Hammers 'isn't just a race'

Organizers fear the end of K.O.H. if Marines move in

By KYLE GLASER
FOR THE LEADER

Nearly 30,000 people from all over the country are expected to stream into Johnson Valley this week for nine days of racing, concerts and other activities as part of the prestigious 2013 Griffin King of the Hammers off-road race.

The grueling contest — promoted as “the ultimate desert race” — features more than 300 drivers competing in a combination of cross-desert racing and rock crawling on the famed Hammer trails, so named for the pounding they put on a vehicle. It all happens in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, one of the premier destinations in the country for off-road racing and outdoor enthusiasts.

The race is the culmination of a weeklong series of events, which includes other races and activities. Means Dry Lake becomes a makeshift city known as “Hammertown,” constructed every year to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors. The local economies of Johnson Valley, Lucerne Valley and the rest of the High Desert receive a substantial boost as a result of the race and the crowd it draws.

The main event on Friday will likely mark yet another success on the part of thousands of volunteers who make the event happen.

It may also mark one of the last times the race ever happens.

End of the road?

Several years ago, the U.S. Marine Corps announced plans to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. The Marines’ preferred plan is a westward expansion, which would take over the vast majority of the Johnson Valley OHV area, including areas used for racing, camping and recreational off-roading in addition to historic mining sites.

With most of the OHV area completely under military control and permanently closed to civilians, there would be little space for the King of the Hammers or the other races. While some of the land would be reserved for shared use, race organizers say the area is not large enough to host the race in its current form and spectating would be severely restricted.

“There is no other place on the planet where we can do what we do here,” said Dave Cole, the executive director of Hammerking Productions, which puts on the race. “This is the largest OHV area in the country. There’s no areas with the diverse area of topography — open desert and rocks and canyons and buttes. There’s no place left that has all of those things in one place.”

After years of revisions, studies and debate, the expansion is close to becoming a reality. The Marines’ final expansion plan still needs to be approved by the secretary of the Navy and the Department of the Interior, then sent to Congress and eventually signed by the president. USMC Capt. Nicholas Mannweiler, the public affairs officer for the combat center, wrote in an email reply to the Daily Press that the Marines “intend to begin training on newly acquired lands by early 2014.”

Locals protesting expansion

Local residents and race enthusiasts have fought the plan vociferously. The California Motorized Recreation Council has hired lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to fight against the expansion and has collected more than 25,000 signatures on a petition that will be sent to the White House.

Harry Baker is the chairman of the Partnership for Johnson Valley, a group formed to oppose the expansion, and has led the efforts to fight the expansion and get the petition signed.

“The aim is just to get the executive branch of the government aware of the situation,” Baker said. “Hopefully it will become a blip on the president’s radar so that when Congress sends him the bill, then he may weigh in on the side of his constituents, which are us.”

The petitioners’ main point of contention is that the Marine Corps should expand the base eastward, where there are fewer residents or areas used by civilians.

Baker said his group has presented the Marine Corps with plans to expand east and to other areas. He said the Marines have turned down the alternative plans every time.

“Our goal is to keep the Marines from expanding into Johnson Valley because it will displace the recreationalists and have a terrible impact on the local economies,” Baker said. “Our goal would be to stop the expansion and I don’t think the Marines have proven they need it.”

The optimal alternative

After years of studying lands all around the base, the Marine Corps contends that westward expansion into the Johnson Valley is, in fact, what they need.

Mannweiler listed many reasons why eastward expansion is not preferable.

Marine Corps armored vehicles could not traverse a dry lake bed to the east. The layout of the land is not conducive to what they need. It would be considerably more expensive because private businesses in the area, gas lines, railroad tracks and other infrastructure would have to be shut down. The presence of Amboy Road complicates their ability to conduct exercises freely.

“Alternative 3 (eastward expansion) does not BEST meet the operational requirements of the Marine Corps,” Mannweiler wrote in his email reply.

It was determined that expansion into Johnson Valley, known as Alternative 6, does not have nearly as many roadblocks from the Marines’ perspective and would allow them to conduct exercises more easily.

The final environmental impact statement conducted by the Marines stated that, “Alternative 6 is the optimal alternative given both the operational and environmental impact factors considered together. Consequently, Alternative 6 is the Marine Corps’ preferred alternative.”

Alternative 6 includes a scenario in which the King of the Hammers could still operate, but Cole and other organizers expressed doubt that the event could actually continue.

‘A ghost town’

According to a study by Hammerking Productions in 2011, visitors spent an estimated total of $1.8 million in the High Desert area during the event.

The increased military presence, combined with the economic hit the area would take if the race ends, makes for bleak future prospects, in Cole’s mind.

“Johnson Valley would be a ghost town,” he said. “It would dry up and go away.”

Individual businesses, already hit hard by the Great Recession, expect to lose a significant chunk of their revenue if the Marine Corps takes the land and ends the race and off-road recreation.

Linda Gommel, CEO of the company that owns Lucerne Valley Market and Hardware, conducted a study in 2009 that determined that business from off-roaders accounted for 4.2 percent of their sales for the entire year. Gommel said that figure is even higher now, and the loss of that revenue could lead to the store eventually closing.

“It’s already very difficult, and you take the racing away and I’d say its on the negative side of prospects for survival,” Gommel said. “Most of us think the area would just slowly die.”

Enlisting help

In large part because of the potential impact on local economies, residents have turned to their representative, Congressman Paul Cook.

Cook is a former Marine who was stationed at Twentynine Palms, but Baker said that after taking Cook on a tour of Johnson Valley and the Hammer trails, he believes Cook is on the side of those who want to keep the OHV area open.

“He supports us,” Baker said. “He does not think the Marines have proven their point and do not need to expand.”

Cook’s offices had not responded to requests for comment by Friday.

Even with the petition, the lobbyists and possible support from local legislators such as Cook, there is no guarantee the base expansion will be stopped.

Locals are holding out hope, but they are prepared for the expansion and are taking stock of what they stand to lose.

“It’s a way of life,” Cole said. “This is where we come to recreate with our family. This is our lifestyle. It’s not just off-roaders, it’s the rock hounds and the local community. The race isn’t just a race. It’s way bigger than that.”

Kyle Glaser can be reached at kglaser@vvdailypress.com or at (760) 951-6274.