May 30, 2000

Requiem for a Telephone Booth

The Internet helped turn a lone phone booth in the Mojave desert into a cult phenomenon--until the bureaucrats stepped in.

The legendary Mojave phone booth, in the middle of California's Mojave desert, miles from anywhere. (Reddit)

Los Angeles Times

"You think maybe some phreaks stole it?"--disbelieving fan on a Web site devoted to the uprooted Mojave Phone Booth.

The endless elegy to the Mojave Phone Booth is loving and wild, as passionate as the callers who rung it up at all hours and usually got an answer, as giddy as the two naked young women who recently answered calls there.

Earlier this month, the most famous phone booth this side of Clark Kent was yanked from its remote spot in the Mojave National Preserve, 75 miles from the Nevada border. Fans from all over the world called the booth or picked up its ringing phone, drawn by what was billed as "the loneliest phone booth on Earth."

What happened on that stretch of desert is a metaphor for today's wired times, a weird merging of old and new communication. Promoted by the Internet, media and word-of-mouth, the phone booth symbolized an intimate, makeshift community of sorts--until it turned into a roadside attraction among the Joshua trees. The pay phone was done in by the very fans who sought the quirky potential of a connection to the middle of nowhere. It became such a symbol that one fan had planned to get married at the site. (He met his fiancee there.) And a USC graduate student in visual anthropology is producing a documentary on the Mojave phenomenon.

The booth was installed in the 1960s for miners, and no one paid much attention to it until recently, when a computer entrepreneur, Godfrey Daniels, plugged the phone on his Web site,

"All its glass had been shot out," he wrote, "but I thought it was beautiful." He posted photos and a satellite image of the pay phone, and a star was born.

In the last three years or so, fans who traveled to the booth, on a winding dirt road accessible only by four-wheel drive, reported answering more than 200 calls a day.

No one knew what was to come.

On May 17, with no notice, workers removed the booth. The number has been disconnected.

Pacific Bell and National Park Service officials cited safety concerns, saying that "increased public traffic had a negative impact on the desert environment in the nation's newest national park."

Pacific Bell spokesman Steve Getzug said he did not know who initiated discussions about hauling away the phone booth. He said it was a joint decision.

"I know there were several conversations between Pacific Bell and the National Park Service," he said. "It was really weighing this issue of public needs and impacts they saw happening out in the desert. I think they were concerned with campfires and litter, and had concerns about people coming out there and getting stranded."


A spokesman for the Mojave National Preserve, Mike Reynolds, said park staff members have come across "a ton of trash in the area" and stranded motorists who try to get to the phone booth without four-wheel drive. One windy day, near the booth, with no one around, "there was a blazing campfire pit. It was going crazy.

"Congress has set aside these lands to be preserved, protected and enjoyed by all citizens," he said.

Fans of the phone booth challenged the officials' statements, saying that they took care to pick up trash. Regulars at the site said that they did not notice abandoned campfires and that locals helped out stuck motorists.

In fact, said Kaarina Roberto, a USC graduate student, people took pride in the spot. Roberto, 28, was skeptical when she first started investigating the site as the possible subject of a thesis for her visual anthropology major. Then she and her husband began camping there, answering the phone as it rang all night.

"When we first heard people say they cared about it, it sounded kind of weird," she said. "But it's caring about what it represents . . . it represents the positive aspects of humanity, a diverse group of people who share some common ground, a shared humanity."

She was stunned by the news of its removal.

"It sounds really preposterous," she said, "but it felt almost like a death of a community that has formed, unlike anything else you've ever experienced."

Andria Fiegel Wolfe, a 30-year-old theatrical lighting designer, and her sister visited the booth last year from New York City. The phone was ringing as they pulled up in their rental car. In the heat of the desert, they shed their clothes and answered the phone with sun block and a smile: "Mojave Desert. How may I direct your call?" In 4 1/2 hours, they took 72 calls.


"I think it's a little bit of magic, something special," Wolfe said in an e-mail. "'I think that people also appreciated the frivolity of it all, the whimsy of the trips out to the Booth. . . .

"Me, I was inspired to go see the desert for myself. And it changed my life. If it took a silly telephone booth to give me that, I'm thankful and can't question it too much. I'm sad beyond words that it's gone, but it's a sadness over the circumstances of its removal--that the park isn't truly for the people, if that's the way the rangers see it."

Daniels, who plans to keep his Web site up, still hoped that the booth could live on, to tie the knot in front of it.

"I want to get the booth. I want to reinstall it somewhere else. I won't disclose the location, but you'll be able to call the number."

The booth, according to Pacific Bell, will be destroyed.

That's standard procedure, a spokesman said, for a damaged phone booth that cannot be revived.

May 24, 2000

If a Phone Rings in the Desert...

Leander Kahney

What happens when a tourist attraction, in this case a phone booth in the middle of nowhere, becomes too popular? The National Park Service removes everything but the ring, that's what.

Located smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert at the end of a dirt road, the Mojave Phone Booth attracted so many visitors to an environmentally sensitive area that the NPS cut the connection and removed the booth last week.

"While the phone and its location proved to be a novelty for some in recent months, the increased public traffic had a negative impact on the desert environment in the nation's newest national park," said the National Park Service and Pacific Bell in a joint statement announcing its removal.

At least 15 miles from the nearest paved road, which runs through the vast nowhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the phone was installed decades ago for workers at a now closed cinder mine.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, except rocks and Joshua trees, can be seen from the booth, according to Godfrey Daniels, an Arizona computer consultant who popularized the outpost.

Three years ago, after a friend told Daniels about the phone, he began dialing it every day, hoping for an answer.

Daniels documented his obsession -- A Pointless Exercise in Telephony -- and the sheer weirdness of it persuaded people from all over the planet to call the booth's number (760-733-9969).

"You can be sitting bored out of your mind at work and it’s like traveling," said Daniels of the attraction the phone exerted. "You can make something happen far away."

For the longest time, the phone attracted only a trickle of visitors. Then came a rash of news stories in the national media, and curiosity seekers flooded the site.

"There were a lot of visitors," Daniels said, "Well, for out there, there were a lot of visitors. Mainly at weekends. The chances of someone answering the phone were significantly improved from in the past."

Now Daniels said he is in two minds about the booth's removal. While its popularity now bores him, he remains skeptical of the National Parks Service rationale for its removal.

"I don’t think the NPS had a right to remove it," he said. "They can’t say what the negative environmental impact is. If there was a negative environmental impact, they should be able to say what it is."

The spokesperson for the Mojave National Preserve, which oversees the park, forwarded requests for comment on the booth situation to Pacific Bell, which didn't return phone calls. Neither did the the NPS.

The official joint statement simply states: "After weighing environmental concerns and public need, Pacific Bell and the National Park Service agreed to remove a pay phone located in a remote pocket of the Mojave National Preserve."

Whatever the reason, fans of the booth aren't buying it. Daniels estimated he has received nearly 200 emails protesting its removal in the last few days. Many came from visitors claiming the land around the booth remains unblemished despite the increased traffic.

"I was very impressed at how clean and untarnished the area was for being so popular," wrote "Robin," who visited last month. "There was no trash or debris, no trampled plants, no broken glass.... It looks to me like the people who have taken the time to visit the booth were very aware of keeping things in order."

Pacific Bell was a reluctant party in the booth’s removal, Daniels said, because of all the publicity it had received. The company had even replaced some of the shot-out windows with ones displaying the company’s logo.

And now, although the phone's gone, the number still rings, which Daniels said is a particularly cruel trick because unsuspecting callers believe the phone is still there.

Daniels said he hopes Pacific Bell will sell him the booth. If that happens, he plans to install the booth in a very remote, secret location and install a telecom link-up. He declined to discuss the details.

"If I had to do this all over again, I would do it very differently," he said. "I would keep it very, very quiet."

May 23, 2000

Phone booth in desert disappears

Mojave visitors can no longer phone home from a once famous communication site.

By Keith Rogers
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The number for the lonely pay phone in the Mojave Desert still rings, but the booth that once caught the attention of curiosity seekers around the world is gone.

Pacific Bell technicians with the concurrence of the National Park Service removed the famous phone booth last week from its remote location in the Mojave National Preserve in California, 75 miles southwest of the Nevada border. That's where it had stood since the 1960s to serve the nearby Cima Cinder Mine and wanderers out that way.

Pacific Bell and National Park Service officials said the phone booth had become so well-known from media exposure and Web sites that chronicled its existence that travelers were damaging fragile desert resources. And that outweighed its public service needs, they said.

"Certainly the phone and its location proved to be a novelty for some in recent months but that all had an impact," explained Steve Getzug, a Pacific Bell spokesman in Los Angeles.

He confirmed the booth was removed Wednesday and said it was hauled to a company service yard in Southern California.

Calls to the booth's number, (760) 733-9969, rang endlessly Monday, but one Web site that posts information about the so-called Mojave Phone Booth, claims dialers were hearing a "phantom ring."

Removal of the booth "was probably inevitable given the hyper-attention the booth attracted (and) federal involvement," according to the Web site known as "Deuce of Clubs."

Mojave National Preserve Superintendent Mary Martin said problems with travelers in search of the phone booth had increased in recent months.

"We had a fire out there a couple weeks ago from a blazing campfire," she said, noting that decorative rocks had been used to spell messages near the booth and vandalism was commonplace.

Ranchers in the area also complained that sightseers were pestering them to find the booth and some became stranded and sought their help.

"We've had a lot of cars that have gone out there and been stuck," Martin said.

Getzug said callers to the number will probably hear endless ringing for a few more days but once the disconnect order is processed there will be a message that the number is no longer in service. Plans call for removing the telephone lines that led to the booth.

Pacific Bell's right of way for the booth and transmission lines expired in 1992.

"It was sort of out of sight and out of mind for a number of years," Getzug said.

May 1, 2000

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bryan’s Misguided Search for a Green-Approved Legacy

by Gerald Hillier
Nevada Journal

Sen. Richard Bryan's proposal to create a new National Conservation Area (NCA) in Nevada's Black Rock Desert is not in the public interest, and certainly not in the interest of Nevadans. Actually, the senator's proposal would negatively affect precisely the area he claims he is seeking to protect. The plan would highlight these remote locations, give them public attention and attract more people to them. Other public lands in Nevada would be negatively affected also.

This is my considered view as a professional land and natural resources manager who for 16 years ran the largest NCA in existence—the California Desert Conservation Area. For 35 years I worked for the Bureau of Land Management, assigned for 21 of those years as a district manager. Thus my knowledge of the management and administration of national conservation areas is first-hand.

From my frame of reference, there are several areas where one can see a major disconnect between the explanations being given by Bryan and other NCA supporters and the actual circumstaces of this proposal.

First, although it is being offered in the name of "protection," and a purported need for it, that is an outright misstatement. The public lands are already managed and protected. It does not take designation to give BLM land "protection." The authority to regulate and manage use already exists and is being exercised. After all, the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) has been in effect for some 24 years now.

BLM Already Has Authority
Over Applegate-Lassen Trail

The BLM has rangers in all areas, it has applied the management authority granted it under the act, and it is doing comprehensive land and resource planning. There is nothing missing from that equation. And whatever historic value does exist in the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail, clear authority to manage and protect it is already in place under the BLM's existing multiple-use planning process.

But even if there were a need for additional protection, the NCA designation does not provide any.

One big reason is that there are no standards for NCAs. What, really, is a "National Conservation Area?" What standard of behavior is called for by users?

I can tell you—as someone who was an original supporter of the concept in the '70s when the NCAs began—that there is none. NCA status will not give protection purposes any more teeth. Fundamentally the NCA designation itself does not work. Essentially it is today only an interim step, on the way to something else.

How the Restrictions Come

Consider what Californians saw happen with the California Desert Conservation Area. With 12.5 million acres of public land in the southern part of the state, the CDCA became a proving ground and pilot program for the NCA concept. For its time and place, that was good—but it showed that the model does not need repeating.

Here's an example. At the end of the planning process, we found we had a special area—the high-elevation East Mojave—which was remote enough to escape urbanization and had lots of uses. It had important mining and grazing as well as hunting and rock hounding. All were valid uses—some economic and others involving outdoor recreation.

It needed a name, and what we came up with was "National Scenic Area." Our intent was to highlight both its true multiple use character and its heritage values.

What it became, however, was a stalking horse for preservationists who wanted to end multiple use on the land. The outcome was a National Preserve in the CDCA, in the name of "protection." Next, under the U.S. Park Service, came more restrictions on grazing and hunting, with the NPS announcing an ultimate goal of removing them. Mining and rock hounding were simply prohibited. And of some 500,000 acres of private lands that are or were within the East Mojave area, most soon will be conveyed to the federal government.

The bottom line is that the very values the public valued and which the BLM itself had intended to protect were virtually lost.

Now, Sen. Bryan and the environmentalists pushing for NCA status for the Black Rock have, of course, offered assurances that the designation will have no effect upon existing uses like grazing and hunting. Unfortunately, however, those assurances are empty. It is not up to the senator nor to the advocacy groups what will happen under the plan they are pushing. Indeed, their plan itself gives complete control to the Secretary of the Interior. This raises the question of whether the intention behind these platitudes is to lull local folks to sleep. Actually, if the assurances that the grazing, hunting and private property will not be affected were truly valid, there would exist no reason to propose the NCA.

Of course, everyone in the West today has had too much experience with the federal agencies to trust them to keep their promises, or even be bound by them. Sadly, that's with good reason. The nation is now littered with broken federal promises, whether one looks at Voyagers National Park in Minnesota, where lake access was "assured" until the National Park Service applied wilderness management rules, or to California, where miners were promised protection of "valid existing rights" but had to prove them and then were faced with no way to move ore out of the wilderness.

Ongoing Mischief

We are all familiar, of course, with environmentalists eagerly emphasizing the stress that visitors place on an area. Yet the preservationists advocate NCA status for the Black Rock desert—a course they know will attract more visitors there. Is their goal to create a need for even greater restrictions? This is the danger with NCAs—they set up a framework for on-going preservation mischief in the name of "protection." What that turns out to mean, practically, is "get rid of everything we do not approve of."

That has been the effect of the NCA designation—helped along by application of the Endangered Species Act—in California's San Bernardino County.

There the residents and citizens are losing much control of and access to what had been the county's resources and resource-based industry and employment. Almost 500,000 acres of private land tax base are on the way to being lost to the county, as "conservation interests"—wielding federal Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations—move to purchase the acreage and "donate" it to the federal government.

In Southern California the California Desert Protection Act has already placed almost 9 million acres—much of it highly mineralized—off-limits for any future development and even recreation activity such as rockhounding. This represents a real loss to the county's tax base. Not only are taxable lands lost, but public lands, too, are blocked from ever being able to generate business, economic return or employment.

Because San Bernardino County is already beyond the ceilings set by law for payment in lieu of taxes (PILT), county officials there find themselves facing a substantial net loss in revenue with no decrease in the demand for services and infrastructure in the area. Indeed, much of the infrastructure use—e.g., county roads, solid waste disposal, flood control—is a direct result of federal acquisitions!

The Latest Version of the Bill

After reading the latest draft of Bryan's legislation, posted on his Senate website, I see that the bill still seeks to enact into law numerous non-NCA bells and whistles of the preservationist wish list. These include mineral withdrawal, cancellation of geo-thermal steam leasees and designation of wilderness—and it seeks to do this without the normal public planning processes.

For example, while the bill now at least in part addresses on-going uses, it also clearly sets the stage for very restrictive management. After withdrawing the entire area from mining location and leasing, and establishing the eleven Wilderness Areas, what's left to plan?

This departs from the procedures followed in other, earlier, NCAs, such as the case of the California Desert. There it was up to the agency to develop planning recommendations for wilderness. It is true that Congress later ignored the input and took the recommendations of environmentalists, but that does not negate the public record that was made and which still has validity.

Another difficulty is the bill's language on roads:

Existing Public Roads.—The Secretary is authorized to maintain public roads within the boundaries of the conservation area in a manner consistent with the purposes for which the conservation area was established ....

Does the senator propose to extinguish any road claims under RS 2477? Although those are valid existing rights, his language seems to ignore it and say that the federal government is taking over everything. I suspect that out there within the WSAs there are roads and trails—available to jeeps and other forms of access and used by miners, ranchers, hunters and others—that do not qualify as a "road" under the very technical language the agencies have lately begun using. Now they are trying to exclude from the definition of "road" anything that does not receive "regular and continuing maintenance by mechanical equipment."

Under current law, Congress can do virtually whatever it wants—including designate land area as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The legislators are not constrained nor are there any requirements they have to meet prior to such designation.

However, if a federal agency recommends an area for Wilderness status, the federal government is required, under law, to both inventory the "roadless" areas and—more critically—complete U.S. Geological Survey mineral inventories. This is to document what mineral values may be lost if the area is withdrawn. All this data is then available to the Congress, if its members care to consider it. It is also available to the public, for its input into the decisions.

Now, in the Black Rock case, it is my understanding that such inventories have not been done. The areas are Wilderness Study Areas, but have generally been classified by the BLM as Not Recommended as Suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness System. Apparently, because the BLM considered the areas unsuitable for Wilderness status, no inventories were ever authorized. This would mean that passage of the senator's bill, as currently written, would violate existing national policy, as embodied in the Wilderness Act.

The Issue of Legacy

To many observers it appears that Sen. Bryan, now in his last year in the U.S. Senate, has naturally been thinking in terms of his personal legacy to the citizens of Nevada. When approached by preservationists making disingenuous claims about the need to "protect" the Black Rock Desert and the mountains around it, the senator then agreed to seek the legislation they desired.

But legacy should not, must not, be wrapped up with implementing agendas which are not in the public interest—or which adversely affect the livelihoods of those who can ill afford to battle powerful environmental interests to maintain their income, employment and stewardship of resources.

Gerald Hillier is owner and principal, Public Land Users Services. He lives in Riverside, Calif.

The Beef with Livestock

National Parks

Grazing is allowed at about three dozen parks and preserves. Although the practice is legislatively mandated, it frequently causes conflicts with wildlife and natural resource policies. The clash is most apparent at Grand Teton National Park.

LAST AUTUMN, a traveler from Tuscany came to America with hopes of catching a glimpse of the "Wild West." His imagination whetted by the classic outlaw movie, Shane, Daniele Tiezzi decided to hike in Grand Teton National Park not far from where the motion picture had been made half a century earlier.

Yet as the young Italian walked through the park and posed for a photograph in front of the spectacular mountains, he was rudely awakened by the clashing values of the Old and New Wests. Confronted by an angry Jackson Hole cowboy working for a local rancher, Tiezzi was ordered to leave because his presence, he was told, might frighten cattle grazing inside the national park boundary.

For wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind, who accompanied Tiezzi on the hike and who oversees the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance in Wyoming, the incident provides proof that livestock still are treated as sacred cows in some parks--even when the domestic animals dash with native wildlife, the National Park Service's mission of landscape preservation, and enjoyment for park visitors.

Although the National Park Service (NPS) is working to phase out grazing in some parks--notably Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Channel Islands National Park--others continue the practice and may in fact be extending it at parks such as Grand Teton. Some three dozen different parks and preserves began the 21st century with nonnative livestock grazing inside their borders, and at least another four sites allow grazing through agreements with the Bureau of Land Management.

Even as the National Park Service works to change the policy--a tedious and expensive process--Congress sometimes works to continue it. Led by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N. Mex.) and Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), some members of Congress have tried to stall grazing reforms, in some cases authoring legislation that would solidify the grip of livestock grazing on public lands in the West.

But a growing chorus of prominent ecologists posits that no single human activity has negatively affected the arid West more than livestock grazing.

In addition to land, grazing has a tremendous impact on riparian areas and their inhabitants. Of the 12 Western states that have a state fish, eight are considered endangered mainly because of grazing.

A 1994 study by the National Wildlife Federation tided Grazing to Extinction found that grazing contributed directly or indirectly to a minimum of 340 species listed or becoming candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In the arid West, the federally protected desert tortoise has been especially hard hit by grazing. Beginning this year, NPCA has made examination of the real costs of grazing in parks a primary component of its State of the Parks program, established to identify threats to biological diversity as well as the health of natural systems and the condition of historical parks.

"Cattle grazing in national parks is an incompatible activity, given what the parks were established for, especially in as spectacular a park as Grand Teton where the needs of native wildlife should be preeminent," says Tony Jewett, NPCA's northern Rockies regional director. "Cattle compete with native wildlife, degrade native plants, and disrupt visitor experience. The longer cattle persist in these parks, the longer there is going to be conflict."

Jewett notes that some units of the system, such as Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana, were set aside specifically to celebrate the history of frontier-era farming and ranching, but they are exceptions.

The National Park Service is being forced to confront a prickly and politically volatile question: What legitimate presence, if any, should livestock have in parks?

Debra Donahue, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, is the author of a scathing critique of livestock grazing titled The Western Range Revisited (University of Oklahoma Press). Donahue is also an academically trained biologist.

"One of the only reasons that cattle remain in many national parks and many Forest Service wilderness areas is the incredible political clout that the livestock industry wields in Congress," she says. "There is little or no scientific justification that can be made for livestock grazing in parks."

In all cases where grazing persists, it is legislated by Congress. Compromises were struck to ease tensions over fears that new national parklands would be "locked up" and unavailable for traditional local uses. Grand Teton provides a vivid example. The park was carved out of the picturesque valley of Jackson Hole when livestock still ruled the range. Over the years, many cattle allotments in Grand Teton have been phased out, and "those that remain are supposed to end upon the death of the beneficiaries named.

Camenzind puts the Grand Teton impact in perspective. The park, he says, spends more than $40,000 annually to maintain these allotments, and it receives about $8,500 a year in grazing fees. The cost to graze the same cattle on private land in Jackson Hole would be about $81,900, meaning that the ranchers enjoy more than $70,000 in subsidies each year.

"And what does the public get?" Camenzind asks. "We get unnecessary conflicts between cattle and federally protected grizzly bears, which resulted in a grizzly being killed inside the national park. We got a very intensive and expensive surveillance of a wolf den in the national park because it was near the cattle. We get thousands of acres of national parkland infested with alien weed species and a corresponding depletion of biodiversity. We also get over 100 miles of fences in our national park, much of it crisscrossing major wildlife habitat and migration routes. In all, the arrangement results in an almost complete loss of winter forage on about 2,700 acres and a severe depletion of forage on another 5,600 acres. This is forage that should be available for buffalo, elk, pronghorn, and other wildlife."

Park spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo says the park has not ignored Camenzind's concerns.

"Grand Teton was born of extraordinary political compromise and one of the compromises involved the continuation of livestock grazing. Sometimes short-term compromise is necessary to accomplish long-term objectives."

George Helfrich, a management assistant in the superintendent's office who is working on an environmental review of grazing, says that grazing was established as a legitimate use in the park by Congress, which means the park itself cannot unilaterally act to end it. Scientists, he says, have differing views on whether cattle cause all of the problems asserted by Camenzind, but one thing is certain. As wolves and grizzlies continue to recolonize, conflicts with cattle are likely to increase.

Recently, park officials have made overtures about extending the leases for grazing in Grand Teton, arguing that helping to keep large ranches in the valley is important to protecting open space and wildlife habitat. If ranchers lose access to grasslands inside the park, they say, the agrarians may have no other choice but to subdivide their pastures and pave them over with development. Currently, the park is in the midst of a congressionally funded study to determine the relationship between cattle grazing and the protection of open space and wildlife habitat surrounding it. Congress also is considering an appropriation to buy conservation easements on adjacent ranches that would benefit Grand Teton's bison, elk, and pronghorn.

"I say there are alternative ranching operations that could be adopted that would free up the parkland and give it back to wildlife," Camenzind says. "We could take the dollars currently used to subsidize the permittees [ranchers] and buy winter hay or pellets for the cattle."

"Instead we give the park forage to the cattle," Camenzind continues, "and buy winter feed for our elk and buffalo on the National Elk Refuge. And throughout all of this, the permittees have made no guarantee that they would keep their ranches operating and in open space. I think protecting open space is as important as phasing cattle out of the park. I just do not accept that the two are inextricably linked."

Every park that has livestock grazing inherited it as part of the arrangement for the park's creation. Conservationists understand that deals were cut to assuage local citizens who opposed park designation; however, continuing the practice has merely extended a protracted struggle.

In desert parks such as Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, where precipitation is minimal, it might take hundreds of acres of land to sustain a single cow, where in other, moist parts of the country, a few cows can subsist on a single acre of green pasture. It means that in the desert, the limited forage that cows consume and the patterns of their movements can cause severe stress for other plants and animals.

In these two parks, as well as Great Basin National Park in Nevada, the Park Service is having success at eliminating what were once extensive grazing allotments, but the process is far from complete.

At Mojave National Preserve, which supports prime desert tortoise habitat, the preserve had been encumbered with livestock grazing leases on 1.25 million of its 1.6 million acres. Within the last year, according to John Reynolds, the western regional director of NPS, the Park Service has been working on a project that could allow NPS to buy out the first set of grazing rights and has received a significant commitment in private pledges to buy out the remaining rights.

At Death Valley National Park, the largest park in the lower 48, the situation is just as positive. According to NPCA's Defending the Desert, a report released last fall on the anniversary of the California Desert Protection Act, the Park Service had eliminated two-thirds of the grazing in the park. Last year, the Park Service canceled the Last Chance grazing permit because of the rancher's lack of compliance with existing regulations. Additionally, the park is canceling grazing on parcels that connect to larger allotments on neighboring BLM lands. This would leave the park with only one area open to grazing.

Studies collected on lands analogous to Mojave and Death Valley show a clear correlation between cattle and environmental destruction. The Park Service's own resource guidelines recognize "the pervasive quality of grazing impacts on park resources" and cite a long list of resource concerns, including vegetation changes, water quality degradation, and degradation of cultural resources.

Johanna Wald, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "It is well established that livestock grazing can have significant adverse effects in arid environments like the Mojave National Preserve."

Unfortunately, individual park superintendents do not have the power to take action, says Reynolds. Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, section 2.60, prohibits "the pasturing or grazing of livestock in a park area, except as specifically authorized by statute, as required under a reserved right, or as conducted as an integral part of a program to maintain an historic scene. In all the parks where we have cattle, it is authorized by Congress."

Although the hands of NPS personnel may be tied to some degree by Congress, Helen Wagenvoord, NPCA's associate director of the Pacific region, says the agency has an impressive arsenal of laws at its disposal to counter some of the worst effects of grazing. These include the Organic Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Over the past few years, the Park Service has made some impressive gains in eliminating grazing from some parks where it had been most entrenched.

"Where we have been working pretty diligently is trying to arrange situations where it is beneficial for the ranchers with grazing arrangements to phase out over time," says Reynolds. "Where we have had financial partners to help facilitate the transition, the success rate has been pretty high."

Reynolds cites the recent withdrawal of cattle from 46,000 acres in Great Basin in Nevada--although sheep grazing continues--after ranchers were compensated for their allotments. In January 2000, grazing also was phased out of the Cades Cove meadows in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee after 70 years. These actions, in the East and West, are considered potential models for remedying the ongoing conflict with cattle.

NPCA's Southwest Regional Director David Simon says the land use history of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico demonstrates why intensive livestock grazing is incompatible with parks in the parched West. In arid environments, cattle have especially insidious effects because they reduce native grasses and their hooves break open the thin cryptogamic crust that anchors native plants and serves as a protective layer against wind and water erosion.

In 1879, 140 cattle were grazed in the entire state of New Mexico. Four years later, aided by the arrival of the railroad, which could ship animals to market, there were 1 million head, and a decade after that, millions more swarmed public lands including the landscapes of future parks.

"In Bandelier, the scars caused by cattle, sheep, and burro hooves are written deep into the land," Simon says. "Many believe the park is in intensive care, suffering from a combination of grazing, climate change, and fire suppression. The last burros were pulled out of Bandelier in the 1970s, and 20 years later the park is beginning to figure out how to grapple with all the problems," says Simon. "Overcoming the wounds is going to cost a lot of money, but who should be responsible for fixing it? It's like a Superfund site where nobody wants to pay the bill."

In response to public pressure, the Park Service has assigned Kathy Davis, a resource specialist based in southern Arizona, to draft a report on park grazing issues that could form the basis of a national management policy.

For tourists like Daniele Tiezzi, any reforms will not occur soon enough. He now realizes that the frontier mentality that shaped cowboy classics is not a fiction. In the "Wild West," including some of America's finest national parks, the jingle rings true: Cattle is king.

TODD WILKINSON lives in Bozeman, Montana, and is a frequent contributor to National Parks. He last wrote about the decline of the California sea otter population.

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