As a young Marine, few potential duty stations come with more trepidation and anxiety than Twentynine Palms.  The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, or MCAGCC as it is sometimes called, is a sprawling military installation in its purest sense: while many military bases in the United States offer a pleasant and even domestic appearing façade throughout their “main sides” or primary areas of operations, Twentynine Palms offers dirt, barbed wire, and a huge waste treatment facility you can see from the main gate lovingly referred to as Lake Bandini.

During my three-year tenure at MCAGCC, I recall sweltering hundred and fifteen degree runs through loose sand hills with names like “sugar cookie,” participating in training cycles so far into the desert I could hardly believe we were still technically considered on the base, and of course, hours and hours of football practice during my playing days – in a field directly adjacent to the massive lake made up of human waste cooking in the desert sun.

Many see Twentynine Palms as the worst duty station the Marine Corps has to offer – though I honestly grew to like it a bit (even my wife occasionally admits to missing it out there), and we’re not alone.  There is at least one other group with long-standing ties to the dry region of Southern California where the Mojave and Colorado deserts collide: the desert tortoise.

Despite being dry, hot, and full of the smell of human feces, MCAGCC is not just home to thousands of Marines and their families – it’s also home to a great deal of wildlife.  Lizards, coyotes, jack rabbits, and all kinds of birds can be spotted in the vast browns of the landscape, and although I once lost a pet cat to desert coyotes, I hated none of the wildlife more than the dreaded desert tortoise.

The military has a long tradition of maintaining a policy of “hurry up and wait.”  With thirty levels of leadership each planning to have their troops ready fifteen minutes prior to when they need to be, it isn’t uncommon to find yourself waiting in formation for the better part of an hour (or more) before a training cycle kicks off.  A normal range event, for instance, often plays out a bit like this:

Your staff non-commissioned officer was directed by the officer in charge (OIC) to have everyone ready at 0700, so he directs his platoon leaders to have everyone assembled by 0645.  Those platoon leaders then direct their squad leaders to have their squads accounted for by 0630, who relay the need to the fire team leaders who plan for 0615, but know at least three of the lance corporals will be too drunk to get there without help, so they call it 0600.  It won’t be until the next morning that you come to find the OIC was taking his cues from a senior officer who assumed you’d be drawing weapons at 0700, but no one told the armory, which remains closed until 0800.

The Pic of the Day: Commandos sniping away

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You, the hard-charging young corporal tasked with making sure your Marines don’t make your platoon look bad, are then left staring at the small formation in front of you for a solid two hours before weapons issue even starts… but surely the day will fly by after that.  After all, what’s better than lining up a hundred Marines on a firing line and laying waste to a bunch of targets?

You wait patiently in line for your rifle, despite being certain that the three cans of Monster you drank waiting for training to start will explode your bladder and poison your blood stream at any time, and then you finally receive it, grab your ammo and head for the line to spend a day doing what Marines do best – shooting – only to have everything brought to a screeching halt by a single god damned tortoise.

I get it.  I do.  We have to protect our wildlife, and the desert tortoise, which moves even slower than you think they could, deserves to live a long and happy tortoise life free of being shot by a stray 5.56 from that one kid that somehow always manages to hit berm.  I also always understood that after ten hours of having my Irish skin burned off in the desert sun, I was still facing two hours of weapons cleaning before that freaken Lance Corporal in the armory will accept all my guys’ weapons.  Taking an hour off to wait for a tortoise to realize it’s in the wrong zip code means adding an hour to a day that already promises to be longer than it should… and as a result, I grew to hate the things.

Waiting for a tortoise to realize we were in the middle of training to kill people.

You might be thinking right now, “but Alex – why didn’t you guys just pick the tortoise up and move it?”  Well, I thought so too, but was regularly reminded of how we Marines didn’t possess the pertinent wildlife training to be able to do so without harming the animal… all we were authorized to do was to stare at it and hope it moved.

Eventually.

Fortunately for a new generation of Marines that will be participating in even larger training revolutions in the Twentynine Palms desert, however, a concerted effort to relocate the desert tortoise population on base has officially begun.

“This effort has entailed almost four years’ worth of surveys, with the environmental analysis dating back to 2008,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Timothy Pochop, the director of natural resources and environmental affairs at Twentynine Palms.

“These surveys included health assessments, identifying all the animals [within the translocation] areas, placing radio transmitters on [the tortoises] and determining suitable locations in which to distribute them, to ensure survivorship and assimilation,” Pochop added.

For the record, I remember someone talking about this effort getting started while I was there in 2008.  At the time, I laughed and said, “it’ll probably take ten years for them to move a single friggin’ turtle.”

The Pic of the Day: Special Forces operators rocking the minigun

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To be fair, they did it in nine.  And they were never turtles.

Although MCAGCC was developed using the kind of forethought that placed the official PFT (Physical Fitness Test) run course on a sidewalk laid alongside the lake made of poop, they’ve pulled out all the stops when it comes to the safety of these tortoises.

“We are working with a team of highly-qualified biologists, some of which have been studying desert tortoises for close to 40 years,” Brian Henen, the base ecologist at Twentynine Palms, said. “They were approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is really helpful in getting things done. It also allows a fair degree of trust because we know these biologists are qualified.”

A thirty-year translocation program will track the status of the thousand-plus relocated tortoises to ensure their survival isn’t hindered by removing them from active artillery ranges and the like, because if there’s one thing I can verify through personal experience, it’s that these tortoises aren’t able to appreciate the need to avoid areas repeatedly used for live-fire exercises, and as such, can’t be trusted to seek survivable living conditions elsewhere either.

In all honesty, I’m glad the Marine Corps is making a concerted effort to protect the native wildlife that surrounds and lives within our installations.  Protecting the tortoise isn’t just about one species of animal, but rather about recognizing the need to establish a balance between our nation’s defensive requirements and the environment that makes up that very nation.  This effort, though silly seeming, is a good thing.

Even if I hate those tortoises, because I’m clearly biased, I’ll leave it to Mr. Henen to explain:

“I work with caring people, Marines and civilians, most of whom acknowledge that we need to protect our environment for quality of our habitat because that influences our quality of life,” Henen said. “We want to do the right thing and I think that in many ways, we’re in a good position because we’re able to work in an atmosphere that encourages training as well as conservation.”

 

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps