It hardly seems a fair fight: the U.S. Marine Corps versus a 40-acre patch of Idaho potatoes.
When the Marines went looking for somewhere to build housing for enlisted personnel at Camp Pendleton, they thought they found a dandy site on the western portion of the 125,800-acre base.
It was isolated from the heavy training areas and the firing ranges where 500-pound bombs are routinely dropped. It was removed from the base airport, the watershed area, the federally protected habitat for endangered species, and the grazing grounds of the base buffalo herd.
In fact, there did not seem to be any legal or logistical problem with the site. Its only use for decades had been for farming.
Under leases dating back to the early days of the base in the 1940s, local farmers have been allowed to grow vegetables, flowers and potatoes on 1,700 acres.
Of those, the potatoes proved to be the most politically potent. In the skirmish that followed, the Marine Corps learned that howitzers and tanks are often no match for political clout.
After farmers were notified last spring that their leases might not be renewed, Camp Pendleton received 30 inquiries from agribusiness-sensitive members of Congress. Leading the charge was Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Pendleton potatoes, it turned out, are vital to the $350-million-a-year Idaho potato industry, which grows one of every four potatoes eaten in this country.
Under a contract with the Idaho Crop Improvement Assn., a San Clemente farming concern grows a test batch of Idaho potatoes each winter on a frost-free site at Pendleton.
The potatoes are tested for insect and disease problems, in time for Idaho farmers to certify that their seed potatoes for next spring are healthy. "Without Camp Pendleton, Idaho potatoes could disappear," said association official Colleen Thompson.
Meetings were held at the Pentagon between members of Congress, farm lobbyists and top brass from the Marine Corps. The story was front-page news in Idaho for months.
When William A. Ball paid a courtesy call to Symms' office after being nominated as secretary of the Navy, Symms grilled him on the Pendleton potato patch.
"Sen. Symms is a former Marine, and he's 100% supportive of the Marine Corps mission at Camp Pendleton," said Symms' aide, Trent Clark. "But given the importance of the potato certification, he felt the Marine Corps could continue to find room on that huge base."
When the battle was over, Ball had won confirmation from the Senate and a compromise on the potatoes had been reached.
The potatoes will remain at Pendleton, the housing will be relocated slightly, and the acreage given over to flowers will be reduced.
"It was a learning experience for us all," said Brig. Gen. Richard Huckaby, the quiet-spoken Texan who is the commanding general at Camp Pendleton.
Huckaby likes to tell the potato story to illustrate two facts of life at the sprawling base:
First, that everybody seems to have a proposed use for Camp Pendleton for something other than training Marines for combat. And second, that the Marine Corps' control over the base is much more precarious than the public imagines.
"You can't condemn federal property, but you sure as hell can put a lot of public pressure on us to concede," said Lt. Col. Ray Spears, Pendleton's community planning and liaison officer, a kind of flak-catcher who fields requests to use Pendleton for non-military activities.
The military term is encroachment, and it's a growing concern for military bases throughout the country as suburban sprawl reaches out toward once-isolated bases such as Pendleton.
Spears' job was created two years ago as part of a command structure that has officers at all bases watching for encroachment pressures and then meeting regularly to discuss common problems.
In the age of NIMBY--Not In My Back Yard--Camp Pendleton is a tempting target, located between two fast-growing residential areas.
"It's very easy for surrounding communities in Orange and San Diego counties to see Camp Pendleton as the logical place to put things that would arouse public opposition in their own neighborhoods," said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad).
At latest count, Pendleton's official list of "encroachment pressures" enumerates 56 items that restrict, or threaten to restrict, the use of Pendleton as a training base.
Some are things that are on base now and want to remain--like the farm leases, the state park near San Mateo Creek, and the San Onofre nuclear plant.
Also included on the list are noise complaints, electromagnetic interference from surrounding communities, and the presence of poachers, scavengers and illegal aliens.
Hunk of Base Targeted
The most exotic portion of the list, however, is given over to ideas put forth for a hunk of the base.