Overcoming logistical challenges, such as transporting heavy equipment onto the island via barge, is one of the training goals of the Innovative Readiness Training project on Catalina Island. (Photograph courtesy of the Catalina Island Conservancy)

From early April until just last week, 45 Marines were shoveling dirt and digging ditches on Santa Catalina Island, just across the channel from Long Beach.

The road improvement project, which involves repairing and improving existing roads on the island, as well as installing culverts and other drainage systems, will prevent sediment from washing off and regulate stormwater flow, which in turn reduces the need for road maintenance in the future and helps maintain soil native plants need to grow.

The Catalina Island Conservancy spends roughly $500,000 per year on road maintenance, according to Chief Operations Officer Tim Kielpinski. The project, he estimates, will save the nonprofit $1 million in maintenance costs.

So what do the Marines get out of it?

The road improvement project is part of the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program, which sends military units across the country to build roads, assess cyber threats and even dive for old fishing nets—all in the service of training their members in “mission essential” tasks.

Catalina, it turns out, is a perfect training ground.

“It’s an austere, remote location away from all your gear, away from all the maintenance you would normally have,” said Maj. Alex Lim, director of communication strategy and operations for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. “We’re training for the future operating environment.”

That future operating environment might very well be a remote island location, the local commanding lieutenant said.

“The military, the [Department of Defense] in general, has been looking east at some potential tension in the Second Island Chain, the South China Sea,” said Lt. Bailey Sheppard, the engineer officer who supervises the unit. The Second Island Chain is located in the South Pacific and includes the U.S. territory of the Mariana Islands.

The program was created in the early 1990s and receives over 200 applications from nonprofits all over the country each year. Once applications are received, program managers representing each branch of the military select the projects they think would provide the most training benefits to units within their branch.

“We attempt to mimic deployment as much as possible,” said Capt. Kelly Machado, the program’s public affairs officer. “It’s a great exercise for them to do it in the United States. It’s a safe space to train.”

The number of projects selected each year depends on the funding available—the program is funded year-by-year—as well as the military’s training needs and external circumstances like the current coronavirus pandemic.

In 2019, a total of 30 projects were completed by military units deployed in 23 states and territories, including an airport improvement project on Catalina Island. In 2020, the number of projects completed shrunk to 12.

Catalina, however, already had a foot in the door when it came to securing a unit to work on the island this year. Many of the Marines currently on the island had already participated in a months-long project to replace the Catalina airport’s crumbling asphalt runway with concrete that was completed in April 2019.

Marines grating roads in the interior of Catalina Island as part of a month-long infrastructure repair project. (Photograph by Glen Gustafson/Catalina Island Conservancy)

It was at the island’s Airport in the Sky that the conservancy first got wind of the military program, according to Kielpinski of the conservancy.

While the details of the military’s involvement on the island are a little murky, Kielpinski said a former member of the Navy’s construction battalions—commonly referred to as “Seabees”—landed on the airport and told local staff about a military program that could help fix the rocky runway.

Inspired by this possibility, Kielpinski and a member of the conservancy board attended a Navy event at Port Hueneme, the Seabees’ home base near Oxnard, to introduce themselves and find out more.

“We crashed the party,” Kielpinski remembers.

He’s not sure whether the personal introduction had any impact on the successful application for runway repairs to be completed—it was mostly Marines, not Navy members who ended up working on the project—but the event was the first time he heard about the Innovative Readiness Training program. He submitted an application shortly afterward.

At the end of this first project, Kielpinski said the unit encouraged the conservancy to seek out their help again in the future.

“The Marines got so much training value out of the airport project and it was so successful,” he said.  “They said: if you’ve got other projects, you oughta submit them.”

Kielpinski said he’d like to keep the collaboration going in the future. “They’re motivated, they’re hard workers,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of work and every time they’re here, we think of other ideas.”