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Activists Criticize Plan to Expand Ft. Irwin

Environment: Army base will add 200 square miles to its training center. Opponents say parcel set aside for endangered desert tortoise is insufficient.


RIVERSIDE — After two years of negotiations, officials announced Thursday that Ft. Irwin will expand into more than 200 square miles of desert land. But environmentalists are charging that the plan--described by backers as a "win-win" agreement--amounts to a death knell for threatened desert tortoises.

Ft. Irwin, an Army base in the San Bernardino County desert between Barstow and Death Valley National Park, has been planning to expand since the mid-1980s, but the desert tortoise issue has blocked repeated attempts.

An agreement announced Thursday afternoon allows Ft. Irwin's National Training Center to expand to the south. The base, already one of the largest Army training centers in the nation, wants the room to allow for a variety of operations, including battlefield exercises designed to test and incorporate new weapons and strategies.

The pact--made between the Army and the U.S. Department of Interior, and announced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands)--sets aside land on the fort's southeastern side for the desert tortoise habitat.

"Training and retraining is absolutely vital if we are going to be the force for peace that we strive to be," Lewis said. "I'm very comfortable that we have dealt with the environmental problem."

Many environmentalists disagree.

Though the agreement requires the Army to realign its training area to the southwest to avoid what may be the tortoise's best remaining habitat in California, environmentalists object that it sets aside just 10 square kilometers of land for the tortoise.

The agreement appears to dismiss the findings of a panel of environmental experts that the Army itself commissioned last year. That panel determined that if the Army expanded the Training Center, more than 2,000 square miles of the Mojave Desert should be reserved for the desert tortoise.

Even that recommendation came grudgingly--most on the panel said Ft. Irwin should not expand at all, because the tortoise's survival is more in doubt than ever.

"They are totally ignoring the best available science," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist at the headquarters of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

"They are ignoring their own scientists, and they are ignoring reality. This is a death warrant for the tortoise and an unmitigated disaster for the tortoise's best habitat left in the west Mojave."

Major Rob Ali, spokesman for the National Training Center, declined to respond to those charges, saying only that "we're pleased with the agreement and we're grateful for the leadership involved."

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