The Army plans to bolster its simulated war zone in the Mojave Desert and ask Congress to extend its nearly two-decade hold on roughly 110,000 acres of surrounding public land, saying some environmental harm will result as it prepares “to fight adversaries who are our military peers or near-peers.”
In a draft report dated May 21 by Fort Irwin and Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. — the military base’s “environmental consultant,” according to the draft appendices — two plans are proposed with major implications for the Army’s 753,537-acre National Training Center.
Each proposal is framed in an “environmental impact” assessment, alongside alternative plans the report says were also considered but ultimately dismissed. The Army is accepting public comments on the draft report through Tuesday, and aiming to release a final report in the fall.
The report suggests substantial new military spending at the High Desert base, with an eye on the potential of future battles on a scale not seen since World War II.
“The Army is shifting its focus from fighting irregular warfare or insurgencies to preparing to fight adversaries who are our military peers or near-peers,” the report states.
Each proposal to meet this shift in focus, the report states, is likely to create or worsen “moderate, adverse, and long-term” effects on some elements of the surrounding ecosystem, including air quality, wildlife and vegetation, and soils and paleontology.
In the case of wildlife and vegetation, the draft report defines a “moderate” impact as:
- “Activities would cause readily observable changes to numbers of vegetation or wildlife; however, there would be no expected effect on populations or the effects on federally listed species would not jeopardize a population.
- Activities would noticeably affect habitat quality and integrity.
- Activities would allow for the propagation or spread of some non-native plant and wildlife pest species.”
Yet, relative to what it calls “necessary changes” at Fort Irwin, the report says these and other environmental harms will likely be “less than significant” — citing clean-up protocols for military trainees, potential harm if land is returned to public use and unsalvageable environmental damage that already exists.
Climate change was “eliminated from further analysis” in the environmental assessment because it “would not have the potential for noticeable or measurable effects” no matter what plans are pursued, the report states.
“Training activities would not be affected by climate change at current projections for the Mojave Desert, an estimated to be an increase of 3.4 to 5.4 degrees Celsius by 2100,” it says, citing an expected temperature rise that translates to between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 80 years.
The first proposal is for myriad upgrades to infrastructure and technology across “all warfighting functions” throughout the National Training Center, which the Army uses to simulate real-life combat for trainees on monthly rotations.
When rotational trainees aren’t using the sprawling battlefield, “Home station units, other DoD branches (Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force), National Guard, Reserve, and law enforcement may use the training areas to accomplish mission essential training,” according to the Army-Jacobs report.
Upgrades proposed in the report include an expansion of firepower throughout Fort Irwin that would allow military trainees to “simultaneously use live ammunition over the entire battlefront.”
The report also proposes expansions to the scope of heavy-duty war machines across the training center. It offers one example of a desired training exercise in which “a tank platoon would confront an enemy tank unit of the same size (or echelon) in an open battlefield.” Similar expansions would occur in a proposal to build new arming and refueling stations for military aircraft “throughout the length of the battlefield.”
The Army also plans to implement new radar systems and overhaul its communications systems throughout the training center by “leveraging current and future technologies.”
Another proposed infrastructure upgrade is the construction of new “chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear training facilities,” which the military shortens to CBRN. The Army-Jacobs report says these facilities “can be built underground, above ground, or in bunkers” throughout the training center.
“The equipment used is inert and not operational,” the report states. “CBRN training facilities are secluded and masked to prevent them from being easily detected by the training unit.”
The report’s second proposal ties into its first: The Army will ask Congress to pass a 25-year extension of its temporary claim to roughly 110,000 acres of public land in the High Desert, “or place the land under the permanent control of the Army,” the report states.
A few months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the “Fort Irwin Military Land Withdrawal Act of 2001.” The law withdrew three large chunks of public desert from Bureau of Land Management control and temporarily gave the military all land and mineral rights to each area.
The military’s claim to these rights was originally set to be terminated 25 years after its enactment. Now, the Army-Jacobs report says “a continuing need for the land” exists to implement the planned upgrades at Fort Irwin.
Concerns over the tie between climate change and U.S. military bases, specifically in the High Desert, aren’t new. In April 2019, under a mandate from Congress, the Department of Defense produced a report ranking the 10 bases of each military branch most “vulnerable to weather effects.”
The reported listed Fort Irwin as the Army’s second most-threatened base – behind only Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona – with “desertification” and “drought” being the two primary drivers of such threats at Fort Irwin.
Some experts see an urgent need to not only prevent future harm to natural ecosystems, but to start proactively preserving them on a mass scale — specifically in the High Desert.
“Here in the California desert, we have a relatively intact ecosystem on a global scale,” Jim André, director of Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, told the Daily Press. “It’s as high-quality in terms of desert-species diversity as most deserts left on the planet.”
André, whose primary focus is on rare plant-life, gave credence to the Army-Jacobs report’s statement that returning Fort Irwin’s post-9/11 land claim to the BLM for public use could lead to environmental harm from the private sector. He referenced a rising push for lithium mining and solar energy as rising threats to natural ecosystems.
But the U.S. military is engaged in its own push for those resources, and has the mining rights to do it on the public land that it currently claims in the High Desert.
Regardless of the source of environmental harm, André says his biggest concern is the loss of entire populations in the natural world before humanity has even learned they exist.
“In no place in the U.S. are we discovering species at a faster rate than in the California desert, and about 15% of the plants are still undescribed,” he said. “So when you see a major project, such as a big solar site or a big military expansion into an area, there’s a problem there. Because we don’t know what we’re going to impact.”
Charlie McGee covers the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities for the Daily Press. He is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.