Author: Kim Carpenter
Congressman Paul Cook (Congressional District 8 – California) was instrumental in preserving recreational access to about half of the lands known as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The United States Marine Corp had intentions of absorbing the Johnson Valley OHV area into the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms. This proposal would have essentially wiped Johnson Valley off the map for public access.
In a very unusual set of circumstances that led up to a far different process than had been expected; the four leaders of both US Senate-House Armed Services Committee offered language in an agreement on a portion of the 2014 National Defense Appropriations Act (“NDAA”) that resolved the fate of Johnson Valley.
Although there had been some initial discussions about a proposed expansion in early 2008, the Department of the Navy published a legal “Notice of Intent” to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on October 30, 2008. This set the stage for a legally defined process to move these discussions forward to a formal proposal.
Most of the motorized access groups formed a committee to disseminate information and discuss ideas that were vital to retaining Johnson Valley for public access. This group hired a professional presence in Washington DC who proved vital to interests concerned about the process. Some in this group had retained an attorney to help guide them and represent them in the legal process.
Since that date, all types of businesses, individuals, and groups participated in this process. Most all had a common goal of retaining public access to the 189,000 acre Johnson Valley. There were many administrative and political moves made by both those for (USMC) and against the proposal.
In July of 2012, Kim Carpenter attended a public forum of two candidates vying for the newly created Congressional District 8. Just prior to the forum between the top two vote getters in the primary, Ms. Carpenter approached candidate Cook and asked some point blank questions about his stance on the Johnson Valley issue. From this very initial discussion was a stage set of forming a strong relationship with the person who was eventually elected: Paul Cook.
Perhaps the pivotal moment was when Kim worked with a former president of CORVA, who brought his experience and a concept of a tour of Johnson Valley with the newly elected congressman in December of 2012. A similar concept of a tour worked very well in the day when then Senator Pete Wilson was given a tour of the then East Mojave Scenic Area, and the tour sealed his opposition to Senator Alan Cranston’s Desert Protection Act.
This tour set the wheels in motion for the newly elected congressman to introduce a legislative proposal that was a compromise between what the USMC desired while retaining the safety and continued access of those who visit Johnson Valley.
Cook’s proposal sailed through two house committees and on the floor of the House in a bi-partisan manner. The proposal was rather simple: keep public access to Johnson Valley for 10 months out of the year, and allow the USMC to train in the area for the two months out of the year they required for their mission.
Although the House voted to pass in its NDAA, the US Senate had their own version that was reported to the Senate by the Senate Armed Services Committee in June of 2013. This version did not contain language about fate of Johnson Valley.
During the summer the motorized recreation group met many times and attempted to shepherd information to key decision makers and worked closely with Cook’s staff to provide support for whatever the Congressman needed to move his legislation towards becoming the law of the land.
November became the “crunch time” for the Cook proposal. The USMC had been working overtime to lobby the US Senate that their expansion proposal was the only acceptable legislation to conduct their mission. This proposal would have essentially wipe Johnson Valley off the map for public access.
Instead of a normal Senate version of the NDAA, and a house version of the same, being voted upon by both legislative parties; a somewhat unusual process was undertaken by the leadership of both Armed Services Committees to by-pass the normal rules (utilizing a Conference Committee to settle differences in the versions) and creating a group that would make the decision with just four members.
Although the motorized recreation groups met sporadically during November (not in the weekly manner that was essentially followed for 2013), there was efforts afoot by a select few in the group to work with Cook as it became clear the normal process of moving legislation became impossible in late November; all due to the change in Senate rules regarding the use of a filibuster.
Cook was put into the awful position of having to scramble to save what he could from his bill due to the fact that 3 of the 4 members deciding the final NDAA were supporting the USMC proposal that was passed by the Senate Natural Resources Committee in a rushed manner and was in the process of being inserted into the Senate version of the NDAA.
In the end, the House/Senate agreement provided for a permanent loss of 87,697acres of public lands to the USMC; 53,231 acres of “shared use” (USMC for 60 days, and the balance for public use); and a 43,231 acre area now known as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area.
Although all in the motorized recreation group were grateful for what Cook was able to broker for the public who visits Johnson Valley, there was still a feeling of disappointment that the true compromise (Cook’s proposal) was not adopted by the House/Senate Armed Services Committee members who made the final decision.
While the public and be comforted that Congressman Cook did the very best he could for public access and safety, they still lost a great deal in the end.
Perhaps who lost the most are the businesses and the residents from Lucerne Valley to Yucca Valley. Their lives will forever impacted by the decision of two from the House of Representatives and two from the US Senate.
Some in the community want to couch this result as a “win”. There are others that disagree. Perhaps a post on Facebook summarized the opposing view best:
…”a win is when you begin GAINING ground again. Until then, you are still losing, just at a different rate.”
The public owes a debt of gratitude to Congressman Paul Cook and his staff. They, again, did the very best job they could have done to retain some access to Johnson Valley. The Congressman had the courage to take on the very institution he served for 26 plus years… the USMC. Cook fought for the public and its access to public lands instead of taking the easy approach of rolling over for the USMC.
Paul Cook is an honorable man that did the job he was elected to do: Represent the congressional district and the views of who he serves in the same.
For his efforts, Paul Cook deserves a salute from each of us.
Off Road Activist
District 37 Sportswoman of the Year 2009
CORVA Past Presidents Award 2009
CORVA Political Activism award 2013