In August 1952, dozens of men and trucks made their way to an area just north of Twentynine Palms, christened “Camp Detachment.” A local newspaper heralded the event with a headline that suggested the start of something momentous: MARINES ARRIVE.
Col. Verle E. Ludwig, who later penned a history of the area, described the place as a “weird hunk of desert where gliders once soared and Navy fliers later strafed and bombed,” in reference to its use for military training in World War II and beyond.
The wide-open spaces promised a solution to a vexing problem: As the Korean War escalated and Camp Pendleton filled with new recruits and former reserves, the Marine Corps needed more room for weapons training — simulation wouldn’t cut it. That “weird hunk” of the Mojave Desert was slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island, and there were plenty of opportunities to blow things up, far from the collection of prospectors, desert rats, and World War I veterans who populated the nearby civilian community.
By December, the Marines arrived from the Third Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, and the war games commenced. “As a live firing exercise, it was a rather stilted affair,” Ludwig wrote, but it showed that Twentynine Palms was going to be “useful,” that all the real-life experience with small arms and tanks and planes would “bring the troops to effective seasoning.”
But Ludwig’s history, and other accounts of the events of 1952, overlooked one long-term denizen of the region: the desert tortoise. No one addressed what to do when you pick up a tortoise and it urinates.
That would come later.
(Clockwise, starting top left): 1: Pens at the Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site house a population of animals the Marines are obliged to protect. 2: Biologist Brian Henen cradles a baby tortoise under his care. 3: A base policeman reclaims an errant piece of artillery because good troops pick up after themselves. 4: First you collect your military waste, then you recycle it.
strafe the target, hug the tree
Sixty-plus years after the first buildings were framed, the mission of the base at Twentynine Palms — now home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command — has evolved. The focus continues to be training, as many as 60,000 men and women every year. But there’s a growing acknowledgment that the desert ecology is fragile, that protection of natural resources is a top priority. That you don’t bomb the hell out of the landscape then ignore it.
Today, the Marines are excellent multitaskers. They conduct “relevant live-fire combined arms training” and protect threatened species and Native American artifacts; they promote “operational forces readiness” and embrace alternative energy. They’ve discovered that not only can these initiatives co-exist but they can be symbiotic: Conservation of resources makes for better warriors. And they’re eager to spread the word on their environmental efforts.
That’s why a handful of journalists, on the last day of a tightly choreographed three-day tour of the base, are standing in a parking lot in May, sweating and trying not to gag. All eyes are on “Lake Bandini,” a series of odiferous ponds that are part of the base’s waste water treatment plant.
But Chris Elliott, the water resource manager, seems oblivious to the aroma wafting over nearby commercial and residential areas of the installation. A former Marine, he is one of several civilians involved in the base’s sustainability initiatives. “This is where the magic happens,” he says, then lists impressive water-saving accomplishments.
Elliott sports a cool-cat demeanor, and sounds a little like Kevin Costner, quietly confident, with most of the rough edges smoothed out, as he talks about a 45 percent reduction in water use in the last few years. There’s no false modesty here, just fact.
The base, after all, has a not-so-secret weapon. “We are a military community,” Elliott says, with a hint of amusement in his voice. “When the commanding general says ‘corporal … you will’ … people tend to follow that direction.”
Marines follow orders. And that’s why green is the new camo.
Thousands of solar panels have helped the base generate 80 percent of its own energy.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
We begin our Twentynine Palms eco tour in a conference room where Lt. Col. Timothy Pochop, the base director of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs, and Walter Christensen, conservation branch head, give us the 30,000-foot view of the programs designed to conserve and preserve. The men are not exactly joined at the hip — Pochop is the boss — but it seems like they have a pretty good idea of what the other is about to say.
“Where are we on the desert tortoise?” a colleague asks, and Pochop plunges into the details of the conservation program that generates a lot of headlines — and controversy.
Not long ago, the Marines, who share this part of the Mojave Desert with the Gopherus agassizii, a species both threatened and beloved, announced plans to expand their training onto recently annexed land. More than 1,100 tortoises had to be moved to safer ground, on base and off. Although the Marine Corps employs experienced biologists to oversee the “translocation,” some conservation groups believe that any such move will hasten their demise.
Pochop’s gaze is direct as he responds to the question; his tone and diction hint at his many years of military service.
“Land expansion is the highest priority and translocation fits into the land expansion piece,” he says. “We are ready to go with moving the animals once our transportation plans are approved.”
If Pochop is a poster boy for the Marine Corps — buff, a little cocky, mostly disciplined, and occasionally off-script — Christensen is the scout master who talks about a “30-year commitment to monitor and research the effect of translocation on tortoises” with a reverence you might expect from someone who has just solved world hunger.
They patiently answer questions they’ve undoubtedly been asked dozens of times. Christensen gently deflects the suggestion — repeated so frequently it must qualify as urban myth — that a tortoise encounter can shut down training for hours. “The reality is, you report contact and if you can avoid … you avoid and proceed.” Otherwise, “The range patrol guys can pick it up and move it out of the way.”
Pochop mentions, almost in passing, that if a tortoise must be moved and urinates in panic, a biologist is summoned to rehydrate the animal.
His audience breaks for a credulity check.
One journalist asks if all these efforts at tortoise conservation and protection compromise the military mission. The room goes quiet. Christensen looks wounded. Pochop responds slowly, tersely: “It’s a little callous to say there’s no benefit … there is an overlap. … We need land to train and … by managing natural resources it allows us access to these training lands.”
It’s not easy to be a desert tortoise, especially during a drought, explains biologist Brian Henen from a secure tortoise facility in the field. The reptile explicator informs us that when food and water are scarce, predators like coyotes and ravens look at tortoises as sustenance.
As a threatened species, the desert tortoise is protected by a lengthy list of rules, and the translocation plan has attracted the attention of government agencies, nonprofits, and independent biologists.
Base officials are quick to cite the details of a proposed $50 million effort that not only will move the tortoises but also pay for research and monitoring over 30 years. But some biologists insist that translocation efforts will bring unacceptably high mortality. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has said that the planned move would be a “disaster,” and announced it would file suit to stop it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will review its tentative approval of the translocation plan, and the move has been postponed.
The man at the center of this maelstrom is base ecologist Henen.
As we inspect pens at the Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site (TRACRS), where hatchlings and juveniles can grow in safety, Henen revels in tortoise minutia: When a desert tortoise hisses, it’s actually exhaling as it pulls into its shell. That sound, he says, indicates the animal “is pissed.” And a pissed-off tortoise might urinate, which can lead to dehydration.
Henen cheerfully shares details about tortoise bladders and urine (clear is good; coffee color is bad). He says he doesn’t want to anthropomorphize the tortoises but it’s clear that he feels something — affection? pride? — for the reptiles as he dons gloves and plucks a 6-year-old out of its pen. “In drought years,” Henen says softly, “they do suffer.” They “eat less, they are less active, they may become dehydrated and they may die.” And death, he adds, is a failure.
Henen welcomes all questions: How long do desert tortoises live? How can you tell their age? Can sheltering them be dangerous for animals eventually released into the wild? He responds to each with equanimity. Criticisms of conservation efforts do not seem to faze him.
“In many ways,” Henen says, “humans are at the core” of the forces that are threatening the desert tortoise. And “humans are at the core of the solution. They have to be the ones to figure out how to solve some of these issues.”
Rock Art of Ages
Before the Marines and the miners and homesteaders moved in, the Twentynine Palms area was populated by indigenous peoples who left traces of a rich cultural life scattered across the desert — pictographs, petroglyphs, pottery shards, and other artifacts. Foxtrot Petroglyph Preserve, a remote place of beauty and mystery, lies in the middle of the expansive base.
Our entourage includes Marines from the public affairs office, a team of civilian conservation law enforcement officers, and a couple of civilian archeologists associated with the base. Russell Elswick is chief of the civilian law enforcement team, and as we drive past the occasional evidence of human occupation — portable potties, armored tanks, a structure that resembles a mosque — he dutifully runs down a list of federal acts that he and his crew must know and enforce. The Migratory Bird Treaty. The Airborne Hunting Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Lt. Col. Timothy Pochop is in charge of the base’s Natural Resources and Environmental initiative. He’s buff and tough, but has a sweet smile.
But when Elswick recalls encounters with the trespassers and daydreamers and criminals who have run afoul of his officers, he morphs into a uniformed Scheherazade who could tell stories all night. In a place that looks like a set for the next Mad Max movie, he happily turns the conversation to datura, a plant, he says, noted for its hallucinogenic properties and one whose potency is related to the amount of water it receives. Which is why he and his officers are on the lookout for offenders who sneak onto the base to water and cultivate plants that will produce a marketable, if dangerous, high.
Elswick and his crew have encountered illegal firearms, drug paraphernalia, scrappers, and dead bodies. It’s the desert “entrepreneurs” who populate his most memorable stories. Occasionally, Elswick explains, they have run into trespassers armed with “little mops,” he says, pausing for emphasis. “You know, little mops … with the sponges on the end.”
They are not on a sanitation mission — they are looking for lizards to collect and sell, and the mops, he says, “won’t crush them.” Elswick smiles. “There’s no need to have a mop in the desert.”
It takes at least 90 minutes to reach Foxtrot, where Native Americans carved and painted on craggy outcroppings of volcanic rocks hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago. The petroglyphs and pictographs are relatively small, and although some of them depict people and animals, the meaning of others more abstract is open to interpretation.
Staff archaeologist Tadhg Kirwan, who sports long white hair and a long white beard and looks like he could answer a casting call for a biker Santa Claus, suggests that a design with double lines could be “a measurement of time.” But he acknowledges that others “see it as something a shaman saw in his hallucinogenic state.” Ambiguity comes with the territory. “As Euro Americans,” he says, “we look at the world a lot differently than Native Americans might have.”
Kirwan mentions a pictograph nearby that some people, he says, believe depicts a woman giving birth. When the women in the group locate the figure, they affirm that belief.
The last day of our base tour is the busiest, and although some of the sites don’t have the curb appeal of a threatened species or petroglyphs carved into the remnants of a prehistoric lava flow, their operations are at the heart of the Marine Corps’ commitment to a greener future.
Two co-generation plants use natural gas to produce electricity and what managers call a “heat recovery system” to produce hot water, heat, and to chill building interiors. The operation has enabled the base to cut its utility budget nearly in half. Energy Manager Gary Morrissett says, with a straight face, “Utilities have always been fun.”
Wonks for Water
At the Archaeology and Paleontology Curation Center, we tour with Charlene Keck, an archeologist and manager of the center’s collections, then it’s on to the water treatment plant, where Chris Elliott awaits. He assures us that the water there, gathered in ponds that inspired the “Lake Bandini” nickname (in honor of the fertilizer brand), is used primarily on the base golf course after treatment. Potable water, used by the 22,000 people who live and work on the base, comes from an aquifer on the installation, a source that should be good for another 75 to 100 years, depending on how it is managed.
That management is at the heart of Elliott’s presentation. He wants us to know about the information given to base residents to conserve water in single-family residences, and a hotline residents can call to report water waste. He is steeped in the details of green space reduction, irrigation times, residential faucets, low-flow requirements, xeriscaping …
Elliott believes people will change their behavior and “want to do the right thing if we make it easy for them to do the right thing.” He is armed with a raft of figures that show the base has “blown away the executive order for water reduction.” The Marines reduced per capita water use from 75 gallons per person per day to 69.6 gallons in a 12-month period from 2013 to 2014.
Maybe it’s the refrigerator magnet reminders. Maybe it’s the orders from the commanding general. Something is working.
In one of two co-generation plants that use natural gas to produce electricity and a “heat recovery system” to generate hot water and to heat and cool buildings, Twentynine Palms Energy Manager Gary Morrissett does his best to explain the complexities of his portfolio in about 50 minutes.
Another former Marine, Morrissett displays his inner energy geek; with a straight face, he says, “Utilities have always been fun.” The building — with its turbines and pipes and sleek stainless steel tanks, has played a big role in a series of notable energy accomplishments: The base generates 80 percent of its own energy annually and 95 percent during the winter months. The heat recovery allowed by the “co-gen” plants is a huge money saver. The Marines are spending millions to become energy independent and have installed thousands of solar panels in the effort.
The details of the energy plan are dense and intimidating, but the big picture is easy to grasp: “From when I first started this job, we basically just about cut our utility budget in half,” Morrissett says. “We’ve gone from about a $20 or $21 million [annual] budget down to about a $12 million.”
Clockwise, starting top left: Brian Henen can’t hide his affection for the reptiles in his care, but he is a scientist, and it’s data and research that he needs to improve their plight. Traffic yields to armored tanks; this is, after all, a military training base. Among the ancient pictographs the Marines protect is this image believed to be a woman giving birth. Staff archaeologist Tadhg Kirwan accepts that ambiguity is an inherent part of his job interpreting rock art.
His team, he says, has exceeded all the energy goals set for them. Now, “They’re resetting the base line and we have to start over again,” Morrissett says evenly, as if he’s reciting the grocery list.
At the range residue and recycling center, bins of glittering brass weapon casings and scrap aluminum and piles of cardboard and wood sit in mute testament to the thousands of military personnel who train here each year. The profits from the Qualified Recycling Program — more than $2 million in 2014 — are split; half is used to pay labor and maintenance costs, and half go to base programs.
The bins are filled with brass casings, which are melted into golden balls and bits. Sparkling in the harsh desert sun, it’s easy to imagine their transformation into dangly earrings or fancy drawer pulls or the frame of a glass coffee table.
And also Marine promotional swag. After visitors tour the facility, they’re given a pair of two tiny trinkets and parting words by Palani Paahana, a staffer who specializes in UXO (unexploded ordnance): “What we hope is that when you choose your own pair of brass balls that you display them proudly.”
We finish our adventures in Marine ecology off base, on a parcel of land on Highway 62 referred to as Section 33. It sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s fever dream, but it’s actually 623 acres of land near Joshua Tree National Park that was recently acquired for $1.4 million by the Mojave Desert Land Trust and funded in large part by the military and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s part of a wildlife corridor that runs from the park to the base, and the trust hopes to buy other chunks in the future, expanding the area where animals can roam safely.
For a first-time visitor who doesn’t appreciate the desert’s delicate ecosystem, it might seem as if all that effort and excitement has secured a safe haven for a bunch of twisted Joshua trees and plants that look as though they are at death’s door. It’s hot. We’re tired. Some of us can’t muster much enthusiasm for more factoids, even if they relate to saving the region’s flora and fauna.
But a few days later, Frazier Haney, conservation director of the trust, emails some research on desert trees and how they can work as a “sink” for carbon dioxide, taking it out of the atmosphere and storing it under ground.
I read every word.