Editor's note: A representative of Marc Halcon and Covert Canyon has objected to several points this story. We stand by our story with addtional clarifications and details. Read our full response here: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/9220.
By Miriam Raftery
March 5, 2012 (Alpine) – A Channel 8 video reveals that pigs are being shot and wounded for use in live training exercises for military medics at Covert Canyon, a private facility in Alpine owned by Marc Halcon’s Covert Canyon LLC.
Now some Alpine residents are squealing over the latest in a string of operations conducted at the facility, some in defiance of county regulations and concerns of fire officials.
Halcon did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Channel 8’s investigation found that in live-tissue training, the animals are first anesthetized and then shot, stabbed, burned, or have legs chopped off with branch trimmers to mimic battlefield injuries. Medics provide trauma case and the pigs are then euthanized. The military has refused to allow photography of the controversial acts, however the Channel 8 video shows bloodied ground and personnel scrambling to cover the pig bodies to hide them from a news helicopter overhead.
Opponents contend the training is cruelty to animals and that newer dummies with simulated beating hearts and blood should be used instead. Military spokespersons have said the pigs provide better training to save soldiers’ lives.
ECM interviewed Alpine residents contacted through the Alpine Community Network. Reactions ranged from strong support to abhorrence of the practice. The broader question raised by multiple residents, however, is why the County seems to continually turn a blind eye to activities at the site that have repeatedly gone far beyond what County permitting allows. The site has previously been shut down, fined, and found to be in noncompliance multiple times and continues to operate without a major use permit on property that is zoned agricultural.
“I would like to see a public meeting held concerning this matter with the intent of rescinding Mr. Halcon’s right to allow use of his properties in this way,” said Alpine resident Christine Vargas. She called the news of pig kills “a shock”, adding that Covert Canyon has “invaded” Alpine in much the same way the Blackwater sought unsuccessfully to set up a private military training camp in Potrero, where her parents live. She questioned why the community has not been allowed to provide input, citing issues of gunshots and traffic. Although she views the killing of pigs as “disgusting” she said she does support animal testing to save human lives if done humanely.
“The issue here is not pigs but what I perceive to be mercenary training in anon-military zone near family residences,” Vargas concluded. “ Mr. Halcon has a lot to answer for—and so does the county for allowing this.”
George Barnett, a member of the Alpine Community Planning Group, questioned the County’s failure to take action against Covert Canyon. “The latest instance of para-military Marine live fire training and now with the pig killing is perplexing,” he told ECM. “Common sense suggests tht the vast Camp Pendleton is a more appropriate location for such activity; not Japatul Valley.”
In May 2011, Covert Canyon LLC was fined for conducting a business on the property without necessary permits. The activities at the time included firing semiautomatic weapons and more. Violations could make a landowner liable for fines of $1,000 a day up to $50,000 for County code violations and up to $250,000, or $2,500 per day, for state code violations.
SDCZO Section 2725b clearly states that “paramilitary type training facilities not allowed in a 472 zoned agricultural property without the issuance of a Major Use Permit.” The County ordered Halcon to immediately “cease all activities associated with the operation of a shooting range until you obtain a Major Use Permit” and once obtained, to also get a shooting range operator’s permit from the Sheriff.
The Major Use Permit has never been obtained, yet paramilitary activities continue.
The property was previously shut down in its early days for operating without a permit. AT various times, Halcon has claimed the site was used only for recreational shooting, then later admitted to training Sheriff and SWAT teams for local law enforcement and now, military groups. Videos posted on YouTube claim to show special operations forces also being trained at Covert Canyon.
Halcon did appear before the Alpine Community Planning Group back on May 27, 2010 to seek endorsement of his “shooting range” business. The ACPG, which is an advisory group only, approved it 10-1 with Barnett casting the only “no” vote.
Barnett explains, “I voted `no’ as I could not endorse a project that the applicable fire district would not approve on the basis that the project did not meet the County’s fire ordinances and codes that had been revised following the aftermath of the major County-wide wildfires since and including the 2003 Cedar Fire.” Halcon’s appeal to the County Fire Board was turned down and a Cleveland National Forest ranger told Barnett that CNF would not endorse the project without fire codes being met; the property lies within the Cleveland National Forest, Barnett said.
Claudia Millerbragg of Alpine questioned Halcon’s motives. “So pigs suffer and die on Marc’s ranch,” she said, suggesting Halcon is more concerned with profiting off leasing his land for military operations than with the community or the animals. “If there was not money to be made the pigs would not be shot….it is all about the dollar.”
Others disagree. Guy Everest, a former member of the Alpine Community Planning Group, said he would support the activities “if the training will help save human life in the battlefield.” He noted that pig physiology is similar to humans.
Karen Murphy-Linden sees hypocrisy in people “sitting down to pork chops for dinner” from pigs killed in slaughterhouses while objecting to use of pigs to train the medics. “Assuming there is no equally effective, efficient, and less violent way to prepare our soldiers for what they may face, make our military forces more battle-ready, and save human lives, then I think we should return to our dinner plates and mind our own business,” she concluded.
Theresa Finch said she loves animals, but that research she did on the matter convinced her that service members who have been through the training said that “live tissue training helps even more than htoes very expensive bleeding `dummies.’ That’s good enough for me.”
Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego) responded to news of the pig killings by announcing plans to introduce legislation that would phase out military trauma training on pigs by 2014. “It’s just disturbing to have to watch a video like this, when not only are we using ineffective methods but the animals are clearly suffering, and apparently, the Marines are so embarrassed by it that they have to cover up,” Filner told News 8. He called new technologies that simulate blood and wounds “far more effective” and concluded, “Let’s be humane and effective at the same time.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has filed complaints with the San Diego County Code Enforcement and with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture seeking to stop the pig killings which PETA views as inhumane.
But Gig Conaughton, communications specialist with the County, said that the County’s Department of Animal Services is “not investigating” because PETA’s letter does not raise a specific cruelty complaint, but rather a general opposition to using animals for such training, and because investigation of a similar live animal medical training program in 2009 in Valley Center found that the animals were “deeply anesthetized and then euthanized, and therefore did not suffer.”
Conaughton said that Halcon is “currently pursuing a Major Use Permit that would allow him to use his property as a live weapon training facility.” That application was submitted back in 2007. The project was brought before the Planning Commission, which recommended denial in 2010 “based on fire safety and emergency access issues,” Conaughton confirmed.
Planners recommended that Halcon work with fire officials to address concerns, however Conaughton said Halcon “has not made any further progress on his MUP application.”
Why is Halcon being allowed to continue paramilitary training and other live-fire operations in fire-prone East County while operating in defiance of county law and fire codes?
In 2009, Halcon asked the County if he could conduct other activities such as Eagle Scout training and Security Guard training. DPLU advised he would need a discretionary permit with one exception: First Responder Medic Classes” similar to that in Valley Center. “At that time in 2009, the County’s zoning Ordinance did not clearly identify this as a recognized regulated use under the code. Because of that, it was determined that we could not require a use permit to operate First Responder Medic Classes,” Conaughton said.
The County has since amended its Zoning Ordinance to include medical training under “Major Impact Utility” provisions and today, a person would need a Major Use Permit to conduct such training. However, Conaughton added, “Mr Halcon is being allowed to continue the training as a continuing non-conforming use because he started providing the training before the Zoning Ordinance was changed.”
Conaughton said Code Enforcement is currently reviewing the case to see if it is significantly different than what Halcon described in 2009 and whether any differences would constitute a zoning violation.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she is aware of the zoning code allegations against the property. “The County is actively looking into the matter,” she said, but added that she refers questions on ethics of the training to the military. “In the past, the military has viewed live tissue training as necessary to better prepare and protect military personnel. I don’t and won’t challenge the military’s position.”