WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration said Tuesday it opposed a House bill that would expand a naval base in the Western Mojave Desert and permanently place the military in charge of managing its nearly 1.1 million acres.
Permanently designating Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake property for military use would save taxpayer money and enhance the base’s mission, said Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the bill’s sponsor. A House subcommittee held a hearing on the legislation Tuesday.
Last year, Congress reserved China Lake’s acreage for military use for an additional 25 years. The administration says it supports the continued use of China Lake lands for military purposes, but it can’t go along with a permanent set-aside. Karen Mouritsen, a deputy assistant director at the Bureau of Land Management, said that the Defense Department’s needs could change in future decades.
The BLM administers federal lands for the public, but the land can be set aside for decades to serve a specific need, such as to support military readiness and testing.
McCarthy is hoping to enhance the station’s strategic importance to the Navy, and in the process, secure its future as a driving force for the regional economy. He told lawmakers that the last major expansion at China Lake took place in the 1950s, but since then, its mission has grown. He said he is trying to get the base’s fence line to match its restricted air space as much as possible, which he said would improve safety.
McCarthy’s bill would add 25,000 acres to the naval base, including about 7,500 acres that were part of a bombing range in San Bernardino County, as well as an additional 19,000 acres along the station’s southwest boundary.
Mouritsen said the BLM cannot support adding the 19,000 acres. She called it a popular recreation area with trail riding, camp sites and hunting. She also called it an important wildlife corridor, including for the threatened desert tortoise.
“It’s reasonable to believe that the desert tortoise could be better protected, allowing it to recover more quickly,” McCarthy said of expanding the base.
McCarthy said the Navy has commended China Lake for its stewardship of the environment and considers it a model for all of its installations. He said munitions would not be exploded on the newly acquired lands.
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