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Senate expands public lands for training

Nov. 14, 2013 - 07:24PM   |  
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A Senate committee gave unanimous approval to expand the use of public lands for military training, passing three bills that attempt to reach agreements on conflicts involving mining, wilderness trails and private development.

The bills include major training areas such as China Lake, Chocolate Mountain and Twentynine Palms in California, Limestone Hills in Montana, and land next to White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas.

Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bills are not controversial and he expects the measures will be added to the Senate’s version of the 2014 defense authorization bill

The 18,644 acres of federal land in Montana, already in use by the military under an agreement that expires in October 2014, is used by about 3,800 Montana National Guardsmen and about 10,000 other service members, including special operations units, the Army told Congress in July.

In addition to being a good training area, it’s the site of an active limestone quarry. An existing agreement, which the Army wants to extend, requires cooperation between the mining company and the military to prevent interference and to ensure unexploded ordnance is not left in mining areas. Military officials are closely watching the bill to make sure access for miners doesn’t interfere with training.

One of the bills involves almost 50,000 acres in New Mexico, some of it already in use and some of it sought as a buffer between current training sites and private development. Part of the land covered by the bill is located adjacent to Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana tank gunnery and artillery range complex.

“Training in this location can generate significant noise, vibration and dust, which can all migrate off the installation,” Army officials told the committee. “The Army is concerned that residential and commercial development may occur in that area,” which could be avoided by creating buffers around the live-fire ranges.

In California, the Navy is seeking to renew permits to use public land near the China Lake Naval Weapons Station and Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, which are jointly used by the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. In addition to these two requests, totaling 1.6 million acres, the Navy seeks to expand the training area around the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

Navy officials said they need more land at Twentynine Palms to “train in a realistic setting, which the current installation configuration cannot provide.”

The area is popular for off-road recreation, but Navy officials said their request was crafted with public input and “preserves public access to Johnson Valley, the area prized by the off-highway vehicle recreation enthusiasts due to its unique terrain features.”■

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