June 20, 1994

The Lion of the Desert

Peter Burk's 18-Year Crusade Has Made California's Mojave National Park a Hot Topic

By Susan Reed
People Magazine - Vol. 41, No. 23

TO THE AVERAGE TOURIST, HIGHWAY 15 from Barstow, Calif., to the Nevada border is a bleak two-hour drive through the heart of the Mojave Desert, a barren expanse of sand and scrub where summer temperatures sometimes hit 130°. But take the same trip with Peter Burk, 48, a gangly 6'6" librarian and amateur naturalist from Barstow, and the landscape becomes a trove of ecological and historic treasures: more than 700 kinds of plants, among them the world's largest forest of Joshua trees—whose spiky limbs somehow reminded Mormon travelers of the biblical prophet—plus 300 species of wildlife, including mountain lions, bighorn sheep and golden eagles, as well as 2,000-year-old Native American petroglyphs.

Rattling along in his yellow pickup truck, Burk points excitedly to a moonscape of volcanic cones and 600-foot-high sand dunes. "People think of the Mojave as a wasteland, a dump, something to zip through on their way somewhere else," he says. "Very few people understand the tremendous wealth of life here."

Thanks to Burk's 18-year crusade on behalf of the Mojave, they will soon learn differently. In April, the U.S. Senate passed the California Desert Protection Act, landmark legislation that will create three new national parks, Mojave, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, as well as 74 separate wilderness areas. The bill, which the House is expected to approve this summer, encompasses 6.3 million acres—affecting more public lands in the lower 48 states than any legislation in history. "This desert is a masterpiece," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the bill's lead sponsor. "If it weren't for the Peter Burks of the world, these things wouldn't happen."

Burk's Mojave crusade began in 1976, during a daily hike with his wife, Joyce, also a librarian. Burk was complaining about the Barstow to Las Vegas off-road race, an annual event in which hundreds of motorcyclists, zooming across the Mojave, tear into the fragile desert floor. "But then I decided that instead of fighting against something like the race, we should fight/or something," says Burk.

In a model of grassroots organizing, the Burks began holding spaghetti dinners and selling T-shirts and booklets promoting desert protection. They won the endorsement of two Sierra Club chapters and began publishing a quarterly newsletter. In 1978, Burk persuaded Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) to introduce a bill protecting the East Mojave.

Burk learned to love the desert while growing up in Redlands, Calif., near the Mojave. The son of Peter W. Burk, a civil engineer, and Betty, an English teacher, young Peter was a rock hound who ventured off to the wilderness on weekends to add to his collection. Intent on becoming a teacher himself, he enrolled at the University of California at Riverside, where he earned a master's degree in history and met Joyce Brady, whom he married in 1968.

But a stint in the Air Force—Burk was drafted in 1969 and discharged honorably a year later—changed his outlook. "There were a lot of things wrong in the world," he says. "Seeing what was happening in the [Vietnam] war changed me."

The Burks moved to Barstow, where Peter worked with foster families and abused children. Eventually, depressed by the suffering he saw, he left social work after nine years for a job as a librarian at Silver Valley High School in nearby Yermo. It was in 1973 when he joined the Sierra Club and embarked on the desert campaign that he found his true vocation. "In a way, we raised the park like we would have raised a child," says Joyce.

Not everyone shared the Burks' enthusiasm. In deference to a coalition of hunters, cattlemen and all-terrain-vehicle owners, California's Republican senators, Pete Wilson and John Seymour, blocked the Mojave Park bill. It was only revived when Feinstein and fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer were elected to the Senate in 1992. Now, on the cusp of the House vote, one final threat remains: The NRA is working furiously to downgrade the park to a preserve where hunting will be allowed. Still, Burk is cautiously optimistic. "We've come a long way," he says, "but it's not over until the fat lady sings."

Burk heard the first notes of that song April 13 when the Senate voted 69-29 in his favor. That day, he and Joyce taped the Senate debate on C-Span before sitting down that night to watch. "Imagine how it felt for a guy in a Podunk town watching Senator Feinstein stand in front of the Senate speaking almost verbatim from the booklets we put together," he says. "It made me feel like we do have a future, that little guys like me can make a difference."