December 29, 1999

True Grit - Cattle Ranching in the Mojave Desert Under Siege

It's never been easy for cattle ranchers in the rugged western Mojave. Now laws designed to protect the desert tortoise threaten to end their cowboy way of life.

Los Angeles Times

Miles of it. Sand, rock, mesquite bush, yucca and sky. Out where I-40 blasts east through the Mojave Desert and Route 247 heads south onto the sun-baked plain of Lucerne Valley. Miles of nothing.

No, miles of cattle country.

"This is great country for them," says Bill Mitchell, a local rancher out on a roundup astride his feisty appaloosa, Chief. It's a 90-degree day, and the rough desert ground is thick with rattlesnakes--Mojave greens, the lethal kind. But the cattle know how to avoid the snakes, they know what to eat and where to drink, Mitchell explains. The warmer climate allows for year-round grazing, and the dryness helps prevent disease.

Indeed, his cows look sleek and content as he patiently guides a dozen of them toward his home base, Two Hole Springs Ranch, at the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon in Lucerne Valley. Mitchell speaks softly to them, a mantra, "Easy now, easy now."

He's been talking to cows since his childhood. He learned to rope, ride and wrangle on his grandfather's Mojave ranch, Horsethief Springs. In 1986, Mitchell bought his own ranch, Pilot Knob near China Lake. A decade later, he sold "PK" and bought Two Hole Springs.

"Working cattle is the only thing I've ever wanted to do in my life," he says.

In his cowboy hat and jingle-bob spurs, Mitchell seems a reminder of another age, a time when San Bernardino and Riverside were known as "the cow counties." In the 1920s, there were 30 ranches spread out over the Mojave, each ranch comprising several hundred thousand acres. Two Hole Springs, with 53,000 acres and 86 head of cattle, is one of six that remain.

As the century draws to a close, Mitchell and his fellow ranchers have no wish to become anachronisms--or worse, landless. These are men and women who believe in hard work and self-sufficiency, who profess an intense love for this harsh landscape. But their livelihood and way of life are under increasing pressure from various conservation organizations, which say the fragile desert ecosystem is definitely not good country for cattle.

Most of the land on these Mojave ranches is leased from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the government agency overseeing federal lands. All but five acres of Mitchell's Two Hole Springs belongs to the bureau and is, therefore, subject to a host of new grazing restrictions resulting from the 1989 listing of the desert tortoise as an endangered species.

Regulations Are 'Piling Up'

As the ranchers see it, groups such as the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee seek to enforce the Endangered Species Act on these federal lands to an extent that ranching could become economically nonviable in most of the western Mojave.

"A lot of days I'm going through all these new regulations piling up on my desk and I get to thinking, 'Do I want my son and grandson to wrangle with all this?' " says Dave Fisher, president of the High Desert Cattlemen's Assn. for 14 years. A taciturn man in his 50s, he runs 500 head of permanent range cows on his ranch of 30,000 private and 90,000 federal acres. His father started ranching this area in 1927.

"I think maybe we're not long for this world," he says.

Fisher adds quickly and defiantly, "But then I think, 'No, I'm not going anywhere.' "

He's speaking from a cell phone in his truck, 30 miles in any direction from another human being. It's 7 in the evening. His day started at 4 a.m., he's been in the saddle for 10 hours. And he's smiling: "I love this life. I wouldn't change places with anyone on this planet."

The sparse vegetation necessitates such mind-boggling acreage. The range is open, and cattle are free to wander where they will. The Bureau of Land Management restrictions aim to prevent overgrazing. Each cow is allotted a certain number of acres, ranging anywhere from one head per eight acres to only one head per 50 acres. And if there's no rain, the bureau can close down or curtail any grazing on federal lands. Ranchers would then have to downsize their herds, auctioning extra cattle until it rains and the bureau reopens the acreage.

Even without the bureau restrictions, area ranchers say they would rather sell off their herds than overgraze.

"It's in our best interest to take as good a care as we possibly can of the land," Mitchell says. "Whether it be federal or private, it's our resource. We depend on it."

A long-term drought could all but close down a ranch. This dependence on the weather and on this wild, lean land seems to define those who choose to live here. "Life is simple and hard," says Julie Mitchell, Bill's wife and the mother of their 2-year-old daughter, Serenity. "You learn to take whatever comes and to be grateful for everything--the rain, the morning."

The old adobe house on their ranch is without heat and electricity. They use a wood stove, solar panels and gas lamps. They cook on a barbecue under a huge Palo Verde tree. The view drifts east for hundreds of miles.

Most of the week Bill works a grinding 10-hour day as a heavy equipment operator based in Barstow; it's a well-paying job that enabled him to buy Pilot Knob and will allow him to live permanently on Two Hole Springs within the next few years. His cattle take up the rest of his time. The offspring from his base herd of 86 cows must all be caught, branded, vetted, castrated, weaned and occasionally loaded onto a trailer and sold--no mean feat when the average 6-month-old heifer weighs 500 pounds, has never seen a human and doesn't want to be moved.

Often, Julie is Bill's only ranch hand and the two of them ride miles of fence line checking for gaps and cuts. Even with a good fence, the cattle will roam off the ranch, and it can take days of hard riding to round them up and herd them back. Bill and Julie must also frequently check the dozens of water holes scattered throughout the ranch, which can become clogged or contaminated.

Source of Contamination

The contamination source is often human. Bill recalls finding a group of duck hunters with a beer cooler, sitting in their fold-out chairs by one of his water holes. The wild cattle won't approach the water with humans present, no matter how thirsty they are.

"I asked them how they'd feel if I came and camped in their backyard with my campfire and my horse and a couple of big bulls," he says.

Julie, a small-town girl from Illinois, is new to ranching but has embraced it for herself and her daughter. She used to work part time but now has her hands full with Serenity and the ranch.

She hopes to home-school Serenity.

"We don't want her to be excluded from a social life," Julie says, noting that Bill's three daughters from his first marriage were home-schooled at Pilot Knob but were active in local rodeos and youth events. "I really think kids should be living like this. They should be out running around and throwing rocks, not watching TV," she says.

"On ranches, kids are always involved," Bill says. "They learn the interconnectedness of things. If you ask them, 'Where does milk come from? Where does beef come from?' they're not going to say, 'The store.' "

One also learns to be aware in such a wild place, to step carefully. Julie remembers a morning this summer when she and Serenity were letting the doves loose from their cage: "I turned my back for a second to undo the latch, and I heard Serenity say, quite happily, ' 'nake, Mommy, 'nake.' " Julie turned to see her daughter standing over a Mojave green.

Moving very slowly, she picked up Serenity, backed away and called out to Bill, who then shot the snake.

People who endure such incidents as part of their daily lives are not easily intimidated. But "the conservationists"--as the Mitchells, Fishers and other ranchers politely refer to conservation organizations--have caused concern, even anger. And they've certainly prompted change.

Of the 6.2-million acres of the western Mojave in federal hands, 1.58 million acres were designated in 1992 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. The Bureau of Land Management then had to comply with various guidelines concerning land use in these designated areas. New restrictions were placed on cattle grazing in the hopes of reestablishing a healthy tortoise population.

Cattle's Effect on Ecosystem

According to Michael Conners, executive director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, the tortoise is particularly threatened by the damage that cattle can wreak on a fragile desert ecosystem.

Cattle tend to prefer riparian areas such as stream beds. So, although there may be one cow allotted for eight acres, chances are that cow, and cows from surrounding eight-acre allotments, will congregate around the water, compacting the soil and destroying the surrounding vegetation, Conners explains.

Conners is clear about his organization's goal: "We would like to see an end to all grazing in all critical tortoise habitat." He points out that the Endangered Species Act is a law and believes that the only reason why cattle are still grazing in designated areas is that ranchers are a powerful political lobby.

For the moment, however, the land bureau will continue to allow controlled cattle grazing. But the smorgasbord of new restrictions is making life increasingly difficult for the ranchers.

Bill Mitchell learned about designated habitat the hard way. In 1986 he bought Pilot Knob with 100,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management leases and 1,320 of private land for his 75 head. Three years later, when the western portion of his land was one of the first areas designated as critical tortoise habitat, he worked with Lee Delany, then area manager with the land bureau.

"We tried to come up with something that would work for both of us," Delany says. "It was a lot of additional work for Bill. He had to put up fencing and rotate cattle and reduce their numbers." But the cattle continued to wander into prohibited areas. By 1995, Bill retained only 20 head.

"I just couldn't keep going," he says. He finally decided to sell Pilot Knob--to a ready deep-pocket buyer: the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee and its co-sponsor, the Wildlands Conservancy. While much of Two Hole Springs, Bill's new ranch, is also in designated critical habitat, the grazing restrictions are less severe and he hopes to maintain his current herd size.

Conners has little sympathy.

"It'll be a hundred years before Pilot Knob will be back to normal." He describes "normal" as a pristine, wildlife-healthy wilderness. As it is, the number of permanent range cattle has declined consistently over the last 50 years. According to Pete Lounsbury, agricultural biologist with the San Bernardino Department of Agriculture, the area held more than 13,500 range cattle in 1948. Last year, there were perhaps 1,600.

"It's a way of life more than anything," says Lounsbury, who empathizes with the Mojave ranchers but notes their economic contribution to the state is fairly minimal these days. "It's so tough. They've been fighting city hall one way or another for so long that now some are saying, 'The hell with it!' "

November 22, 1999

Nonstop service to the Mojave Desert?

by Tim Westby
High Country News

A 6,500-acre swath of federally owned desert, 10 miles from California's Mojave National Preserve, could become the site of a new Las Vegas airport. But environmentalists and the National Park Service say airport overflights will ruin the preserve visitor's experience.

"One of the really special things about Mojave is the opportunity for solace and quiet," says Mary Martin, superintendent of the preserve.

Clark County officials chose the site, in part, because it is bordered by railroad cargo tracks on one side and Interstate 15 on the other. They say the airport will be used mostly by charter passenger planes and air cargo and won't be needed until 2012 at the earliest. But legislation requiring the BLM to sell the land to the county, introduced by Nevada's two Democratic senators, Henry Reid and Richard Bryan, and Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada, has been approved by the House Resources Committee.

If the county gets the nod from Congress, critics worry the airport would become a done deal with little public input. "By that time, you're just dealing with the minor issues," says Martin.

Dennis Mewshaw, the Clark County planner charged with overseeing the project, admits there's been little opportunity for the public to respond so far, but says the airport is a long way from approval. The Federal Aviation Administration and the county, says Mewshaw, still need to conduct environmental studies and decide how to mitigate the overflights.

Says Mewshaw, "I don't think we should say at all that the public won't have a say."

October 17, 1999

7.0 Quake Shakes Up California, Derails Train

By Tom Gorman, Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times

The quake knocked Amtrak's Southwest Chief off its tracks.

LUDLOW, Calif. - A magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck the Mojave Desert in Southern California early yesterday, knocking an Amtrak passenger train off its tracks but otherwise causing little harm.

Four people on Amtrak's Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles were injured, none seriously, when the quake - one of the strongest in Southern California's recorded history - rocked the region at 2:46 a.m.

Centered beneath a Marine Corps base northwest of Twentynine Palms, the quake swayed high-rise hotels in Las Vegas, shook buildings as far away as Phoenix and Tijuana, Mexico, and jolted millions of people awake throughout the Los Angeles area, stirring unwelcome memories of the 1994 Northridge quake. Up to 90,000 utility customers lost power and mobile homes were knocked off pilings.

But while the Hector Mine earthquake, dubbed after the mineral site where it was centered, was three times stronger than the 6.7 Northridge quake, it caused a fraction of the damage because it was centered far from heavily populated areas.

"The damage could have been catastrophic, but was minimal," Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said. "It's a good opportunity, however, for everybody to take note that we live in earthquake country. We can never be too prepared for the next one."

The earthquake was the fourth magnitude 7.0 or greater recorded across the globe in the past two months. Earthquakes in western Turkey and Taiwan occurred in heavily populated areas and left nearly 20,000 people dead. Twenty people died in the third, a 7.5 quake that struck a mostly rural region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The earthquake yesterday hit hardest in an area more highly populated by rattlesnakes than people, but it was a terrifying experience for those nearest the epicenter.

"Let me put it to you this way," said Juan Tirado, who lives in a mobile home in Ludlow, a hamlet of about 40 people along Interstate 40 between Barstow and Needles. "The first thing I tried to do was jump up and get to my daughter - but I couldn't.

"I got as far as her bedroom door, but then I couldn't move another step, we were shaking so hard. I was holding on to the walls but couldn't move. It was like I was in a bottle and someone was shaking it back and forth."

Although power was lost at the Joshua Tree Inn, about 30 miles from the epicenter, the lodging established sustained no significant damage, night manager Jacob Naylor said.

"Twelve guests, all definitely awake. A couple in from Holland, definitely shocked. A couple in from the U.K. asked me, `Is this normal?' " Naylor said. "They're all taking it rather well, kind of excited. Vacationers, new experiences, what can I say?"

California Institute of Technology experts said the epicenter of the rolling quake was located near the Pisgah strike, a slip fault about 47 miles east of Barstow.

Within hours of the main quake, three aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or more and at least 17 of magnitude 4.0 or more had swayed the desert.

In all, there may be up to seven aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or more in the coming week, Caltech experts said, and thousands of smaller aftershocks will continue for a decade or more.

There is only a 5 percent chance that a quake bigger than the original will strike in the next week, said Lucy Jones, chief seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's office in Pasadena.

Some of the aftershocks yesterday appeared so close to the immense San Andreas Fault, considered the powerful master seismic switch for much of the state, that seismologists could not be sure if it was affected by the aftermath of the Hector Mine quake.

However, as the day went on and the pattern of aftershocks was established, scientists and state officials discounted the possibility of any large quake on the San Andreas.

"The San Andreas Fault is capable of producing large earthquakes, as large as or larger than the one that took place this morning," said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. "Seismologists are unable to predict earthquakes and the chance that these earthquakes will be followed by a larger San Andreas event is small.

"Nevertheless, the aftershocks near the San Andreas Fault are a source of continued monitoring by scientists," Jones said.

The quake was centered not far from the epicenter of the 1992 Landers quake, which had a magnitude of 7.3 and resulted in one death and few serious injuries.

All highways were operating yesterday, including Interstate 40, where cracks were reported on two overpass bridges.

The Amtrak train derailment occurred about eight miles west of Ludlow. While the locomotives stayed on the tracks, 21 of the train's 24 cars were derailed. The tracks were left splayed out in a V shape, the wheels sunk into gravel.

Of 155 passengers and crew members on board, four were taken by ambulance to Barstow Community Hospital - two for back and shoulder injuries and two who complained of breathing difficulty, said San Bernardino County Fire Department battalion chief Gary Bush.

The train was traveling at about 60 mph at the time of the derailment, rail officials said. The speed limit is 90 mph, but the train had slowed because it was approaching a freight train.

"These guys were lucky," San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy Mike Cadwell said. "If the train was going 90, we'd be out here picking up bodies."

All the homes in a nearby mobile home park were shoved off their foundations.

"Everybody was running out. The dogs were howling. The cats were hiding. And the kids were freaking," said Barbara Houseworth, 19, who fled her trailer with her 3-year-old child. "When mobile homes rock, they really rock."

Aside from the Amtrak derailment, which caused the shutdown of a twin set of eastbound and westbound tracks, the earthquake caused relatively little disruption to rail lines in and out of Los Angeles, one of the nation's busiest rail hubs, railroad officials reported.

The quake was blamed for a leak of about 2,000 gallons of naptha, a volatile byproduct of petroleum processing, at a tank operated by Ultramar Diamond Shamrock at the Port of Los Angeles in Wilmington.

The leaking fluid flowed into a catch basin, and never was in danger of reaching coastal waters, according to Jim Bradshaw, Ultramar's environmental-health and safety manager.

September 22, 1999

Desert silence broken by 'rrrrring'

Charlie Wilcox waits to answer calls from people all over the world


BAKER, California (CNN) -- Fourteen miles from the nearest town, the silence of the vast Mojave Desert is broken -- by the ringing coming from a phone booth.

The booth sits beside a narrow road, surrounded by nothing but cacti and high brush.

"You see people coming from all over to see that telephone booth," said Tammy Seeward, who works at a gas station in the nearest community, Baker, "It's out in the middle of nowhere. And it works."

At one time -- back in the 1960s -- it had a purpose.

"We got two mines and ranchers. They needed something in between," said Charlie Wilcox, the self-anointed answerer of the Mojave phone.

Wilcox points out that, while the miners and ranchers have dwindled, the phone has been ringing off the hook, thanks to an Arizona man who put the desert phone number on the Internet.

So who would call and expect to get an answer? Wilcox said the calls come from all over -- as far away as Germany, France and Italy.

And, he says, the calls keep on coming -- with no sign of letting up.

CNN affiliate KNSD contributed to this report.

September 18, 1999

Reaching Way Out

Los Angeles Times

Lonesome Phone

In the middle of the desert stands a phone waiting for a caller, any caller. Someone might answer. More often, no one will. But interest in the solitary booth has spread worldwide via the Internet, where several Web sites pay tribute to the lonely phone.

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — With only the lazy Joshua trees and hovering buzzards out here to bear witness, this isolated expanse of high-desert plain could well be among the quietest places on the planet.

By day, the summer heat hammers hard and the dull whistle of the wind is the only discernible noise. Come nightfall, the eerie silence is often pierced by the woeful bleat of a wandering burro.

But wait. There's another sound.

Along a line of wooden power poles running to the horizon in both directions, 14 miles from the nearest paved road, a solitary pay phone beckons with the shrill sound of impatient civilization.

Then it rings again. And again. And yet again, often dozens of times a day.

The callers? A bored housewife from New Zealand. A German high school student. An on-the-job Seattle stockbroker. A long-distance trucker who dials in from the road. There's a proud skunk owner from Atlanta, a pizza deliveryman from San Bernardino and a bill collector from Denver given a bum steer while tracing a debt.

Receivers in hand, they're reaching out--at all hours of the day and night, from nearly every continent on the globe--to make contact with this forlorn desert outpost.

They're calling the Mojave Phone Booth.

Here comes a curious caller now:

"Hello? Hello? Is this the Mojave Phone Booth?" asks Pher Reinman, an unemployed South Carolina computer worker.

Told by a reporter answering the line that he has indeed reached what cult followers call the loneliest phone booth on Earth, he exclaims: "Oh my God, I can't believe it! Somebody answered! There's actually somebody out there!"

Calling to See What Happens

Like Reinman, callers everywhere are connecting with the innocuous little booth located not far from the California-Nevada border, along a winding and treacherous dirt road accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Out here, where summer temperatures soar to 115 degrees and cattle often wander by en route to a nearby watering hole, there's rarely anyone on hand to answer the calls, but persistent phoners don't seem to care. If someone does pick up, of course, so much the better.

Some of those who do answer are previous callers who, for unknowable reasons that make sense only to them, also feel compelled to visit the booth.

"For us," wrote screenwriter Chuck Atkins of his recent trek to the booth, "it was about driving into nowhere for no good reason, meeting fellow netizens who shared our sense of childish glee at the coolness of a phone booth in the middle of nowhere."

Indeed, this public phone, first installed in the 1960s and operated with a hand crank by nearby volcanic cinder miners and other desert denizens, has been popularized by the globe's most advanced communications system: the Internet.

The craze began two years ago after a high-desert wanderer noticed a telephone icon on a Mojave road map. Curious, he drove out from Los Angeles to investigate and wrote a letter to a counterculture magazine describing his exploits and including the phone number. After spotting the letter, computer entrepreneur Godfrey Daniels became so captivated by the idea he created the first of several Web sites dedicated solely to the battered booth.

Since then, word of the phone has been beamed to computers virtually everywhere.

It has evolved into a worldwide listening post straight from the mind of a Rod Serling or a David Lynch, captivating countless callers.

There's Preston Lunn of San Bernardino, whose wife reluctantly let him take a long-distance shot at reaching someone at the phone, a call he made "just for the hell of it, just to see what happens."

There's Debbie, the 20-year-old baby-sitter from Boston whose older sister, "the one who goes to college," told her about the phone. Bored, with her infant wards asleep, Debbie decided to take a chance and telephone the desert.

"So, what's out there?" she asked tentatively. "Just, like, cactuses and a dirt road and stuff?"

And there's Atlantan Jim Shanton, who heard about the phone "from one of the ladies on our pet skunk e-mail list." Added Shanton: "And I was just crazy enough to call. For me, this is like calling Mars. It's that far away from everything I know."

'If You Call It, They Will Come'

What callers reach is just a shell of a phone booth, actually--its windows long ago blasted out by desert gunslingers desperate for something to shoot at, its coin box deactivated so that only incoming calls and outgoing credit card calls are possible.

But fans have taken the neglected old booth under their wing. Outside, they've posted a sign that reads "Mojave Phone Booth--you could shoot it, but why would you want to?" Next to that is another placard reading: "If you call it, they will come."

On top of the pay phone perches a nude Barbie doll. Scratched into the booth's metal frame are its longitude and latitude coordinates. Inside, along with plastic-coated children's magnets spelling out "Mojave Phone Booth," are mementos such as candles and license plates. Visitors have covered the booth's bullet holes with Band-Aids.

Nearby, fist-sized stones form the phone's number along with a huge arrow pointing to the booth. The message can be seen from the air so, as one Mojave phone fan put it, "even aliens can find it."

The booth-oriented Web sites multiplied when their creators saw the phone on other sites and--after calling numerous times--decided to document their own pilgrimages to the desert phone.

There's the lighting designer from New York who was so thrilled to finally reach the Mojave phone that she stripped naked "and ran around like a giddy little girl."

And two L.A. writers, who later chronicled their trek to the Mojave, headed out just to return the receiver to its cradle after learning the phone was off the hook. They arrived to find the phone temporarily out of order.

Rick Karr, a 51-year-old spiritual wanderer, has no Web site, but says he was instructed by the Holy Spirit to travel to the desert and answer the phone. The Texas native recently spent 32 days camping out at the booth, fielding more than 500 calls from people like Bubba in Phoenix and Ian in Newfoundland and repeated contacts from a caller who identified himself as "Sgt. Zeno from the Pentagon."

"This phone," he said with a weary sigh, "never stops ringing."

While she would not provide statistics, a Pacific Bell spokeswoman said the phone experienced "very low outgoing usage."

Still, the booth is sometimes used by locals to conduct business or check messages.

"I've passed that old phone booth just about every day for more than 20 years now and I've never given it as much as a second thought," said Charlie Wilcox, a sun-wrinkled 63-year-old tow-truck driver who has become the booth's unofficial tour guide. "And I'll be damned. Now it's a celebrity."

Phone booth callers, Web site creators and Internet intellectuals alike are trying to figure out just why this far-flung phone has gripped the imagination of those who come across it.

Some say calls to the booth are an attempt to create community in a disconnected world. Others view the calls as pure phone fetish, a sort of long-distance voyeurism.

The Attraction of Exotic Isolation

"It's the kick of reaching out and touching a perfect stranger in a completely anonymous and indiscriminate way," said Mark Thomas, a New York City concert pianist who created a Web site listing the numbers of thousands of public pay phones worldwide, including the Mojave Desert phone.

Many of the phones on his list are located in urban areas--such as the one at the top observation deck of the Eiffel Tower--and Thomas said the Mojave Phone Booth may attract so many callers because of its exotic isolation.

"You could make a chance contact at any pay phone, but the odds of reaching someone out in the desert are incredibly remote," he said. "That's why people call."

Others say calls to the phone are made out of sheer boredom.

"It's the get-a-life factor," said UCLA sociologist Warren TenHouten. "Some people just have nothing to do, so they pursue shreds of information that have no value. It amuses me, but there's something pitiful about it too. I mean, what's the most interesting thing that could happen by being so mischievous as to call a public pay phone?

"Someone answers, a person you have absolutely no connection with. You exchange names and talk about the weather. What a thrill."

One of the 60 callers greeted by a reporter on a recent visit acknowledged that he was shocked anyone was there to answer.

"I thought I'd just call and wake up the coyotes," said a purchasing agent from San Bernardino County, who buzzed the phone from work. "Modern times are passing us by and it's just sort of romantic--just the idea that it's out there."

Daniels, a Tempe, Ariz., resident, is considered the father of the phone booth. He was hooked in the spring of 1997, after reading of the Mojave phone in the cryptic letter to the magazine "Wig Out."

The 36-year-old, who once ran for the Arizona Legislature and tried to start a country called Oceania, had discovered a new adventure: He began calling the booth every day. And he forced friends to call whenever they visited him.

After weeks of long-distance dialing, someone picked up.

"I was probably more surprised than he was that we were having a conversation on that phone," said Lorene Caffee, a local miner who answered the Mojave line in 1997.

Daniels transcribed the conversation on his new Web site. Later, after making several trips to the phone, he included such features as a 360-degree view of the surrounding desert from atop the phone and pictures of a bust of composer Richard Wagner--which he carries with him on his travels--inside the booth.

Soon came the call blitz. On one two-day trip to the booth, Daniels answered 200 of them, including a confused connection from Albania during the war in Kosovo.

Daniels plans to return on New Year's Eve to take Y2K reports from around the globe.

"I like the fact that you can have people who have never met or never will meet and they have this little intersection," he said. "Two people who have no business talking to one another."

Surprised to Get an Answer

Since most callers don't expect an answer, they gasp when a visitor actually picks up, many quickly hanging up like teenage telephone pranksters.

One call answered by a reporter came from 17-year-old Jan Spuehamer of Hamburg, Germany. "This is costing me a lot of money, but I think it is very funny," Spuehamer said. "One magazine article said you have to be very lucky to have someone pick up this line. Because this is the loneliest phone in the world, no?"

And so people keep calling the Mojave Phone Booth. And visiting.

On a drive home from Las Vegas, Wade Burrows and Brian Burkland impulsively decided to visit the booth. They walked around for 10 minutes scratching their heads, finally leaving behind their own memento: a car license plate they both autographed.

Said the 21-year-old Burkland: "Dude, this is, like, so cool!"

Then Burrows, a San Bernardino pizza deliveryman, placed a call from his favorite desert phone booth.

"Hey, Mom," he said, holding a cigarette burned down to the filter. "You'll never guess where I'm calling from--a phone booth in the middle of nowhere."

He paused, listening.

"Why am I out here? Well, Mom, that's a long story."

September 1, 1999

Don't fence him in

Dennis Casebier preserves the human resources of the East Mojave

Stuart Kellogg, Staff Writer
Victor Valley Daily Press

Yes, it was rude, but I had to ask: What’s it like to live 30 miles from nowhere?

“We are here,” replied Dennis Casebier, founder of the Goffs Historic Cultural Center six miles north of Interstate 40 and half an hour west of Needles.

“You are the one who lives far away.”

So it came as no surprise when, two seconds later, he admitted a fondness for “desert rats,” heirs to the original mountain men.

“Desert rats aren’t exactly rebellious,” said Casebier, 65. “It’s just that they won’t be told what to do.

“People who live in the back country unconsciously erect barriers to confound city folk. That barrier — whether 30 dogs or junk in the yard — serves as a filter.

“The average flatlander is intimidated. But once you pass the desert rat’s test, you can’t get away.”

Lamenting that the classic desert rats have all gone, Casebier blamed the Bureau of Land Management (“Once the BLM got interested in resource management, the desert rats were doomed”) but also the fact that “today it’s an unlucky combination to be both self-reliant and intolerant of regulations.”

This from a 30-year Navy man.

Goffs was established in 1883 as a siding for the Southern Pacific Railway. It increased in importance when, in 1907, a short-line railroad connected it to the rich mines at Searchlight, Nevada.

By 1911 there were enough children living in Goffs (sons and daughters of railway employees) to require a school. Classes began in a rented, frame structure.

Three years later, a handsome mission-style schoolhouse was built. It served a total of 412 students before closing down in 1937, supplanted by a new school in Essex.

Searchlight had fizzled by 1923. Route 66, which once brought traffic through town, was redirected six miles south in 1931.

By 1937, Goffs had gone bust.

But 20 years later, a kid from Topeka, Kan., was assigned to the Marine Training Center in Twentynine Palms.

“Kansas isn’t the desert,” Casebier conceded, “but it, too, is big and empty. And it, too, had been homesteaded — Twentynine Palms was settled by World War I veterans gassed by the Germans.

“Back then, you could still drive all over Joshua Tree National Monument, so a friend and I explored the old mines. We’d sleep out at night and, in the morning, dump scorpions out of our boots.”

No wonder Casebier fell in love with the desert.

In 1960 he returned to California to work as a physicist on the Navy’s guided missile systems. By then, however, Joshua Tree was choked with tourists and government regulations. So Casebier looked around and discovered the East Mojave.

“It reminded me of the desert I used to know,” he said. “But more desert, and more Joshua trees.”

His work for the Navy meant Casebier spent a third of his time in Washington, D.C. While there, he researched the East Mojave in the National Archives, combing through pension files and muster rolls:

“The Army’s muster rolls detail everyone who ever served here — what he looked like and what he’d been doing just before he enlisted.”

Casebier’s research focused on the 1850s through the 1880s, and especially the Old Mojave Road, an ancestor of Route 66 that runs 15 miles north of Goffs.

“Until 1883,” he said, “the Old Mojave Road was the major route through this latitude for people traveling between Prescott, Arizona, and the Port of Los Angeles.”

Over the course of 25 years, Casebier filled 50 reels of microfilm with records from the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

In 1981, while still living in Corona, he founded the Friends of the Mojave Road with fellow devotees of that road and other back-country trails.

Today the Friends boast 850 members, chiefly in California, Nevada and Arizona. “But the other day,” Casebier said, “someone wrote from Switzerland requesting a (newsletter) subscription.”

Why do people join the Friends?

“Because they think it matters to create something bigger than yourself.”

This “thing that matters” is the cultural center, built around the old Goffs schoolhouse on 113 acres bought by Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, in 1989.

In 1993 the Friends gained nonprofit status as the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association.

Working from old photos and interviews with more than 40 former students — and funded by $133, 850, all from private donors — MDHCA volunteers restored the schoolhouse to its original, 1914 splendor.

That schoolhouse may be the centerpiece, but the cultural center boasts other gems as well: for example, the tiny Danby courthouse, which once stood next to Judge Johnny Neilson’s service station; a building from the Golden Queen Mine near Mojave; an Atlantic & Pacific boxcar, 100 years old, now used as a cookhouse; and a complete 10-stamp ore mill from Rosamond.

Casebier explained that gold miners used stamp mills to pulverize rock: “Stamp mills won the West, but they contained so much metal, most got scrapped out. Today hardly any are left.”

Another building at the site, now used as a library, has had a most adventurous life.

Built in the ’20s as a maintenance station for the California Division of Highways, it was moved 18 miles to Essex after the realignment of Route 66.

In 1992 the Friends moved it back to Goffs.

“In fact, there are two of these houses,” Casebier said. “The other, built under the same contract, is still in Newberry Springs.”

The library is home to MDHCA’s 6,000 volumes of desert lore, 35,000 historical photographs and 600 oral histories.

Of those oral histories, half were done by Casebier, and half by Harold and Lucile Weight of the late, great “Desert Magazine.”

“The Weights were doing oral histories a generation before I started,” Casebier said. He also acknowledged the work of volunteers who transcribe recorded interviews.

The center’s purview stretches from Barstow to Las Vegas, Arizona and Twentynine Palms. “Vegas is just at the edge of our turf,” Casebier said, “though if I heard of a 97-year-old with a clear mind who lived in Vegas in the ’30s, I’d certainly interview them.”

He’s even interviewed people younger than himself, “if they were significantly involved in a core business or in the highway itself.”

Any tips on collecting an oral history?

“During the interview itself,” Casebier said, “I talk as little as possible.

“We start with vital statistics, such as the person’s full name. If that name is unusual, I’ll ask about it. Then we go on to where and when the person was born, their parents’ names, etc.”

When he interviews an elderly woman, her grown daughter — worried about having a strange man in the house — may sit in the same room. “Then,” Casebier said, “the daughter may finish her mother’s sentences instead of giving her time to collect her memories. That’s hard.”

At other times, two may be better than one:

“I interviewed a man and a woman who’d gone to school together in 1914 — in Lanfair Valley, an elevated, better-watered valley north of here that enjoyed a homestead boom starting in 1910.

“By interviewing them separately, and then together, I got much more than I could’ve out of either one alone.”

Should scholars approach him, asking to read a transcript, Casebier first tries to discover their intentions. “Especially until someone passes on,” he said, “I feel responsible for what they have told me.”

Sometimes friends or family suggest a really good interviewee. Then Casebier sends the prospect an MDHCA newsletter, “to let them see what we’re up to.”

At other times subjects show up on his doorstep:

“During World War II, 16,000 troops were stationed at Goffs. Every once in a while, a guy will come by looking for his roots.

“We’ll sit on the porch and I’ll ask him, ‘Could you see the water tanks? How far were you from the railroad? How would you get into Needles?’

“From this I can figure where his particular camp was.

“You can still see rock streets those boys built during the war.”

August 21, 1999


Press Release on the Environment (California Exerpt)
Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release August 21, 1999

August 21, 1999

Today, in his weekly radio address, President Clinton announced new protections for critical lands and highlighted other recent acquisitions. And he called on Congress to approve his Lands Legacy initiative -- $1 billion in FY2000 to protect natural treasures and local green spaces, and permanent funding of at least $1 billion a year to continue these efforts in the 21st century.

A Conservation Commitment for the 21st Century. In his balanced budget for FY2000, the President proposed a record $1 billion Lands Legacy initiative to protect more natural treasures, and to provide new resources to states and communities to preserve farms, urban parks, coastlands, wetlands, and working forests. Proposed acquisitions would protect 110 natural and historic sites in 40 states and territories.

So far, however, Congress has cut the President's request by nearly two-thirds. In addition, the President is proposing permanent funding of at least $1 billion a year beginning in FY2001 to continue these efforts throughout the coming century. About half the funding would be reserved for states and local communities. Today, the President called on Congress to approve full funding for next year and to join him in creating a permanent fund to preserve America's lands legacy.

August 21, 1999

In his radio address today, President Clinton announced other natural or historic sites acquired this year by federal agencies:


U. S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture

Funding Requested Agency

California Wilderness $1,000,000 USFS
California Desert (Catellus property) $28,900,000 BLM
Mojave National Preserve (Catellus property) $7,100,000 NPS
San Bernardino Ecosystem, San Bernardino NF $2,500,000 USFS
San Diego NWR $3,100,000 FWS
Santa Rosa Mountains NSA $500,000 BLM

BLM Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Department of the Interior
FWS Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Department of the Interior
NPS National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior
USFS U. S. Forest Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture

NF National Forest
NSA National Scenic Area
NWR National Wildlife Refuge

May 24, 1999

Greens not welcome in Escalante

by Brent Israelsen
High Country News

ESCALANTE, Utah - Heavy machinery rolled into town the week of April 12. Construction was imminent on the $7.5 million New Wide Hollow Reservoir that would provide water for a couple dozen ranchers in this rural southern Utah town.

Then, on April 15, under pressure from environmentalists who say the reservoir would harm the Escalante River, the Bureau of Land Management put the project on hold. That night, someone re-arranged an irrigation pipe on the property of Patrick Diehl and Tori Woodward, recent arrivals from California who have opposed the reservoir. A valve was opened and 32,000 gallons of water gushed into a hole the couple had recently dug for a shop and studio.

The couple reported the incident to the police but have received little sympathy from locals. Instead, a week later, the New Escalante Irrigation Company sent Diehl and Woodward a notice that the "open pipe" that flooded their excavation was a violation of company rules, and they would have to pay a $1,150 fine.

The sabotage is just one sign that tensions are rising in this ranching town, pop. 1,200, which is struggling to adjust to life with a national monument in its back yard, and conservationists pushing to set aside more of the landscape as wilderness.

"They need a better grip on Escalante’s background, customs and culture," Escalante Mayor Lenza Wilson says of green-leaning newcomers. "The jury (of local opinion) has returned a very strong verdict, and they are not welcome here."

An unenviable position

The New Escalante Irrigation Co. currently draws water from the Wide Hollow Reservoir, which has filled with so much silt in the past few years that it can hold just 1,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. It takes about 5 acre-feet of water to grow a season’s worth of alfalfa on an acre of land in Escalante. By July or August, the irrigation company is usually out of water.

The proposed New Wide Hollow Reservoir would provide an additional 6,100 acre-feet of water, which the irrigation company says would be used to grow alfalfa. "That reservoir is our lifeline," said irrigation company water master Pat Coughlin. "Our livelihood depends on our water storage."

But wilderness advocates argue that the new reservoir would dry up a creek and disrupt the flow of the Escalante River. On April 11, Patrick Diehl criticized the dam in the Salt Lake Tribune for its potential to harm the river ecosystem downstream. He also suggested that that the irrigation company wanted the extra water not for agriculture but for more lucrative residential development.

To Escalante residents, it was the final insult. "I’m a man of few words, and when I speak, they are real harsh," said Barry Barnson, a 31-year Escalante resident and member of the irrigation company’s board. "The thing that got Patrick Diehl in trouble is he took the route that we’re a bunch of idiots."

Barnson and other irrigation company board members have implied that Diehl and Woodward are responsible for the errant water, either through negligence or as a publicity stunt. They insist that fines like the one levied against the pair are common.

But Diehl insists that he and Woodward are the victims of vandalism, which will cost them $500 to repair. Garfield County Deputy Sheriff Monte Luker sides with the couple, saying, "I feel it was a vandalism and do not think (Diehl and Woodward) were involved."

Diehl plans to appeal the fine, but he will be in the unenviable position of pleading his case before a board composed of people who would have benefited from the reservoir he opposed. Outraged at how Diehl and Woodward have been treated, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has agreed to provide an attorney.

Tensions rise over wilderness

Wilderness advocates, too, have been feeling unwelcome in Escalante lately. On April 23, the Bureau of Land Management held a public open house at the local high school to discuss the agency’s plan to add federal lands to the inventory of wilderness study areas (HCN, 8/3/98).

Representing the Utah Wilderness Coalition at the meeting was Bob Walton of Salt Lake City. Walton displayed stacks of wilderness literature and bumper stickers in the lobby.

A man wearing a large hat grabbed the stickers, cut them in half with a big hunting knife and threw them in a garbage can. The man said something to the effect of, "This is garbage. We won’t have any of this here," says Walton.

A short time later, Walton put out more literature and bumper stickers. The man returned and destroyed them in the same manner.

"Soon after that, a rather large group of folks began to gather around me, verbally harassing and threatening me," Walton wrote in a report to the Escalante police. "One person said, "We ought to kill you." "

Walton retreated into the meeting and asked agency officials for an escort to his car. "It’s a real shame. I feel like I have to watch my back in Escalante. That’s disheartening because it’s a place I love," said Walton, a sixth-generation Utahn.

Another Garfield County environmental activist is searching for middle ground between old-timers and newcomers. Mark Austin, who owns the Boulder Mountain Lodge in Boulder, is working with farmers and wilderness advocates to come up with an environmentally sensitive design for the New Wide Hollow Reservoir.

The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are willing to consider a compromise if it includes enough environmental safeguards. And irrigation company officials say they are willing to talk, but they suspect that environmentalists will ask for too many concessions. "The scuttlebutt is what they want to do is trade the reservoir for us backing off our opposition to additional wilderness," Wide Hollow Water Conservancy District member Dal Liston told the Salt Lake Tribune, "which is definitely not something we would do."

March 29, 1999

Land deal links desert parks

by Juniper Davis
High Country News

A California-based land trust has arranged to put almost 500,000 acres of mountaintop forests, sand dunes and volcanic cinder cones into public hands.

The $61.5 million deal now awaits a decision by Congress to release $36 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Yucaipa, Calif., will pay the remainder.

"If we don't buy now, the parcels will ultimately be sold off, and we may end up with as many as 700 landholders," says Shelton Douthit of the conservancy.

The group has already bought threatened lands in and between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve and preserved them for the public, but this is their largest acquisition yet.

The lands, owned by Catellus Development Corp., are important habitat for the desert tortoise as well as valuable for access to the parks. Catellus has agreed to sell the lands for $126 an acre; the lands will then be split between the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

January 11, 1999

Letter of Intent Signed to Sell Up to 437,000 Acres of California Desert Land to the Federal Government

Press Release

Business Wire

SAN FRANCISCO--(BUSINESS WIRE) Catellus Development Corp. (NYSE:CDX), The Wildlands Conservancy and the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced today that a non-binding letter of intent has been signed among the three entities to sell and donate to the federal government up to 437,000 acres of California desert land currently owned by Catellus.

The Catellus-owned acreage includes land within the Mojave National Preserve and BLM-administered wilderness areas created by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. It also includes other sensitive ecological and cultural lands, critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, and certain off-road vehicle areas. It is the intent of the three parties to finalize a formal agreement during the first quarter of this year.

In this preliminary agreement, Catellus has agreed to sell 437,000 acres to the federal government for a total cash consideration of $54.625 million, of which The Wildlands Conservancy, an Oak Glen, Calif.-based conservation group, will donate $18.625 million in private funds. The parties have agreed to confirm the total cash consideration for the lands with an appraisal to occur later this year. The value in excess of the cash consideration will be donated to The Wildlands Conservancy or the federal government as a charitable contribution from Catellus.

The Wildlands Conservancy is seeking congressional approval for a $36.0 million allocation of federal funds for this effort from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The request for these funds is expected to be submitted to Congress in February of this year as part of the Fiscal Year 2000 Budget Request from the Clinton Administration.

Following appropriation of the necessary federal funds and the raising of the necessary private funds, transfer of the 437,000 acres is anticipated to occur by January, 2000. The Wildlands Conservancy has agreed to place into escrow a $5.0 million deposit towards the purchase of the land.

The Wildlands Conservancy will also donate 26,360 acres previously purchased to BLM and the National Park Service and will donate an additional $2.0 million in cash for acquisition of up to 20,000 acres of private inholdings in Joshua Tree National Park. The total transaction will bring up to 483,360 acres into federal ownership and will consolidate public ownership in Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and numerous BLM wilderness areas.

In addition, it will transfer to public ownership significant critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, enhance recreational opportunities in off-highway vehicle areas, and create a wildlife corridor between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

The letter of intent also contains a related agreement between Catellus and BLM that calls for the exchange of up to an additional 65,000 acres of California desert land currently owned by Catellus for land managed by BLM. The specific acreage to be exchanged will be determined based on an appraisal to occur later this year and the exchange will be made on an equal value basis.

Through this transaction, Catellus is seeking to both consolidate its desert holdings, much of which is checker-boarded across the desert, and to exchange certain acres of land with critical resource values to BLM for land that would be suitable for development or other purposes, or that is located near existing development in Barstow, Mojave and Needles.

"We are pleased that we have been able to reach these agreements with The Wildlands Conservancy and BLM," said Nelson C. Rising, president and chief executive officer of Catellus Development Corp. "These transactions benefit our shareholders in allowing us to monetize a portion of our non-strategic holdings that can be reinvested into our core businesses and to exchange another portion of these holdings into locations closer to population centers and transportation corridors."

"Following these transactions, we will have reduced and consolidated our desert portfolio to just over 300,000 acres of land," Rising continued. "In addition, we will be able to make a charitable contribution of critical preserve lands and become part of an historic transaction facilitated by The Wildlands Conservancy that will benefit not only BLM but also the National Park Service and the American public."

"This letter of intent is the culmination of four years of work and determination on the part of our organization," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy. "This transaction will preserve the biological and aesthetic integrity and recreational access to over 4.0 million acres of public land in Southern California. We are pleased that we could work successfully with Catellus and BLM in the largest conservation acquisition and donation in California history."

"The historic agreement reached today could not only bring half a million acres of private inholdings into public ownership, but also ensure the permanent integrity of much of the wilderness, parks, critical wildlife habitat, and recreation areas of the California Desert. This unprecedented Federal/private partnership will give the California Desert the national attention this region deserves," declared Ed Hastey, BLM's California State Director.

Catellus Development Corp. is one of the nation's premier diversified real estate operating companies with one of the largest portfolios of developable land in the western United States. The company develops, manages and owns a broad range of product types including commercial, residential, office, retail and major mixed-use projects. At Sept. 30, 1998, Catellus' strategic land portfolio had a development potential of over 54.7 million square feet of new commercial space, exclusive of 4.9 million square feet of commercial space under construction and an estimated 21,000 residential units.

The company's income-producing portfolio included 18.9 million square feet of income-producing buildings, 12,250 acres of income-producing land leases, interests in a variety of joint ventures and approximately 782,000 acres of desert and agricultural land. For more information on Catellus Development Corp., please visit its corporate web site at

The Wildlands Conservancy, a California non-profit corporation formed in 1995, is dedicated to preserving Southern California's outstanding landscapes for public enjoyment. The Conservancy places special emphasis on enriching the lives of urban youth by funding field trips to its preserves in Kern, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and other natural areas. The Conservancy is redirecting funding for this effort from other important projects and welcomes support to carry on its important mission.