The Bureau of Land Management on Monday announced the approval of the Marine Corps' bid to use a swath of desert stretching from Twentynine Palms to Yuma, Ariz., for a two-week exercise, but environmentalists are worried about potential destruction of tortoises and plants.
The exercise, dubbed Desert Scimitar '02, will test the Marine Corps' ability to move large numbers of troops and vehicles over terrain similar to the Middle East while maintaining necessary communications. An estimated 600 vehicles and 2,700 Marines will be involved in a trek of about 175 miles.
"The BLM is proud to provide the public lands for use in these efforts [toward] maintaining our nation's security," said Jim Kenna, Palm Springs-South Coast field officer manager.
Under restrictions imposed by the federal land bureau and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Marine Corps must ensure that desert tortoises and other vulnerable reptiles and plants are not run over by Humvees, armored personnel carriers, 5-ton trucks and other vehicles.
Also, the Marines will not be allowed to do any nighttime maneuvers, engage in live or simulated firing, or venture off established roads and paths during the exercise, set for April 22 to May 3.
Last year, when the Marines staged a similar but smaller exercise in the desert, enlisted personnel were trained as tortoise watchers and stickers were applied to vehicles: "Notify Monitors if You Find a Tortoise."
But Daniel Patterson, a desert biologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, is concerned that dust from 600 vehicles may prove detrimental to plants and animals in the desert.
Desert tortoises are known to have a delicate respiratory system. Also, new research suggests that desert plants are more vulnerable than previously thought to dust, Patterson said.
"It isn't enough to say, 'Hey, no tortoises will be run over,'" Patterson said.
"The long-term degradation to habitat from 600 vehicles could be enormous."
The dispute between environmentalists and the military over the latter's impact on the desert tortoise is one of the most contentious in the California desert.
Also on Monday, a team of researchers from the University of Redlands announced the receipt of a $4-million grant from the Department of Defense to study the desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert.
The Army has proposed expanding its Fort Irwin National Training Center in the high desert, but environmentalists have disagreed with the Pentagon over what impact the expansion would have on the tortoise.
"Our role is to provide good science," said Jill S. Heaton, desert tortoise project manager at the university. "We're an outside player, a third party with no stake in which way it goes."