Is it time for the Marines to surrender Camp Pendleton?

An amphibious vehicle lands on Red Beach in Camp Pendleton during a 2013 training exercise involving 5,000 naval and ground forces from the U.S., Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
An amphibious vehicle lands on Red Beach in Camp Pendleton during a 2013 training exercise involving 5,000 naval and ground forces from the U.S., Canada, Japan and New Zealand. The Orange County Register

The American military is the world’s finest fighting force. But how long can it defend Camp Pendleton?

Marine Base Camp Pendleton is a major training facility. But at 200 square miles — bigger than San Jose — it’s also the largest open space on the coast between Santa Barbara and Mexico. And its location in crowded Southern California makes its land attractive for non-military uses.

Camp Pendleton’s future hasn’t received much debate, even though it touches contested congressional districts. Maybe that’s because its charms remain mostly hidden. Californians see its 17 miles of coast along Interstate 5, but that’s only a fraction of a base running 10 miles inland to Riverside County.

Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton was established in 1942 and continues to serve as the Marine Corps' primary and premiere amphibious training base.


The property offers scenery so diverse — mountains, canyons, mesas, estuaries, a bison preserve, a free-flowing river — that it seems like a militarized microcosm of California.

This diverse geography explains its military value. It accommodates a wide variety of training for Marines and other military branches. The grounds have prepared Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, landed at Inchon and fought in Vietnam’s jungles, Afghanistan’s mountains and Iraq’s sands.

Joe Mathews (1).JPG
Joe Mathews

Less than 20 percent of the base is developed. The tens of thousands who live and work there don’t lack for services. There are theaters, museums, golf courses, a lake, a new hospital, a scuba center, a YMCA, food franchises, 11 fire stations, five public schools, 14 barbershops and eight dry cleaners.

The official base guide estimates the value of land and improvements at more than $1.7 billion. That’s way up from the $4.2 million the military paid in 1942 after seizing an old rancho. It’s named for Major General Joseph Pendleton, a Coronado mayor who lobbied for a bigger Marine presence on the West Coast.

For decades, the Marines have successfully defended the base against those most rapacious of Californians — real estate developers. The military has made strategic concessions, allowing San Onofre State Beach and the now-closed San Onofre nuclear plant to operate on its property.

And Camp Pendleton’s environmental record is strong. Base officials have protected endangered species and restored native habitats along the Santa Margarita River, writes Marilyn Berlin Snell.

But maintaining such magnificent land in Southern California is provocative. San Diego needs a new airport as the one near downtown reaches capacity. Cal State San Marcos researchers say an airport on less than five percent of Pendleton land could produce 100,000 jobs. Camp Pendleton’s location and size also make it a possible site for universities, transportation links and housing.

And now that wars are conducted by drone or internet, how much does the military need the base? The last major Marine amphibious assault was 68 years ago. Since Camp Lejeune in North Carolina also handles varied training, do Marines really need to train on such valuable California land?

Another problem: Camp Pendleton serves a commander-in-chief who treats California like an enemy. Time magazine reported that the Trump administration had plans to detain 47,000 migrants at the base. If it were used for rights-violating border policies, California’s leaders should pressure the feds to leave.

Camp Pendleton with a smaller military footprint, or without the military at all, might seem unthinkable. But so was the idea of the Army surrendering San Francisco’s Presidio or Fort Ord on Monterey Bay. Both have productively transitioned to civilian use. Like them, Camp Pendleton is big and beautiful enough to serve us all.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at

Video shows down power line and trees at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.


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