete by this fall, he said.

The third and largest phase, absorbing 65,000 acres to the west, is not expected to be complete until next year, Philbrick said.

Service members from all branches of the military are sent to the base.

Because of its size, Fort Irwin is a key training location for soldiers and Marines going to Iraq and Afghanistan, Philbrick said.

The training grounds prepare troops for communicating, planning logistics and executing combat operations over the vast geographic areas they will encounter overseas, he said.

"There's a difference between going a mile and practicing and going 100 miles," Philbrick said. "We like to use the old football analogy - you wouldn't go from the team that's at summer camp to the Super Bowl. You've got to have some training in there."

But by pushing its borders westward and southward, Fort Irwin has encountered a couple of stumbling blocks.

The military base is encroaching on areas occupied by the desert tortoise, which is federally listed as a threatened species.

The base is developing a plan to mitigate the impact on the desert tortoise.

The area is also home to the Lane Mountain milkvetch, an endangered plant species only found in the expansion area, said Ileene Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Fort Irwin's plans have raised concerns about the future of the two species, she said.

"We don't see how running tanks are going to be compatible with species conservation," she said.

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