As Lt. Col. John Hicks, a former Harrier pilot, flew over Iraq for the first time, he thought, “This really is like the Chocolate Mountains.”
Hicks, director of operations at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, trained at the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, which consists of about 459,000 acres located within desert mountain terrain in Riverside and Imperial counties in Southern California.
“It’s crucial to the training of our pilots. It’s the only range for realistic training with live bombs,” said Hicks at an open house held Monday to review a draft Legislative Environmental Impact Statement (LEIS) and proposed alternatives.
For 70 years, the range has been used for military training, but Congress must grant permission for its continued use every 20 years, according to the California Military Lands Withdrawal and Overflight Act of 1994 (Withdrawal Act).
The current land withdrawal will expire in October 2014, and the Department of Navy has initiated the renewal processes.
The DoN-prepared draft LEIS explains the purpose and need to continue use of the range. The draft includes five alternatives, including one for not taking action.
Some of the alternatives suggest realigning the range boundary, extending or making permanent the withdrawal and assigns jurisdictions and management responsibilities for land in the range.
Right now the land is managed between the Bureau of Land Management and the DoN, resulting in a checkerboard pattern, with the every other square-mile section alternately managed by either organization. Roughly half of the range (228,465 acres) is managed by the BLM, and most of the remaining land (229,903 acres) is administered by the DoN.
The Bureau of Reclamation also manages about 162 acres. This split jurisdiction often results in “deficiencies and duplication of effort,” noted Beth Defend of URS Corporation, the contractor hired to prepare the LEIS.
The draft provides three alternatives for assigning management responsibilities. One alternative would continue the existing split while the other two would assign all management responsibility to the DoN.
In addition, one alternative would retain the current range boundary and other alternatives would release land north of the Bradshaw Trail and south of the Niland-Blythe Road that is no longer needed for military purposes and generally aligning the boundary with the Bradshaw Trail and/or a segment of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Congress has until October 2014 to take action, otherwise the withdrawal would expire. In that case, a whole new process would kick in.
“The no-action alternative would have a lot of action to it,” Defend quipped.
Noting that this range is critical to military training, Defend believes there is a “strong sense that it will be renewed.” Although she has not heard of any real protest to the renewal, there has been a couple of comments regarding limited access in connection to recreation or mining.
Some people have questioned why the range needs so much land. Defend noted that with live bombs training, the impact area must be sufficiently large for that “one-in-a-million chance” a pilot misses his target.
“Every range has a different purpose and is used in a different way,” she added. “At Chocolate Mountains, troops learn to drop live bombs. I don’t see an end in sight when they wouldn’t need the Chocolate Mountains.” Capt. Staci Reidinger agreed, noting that “this range is vital for national defense.”
She pointed out the range not only trains U.S. troops but also international forces. “Our pilots need the distance to travel. They can take off at Miramar or from a Navy ship in San Diego, fly to the Chocolate Mountains, drop their bombs and head back,” Reidinger said. In addition, the range goes “hand-in-hand” with the arrival of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to MCAS Yuma.
“With the new aircraft coming in, the Chocolate Mountains will enable training so we can get that squadron ready for deployment.” Reidinger added that the MCAS Yuma works with the BLM to ensure conservation of wildlife and range staff to ensure people aren’t in harm’s way.
“This is the bread and butter of our station,” she said. The public comment period ends Nov. 30. To comment or for more information, go to www.chocolatemountainrenewal.com.