Members of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, complete an Integrated Training Exercise at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Feb. 4 as part of their pre-deployment workup. A plan to expand the combat center to accommodate expeditionary brigade-size exercises has been approved. (Cpl. Sarah Dietz / Marine Corps)
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OCEANSIDE, Calif. — The Marine Corps has cleared a final hurdle in its plan to expand the premier desert warfare training center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., a senior officer said.
The "record of decision" to expand the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center was approved by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, said Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, deputy commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
"Now it's a matter of working the details (and) key consultations," Spiese said. The next step falls to Congress, which must approve the expansion before the process of transferring or purchasing land parcels, many of which are in federal hands, can begin.
An official announcement on the land acquisition was expected Wednesday, said Capt. Kendra Motz, a Marine Corps spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
The Marine Corps had expected a final decision to be issued in April 2012 after it received public comment on its 2011 draft environmental impact statement, which provided details of its plan to expand the existing combat center, which covers about 600,000 acres, or 295 square miles. But the original proposal drew strong opposition and more than 20,000 public comments, primarily from recreationalists and off-roaders who frequent the neighboring 189,000-acre Johnson Valley, a popular off-road vehicle spot for rock-crawling events, including the "King of the Hammers" competition held Feb. 8.
The Marine Corps then came up with a "preferred alternative" that would take 166,000 acres west and southeast of the combat center, a compromise that would close off about 40,000 acres of Johnson Valley to the public for about two months a year to support twice-annual brigade-level exercises starting in 2015. The combat center would issue permits for public access to the land the rest of the year.
An online petition asking the White House to intervene and stop the expansion into Johnson Valley had collected 27,735 signatures as of Tuesday.
Marine Corps officials say the land expansion is needed to provide enough room to train an expeditionary brigade-size force of 15,000 Marines, who would encounter more challenging training as they fight and move against targets across more than 50 miles of terrain. The MEB's three reinforced battalions would be supported with helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, rockets and logistical support during the training, which would culminate in a final three-day combined-arms live-fire exercise.