October 11, 2001

Dispute Over California Desert Range Turns On Ruling Conflict

Livestock Weekly

BARSTOW, Calif. — Federal officials and environmental activists contend that cattle are grazing in forbidden territory. One of the ranchers is pinning his hopes on a last-minute appeal by his attorney. Another rancher says it is the federal government that in violation of a court ruling.

Under an agreement between the BLM and the Tucson, Ariz.,-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, about a half-million California acres are off-limits to grazing from Sept. 7 to Nov. 7, and from March 1 to June 15.

The agreement also restricts mining and off-road recreation to protect habitat for a tortoise, bighorn sheep and 22 other species.

Environmental activists claim the cattle out-compete the reptiles for food, stomp on their burrows and crush the tortoises.

The tortoise is rapidly declining in the desert, say the activists, because of grazing, respiratory disease, predators such as ravens, off-roading and urban sprawl.

The ranchers say prohibiting grazing in the area will put an end to their livelihood. It would cost an estimated $15 million to fence the area.

The Bureau of Land Management agreed last month to have eight ranchers remove their cattle from 427,000 acres of public land that is home to the desert tortoise, an officially "threatened" species.

The two-month fall removal period was to begin Sept. 7, but BLM officials, reportedly riding off-road vehicles, say they found cattle from two of the allotment ranchers on the out-of-bounds territory in the Mojave Desert here.

San Bernardino County officials say they're worried that the court order could erupt into a range war.

Sheriff Gary Penrod says he canceled an agreement that allowed federal rangers to enforce state and local laws against such things as drunken driving and vandalism. Penrod says he doesn't want to be associated with any BLM worker who might precipitate violent range disputes.

Employees at the BLM's office in Barstow and Needles who normally work on recreation, maintenance, law enforcement and wildlife issues now look for cattle where they aren't supposed to be. They cover the eight ranches between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Nevada border, some 200 miles away.

At the end of September, Anthony Chavez of the BLM's Barstow office found 12 cattle and three horses on the off-limits range on the Cady Mountain allotment.

Tom Wetterman leases the Cady Mountain allotment for 150 cattle.

The Wettermans' Cady Mountain allotment, about 25 miles east of Barstow, is 230,000 acres. Cattle grazing would be restricted seasonally on about 88,000 acres.

On Sept. 25, BLM monitors say they found 12 cattle grazing illegally on Wettermans' allotment. Seven cattle were found Sept. 20 in a restricted area, BLM officials say.

Wetterman says he's counting on an appeal Wyoming-based attorney Karen Budd-Falen filed with the Office of Hearings and Appeals in the U.S. Interior Department.

San Bernardino County also filed an appeal on behalf of the ranchers.

In the meantime, Wetterman and his wife, Jeanne, have turned off the well that lures the cattle to the banned area and are negotiating with the BLM to move the boundaries of the exclusion area, according to BLM officials.

Tim Read, BLM district manager in Barstow, says the couple could face fines or suspension of their grazing permit. Eventually, the cattle could be impounded.

Other cattle have been spotted by BLM or environmental activist "cattle watchers" on an allotment southeast of Barstow that is leased by Dave Fisher, president of the High Desert Cattlemen's Association.

The order bans grazing on 54,000 acres of federal land near Fisher's Shield F Ranch, near Ord Mountain, south of Barstow. On Sept. 21, BLM monitors say they found 54 head of cattle at six different locations in restricted areas on Fisher's grazing allotment. On Sept. 16 and Sept. 19, inspectors say they found 19 cattle grazing illegally.

Fisher says it's the BLM that hasn't complied with a court order. Following a 13-day hearing in Barstow, an Interior administrative law judge ruled in August that the BLM failed to consult with the ranchers before issuing the range-closure order.

The BLM set up a two-day workshop in Barstow so the federal officials could meet with the ranchers, but several of the ranchers say they weren't notified in time to attend. Fisher says he was out of town at the time.

The appeal, filed by Budd-Falen, is based on the ranchers' accusation that the BLM failed to consult with them.

Fisher says he has enlisted the aid of a rangeland improvement task force from Las Cruces, N.M., that has agreed to facilitate meetings between the ranchers and BLM.

October 1, 2001

Siege of the Tortoise

Fifth generation rancher Dave Fisher has worked the tough high desert country in the Mojave all his life. He is a champion to other cattle growers who find their livelihoods imperiled by yet another environmental “surrogate” —the desert tortoise.

Dave Fisher, President of High Desert Cattlemen's Association
By Tim Findley
Range Magazine

Dave Fisher gazed out from the passenger seat of the sheriff’s Jeep and seemed to be struggling a little more than usual at holding down the sort of temper that erupts in slow waves from a large, quiet man not used to starting trouble.

“I guess I could just go up and tell them it’s private land and they need to get off,” he said, more like thinking aloud than actually proposing such a threat.

“You could, Dave,” Sheriff’s Sergeant Errol Bechtel reassured him. “We’d be with you.”

But Fisher said no more. Up ahead, the old van was pulled headlong into a flat spot off the rocky road, its sliding panel door open to the noontime heat. There was no one visibly inside it or nearby on the barren slopes dotted with short stands of Mojave yucca and scattered with sharp ankle-busting igneous debris strewn about by some previous eruption.

It wasn’t until the obvious law enforcement vehicle was near enough to be making loud crumbling noises off the road that a young man finally swung into view, feet first from the shade of the van, and sat with his knees to his chin in the panel doorway. He was dressed in shorts with no shirt, and his healthy pride of wavy golden brown hair and beard gave him away in about an auction second as just about what Dave Fisher expected.

Still, the tall rancher said nothing of what he was thinking as he strode on up the last bit of distance to where the young man stared back at him, a cloud of uncertain defiance already showing on his face. “Do you know you’re on private property?” Fisher asked at last in a not altogether unfriendly way. “No I don’t,” said the young man, shifting his glare between Fisher and Sergeant Bechtel. “But is that why the sheriffs keep stopping us twice a day?”

From that point, it could have gotten to be a much warmer afternoon. “...And I don’t appreciate your invading my privacy, either,” the young man added to the shutter-clicking Range photographer. As it turned out, though, young Dan Kent wasn’t a half-bad guy to talk to. They hadn’t “stopped” him or others along the road in the past couple of days, but deputies had checked their vehicles before, and this time, maybe the presence of a young lady who stayed well back in the shadows of the van added a little to Kent’s irritation at the interruption.

It was private land they were on—Dave Fisher’s deeded land that is spotted over more than 5,000 acres of Ord Mountain near Barstow, Calif., where Kent, a Utah resident, and about two dozen other trained and certified young people like him, have come for the summer to count tortoises.

Their contract with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, underwritten with contributions from the Department of Defense, calls for an expenditure of $400,000 to total up a fairly accurate estimate of how many of the hard-shelled critters there are creeping among the volcanic debris, sagebrush, and rattlesnakes of Ord Mountain.

When he warmed a little to Fisher’s cool hospitality, Kent admitted that up to that point, they had probably counted more rattlers. But that’s something Fisher could have told him beforehand. Where they were at nearly 5,000 feet is above the normal range of the desert tortoise, and the “turtle,” as Fisher prefers defiantly to call it, is not fool enough to be crawling around in the heat of the day. So what, exactly, Fisher felt he had a right to ask, did these people think they were really doing on his grazing allotments and deeded land in a valley so wild and bare that “tree top” is measured by the miles between them?

If it’s what Fisher, and the High Desert Cattlemen’s Association, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, and most local governments for hundreds of miles around think it is, then the “turtle counters” Fisher fumes over have themselves in the middle of a mess that won’t so easily be solved by helping Dan Kent and his funded friends find the dim lines on a map between “public” and private land.

Fisher wouldn’t recognize himself as a sort of high-pocketed, modest Stetson, Gene Autry type hero, but for at least the last 10 years, this fifth generation rancher with a voice about as hard as the rocks he was raised on, has been the singular champion on behalf of cattle growers all over the high desert who find their livelihood imperiled by yet another environmentalist “surrogate”—the desert tortoise.

There was probably an incident one day somewhere in the Mojave Desert during the last 150 years when a big bovine of some type accidentally put its clumsy hoof on the back of a tortoise and squashed it. Must have happened, like all things do. No shell-scattered body was ever found to prove it, however, and, actually, the flat smears you can still occasionally see along U.S. 395 attest to the much more likely, and still common, catastrophe encountered by the long-lived reptile. Cows, to those who don’t know, aren’t capable of grubbing down to the base of plants, and because they eat the higher foliage, may actually improve growth for what’s at the bottom, where the tortoise eats. And as for leftovers, it seems an open question over whether the tortoise is choosy about where it obtains its carbohydrates. It is a fundamentally stupid issue. Cows don’t threaten tortoises.

If they did, for example, it might have been much less likely 25 or 30 years ago, when the price of gasoline was cheap enough to be competitive, that a few service stations in the hot flat stretches offered a free tortoise with every fill-up. It happened, and how many of the critters got tossed in the back of somebody’s suburban station wagon for a ride into extinction is anybody’s guess.

The desert tortoise is, even today, not endangered. It has just been made to seem that way by the pressure of environmentalist organizations led by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and opportunistic politicians who have added it to the “threatened” list of American species. Nobody really knows if even that much is true, which is one of the reasons federal authorities say they are willing to spend nearly half a million dollars in an attempt to count the slow moving creatures one-by-one on Dave Fisher’s “Shield F” ranch.

Ord Mountain is not the motherlode of desert tortoises, and counting them there won’t make scientific history. But Fisher made trouble right from the start in 1990 when the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity as well as the Audubon Society and others interested in “cattle free” rangeland first began waving around the tortoise as their own version of the spotted owl.

With generations of his own experience behind him, and aided by the knowledge shared by others who had lived and died in the Ord Valley without sometimes as much as a road to get the body out before spring, Fisher tried to point out to federal Bureau of Land Management authorities that any potential argument between ranchers and “turtles” made no sense.

For his trouble, Fisher got recognized last year, in the dying days of the Babbitt empire, as the grazing permittee and landholder most likely to be a problem to the maybe doomed tortoise. Based on an out-of-court settlement with the environmentalists, the BLM, in effect, directed Fisher to cease full grazing on 154,000 acres of his generations- old permit, and to expect trouble on even his own 5,000 acres of deeded land. They knew such an order, even if it was temporary, could drive him out of business, and even said so in their “findings.”

Incredibly, the BLM concluded in its written report that the region’s economy would be benefited by the nonprofit “financial sponsors” of the turtle savers. “...the cost savings realized by temporarily not investing money in a livestock operation would allow groups to divert funds into land acquisition, management, administrative functions and other endeavors.”

Fisher is, for all you’ll ever see of him, a calm, quiet man. But there’s something in the way he asks his own questions that suggests more. He talks to himself, works the problem out loud; he settles for stewing patience. But one of these days...
His friends—the longtime friends of his family over generations in the San Bernardino Valley—knew that about Dave. If in the BLM decision directing protection of the tortoise Dave Fisher and the Shield F were to be the fall guy, it certainly wouldn’t happen without resistance.

Thus in short order after Fisher was directed to remove cattle from his allotments, did the county sheriff sever formal enforcement agreements with the BLM and let it be known whose side deputies would take in any dispute. “This action...may result in physical resistance by cattlemen attempting to preserve their stock,” wrote San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod in a letter to the BLM. “I do not wish to be associated with any [BLM] personnel who may be precipitating possible violent range disputes through their official action.”

So, similarly, did County Supervisor Bill Postmus fire off a letter warning of “actionable harm” to the county’s economy if the BLM tried to put ranchers out of business. And so up the line through 28 members of the state legislature and at least one member of Congress objecting to BLM’s arbitrary action did the letters fly.

But that didn’t stop the Center for Biological Diversity and their love of the little tortoise from threatening more lawsuits to force BLM action. By the beginning of this year, they quietly staged the training ground sessions in Las Vegas that brought such people as Dan Kent and his friends from Utah to learn about counting tortoises in a moving two mile grid over “public” land on Ord Mountain. And though it costs money just to send young folks like them out to tramp around the rattlesnakes, that suddenly came available from the U.S. Department of Defense, which, oddly enough, borders Fisher’s allotments and properties on two sides. The Army’s Fort Irwin and the Marine’s 29 Palms desert airbase are both reportedly eager to expand their own operations without any tortoise trouble.

So far, other than that, nothing has happened. The BLM knows Fisher is not about to remove his cattle, and they know not to expect anything like help from the local sheriff if they try it themselves.

“Oh, you’re Fisher!” Dan Kent said in obvious recognition that day on the mountain.

Fisher, as noted, is the kind of slow-to-rile guy who also finds it hard to just let something go. You can just about watch it physically happening as he struggles with himself between patience and a roar you sense is down there wanting to come out. Finally, that afternoon after explaining in several ways to Kent and others from his “turtle counting” expedition what is private and “public” property, Fisher climbed back into the friendly sheriff’s Jeep.

“Maybe,” he said, talking to himself again. “I should have just told them to get off.”

Update: In June, Interior Secretary Gale Norton declared a state of emergency involving the BLM demands on Fisher and six other ranchers in the Mojave. She ordered a hearing before an administrative law judge in late July to review BLM actions halting grazing on behalf of the tortoises.

The “turtle counters” on Fisher’s land, meanwhile, have gone somewhere else, but not before sending a letter to BLM authorities in Barstow which sources said complained of Fisher and a group of armed men in “dusters” harassing one of their volunteers. According to sources, the letter claimed Fisher had “brown drool” at the corner of his mouth, and the volunteer was particularly upset by a photographer who “violated his privacy” by taking his picture without his permission.

Tim Findley—the photographer complained about by the turtle counter—witnessed neither dusters nor drool.

August 19, 2001

An Asphalt Odyssey

You can get your kicks and a big dose of kitsch on Route 66, where nostalgia and reality meet.

Eastbound Route 66, Goffs, California (Chris S. Ervin)
Reed Johnson
Los Angeles Times

DANBY, Calif. — Many miles to the west in the thickening twilight lies Roy's Cafe, a rustic high-desert hangout for weary Route 66 pilgrims, including Ronald Reagan and Harrison Ford (or so the guidebook says). Alas, it's already closed for the night.

Dead ahead, huge lightning bolts crack the sky, casting an eerie pallor over the surrounding moonscape. Suddenly, I feel like Janet Leigh in "Psycho," eyes scanning the rearview mirror, ears straining for those slashing Bernard Hermann chords. As a sheet of rain clatters violently across the windshield, an ominous thought hijacks the brain: Wasn't that a flash-flood warning sign a mile or two back?

This wasn't exactly the Route 66 I'd come looking for, the Route 66 of Howdy Doody-era diners and irresistibly cheesy souvenir stands, a nostalgic slice of pure Americana frozen in amber like some prehistoric insect. Certainly it didn't much resemble the Route 66 depicted in the colorful Automobile Club of Southern California map spread out on the passenger seat beside me, a "greatest hits" anthology of wigwam motels, meteor craters, auto museums and folksier-than-thou truck stops.

No, this lonely, bewitching, exhilarating stretch of asphalt was more akin to what greeted Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s, who crossed the Colorado River from Arizona, just up the road. After traveling hundreds of miles and enduring heat, cold, hunger, exhaustion and marauding goon squads bent on turning them back, those desperate migrants knew Route 66 as a harshly exotic highway, tinted with beauty and danger, promise and menace. It was "the connection between wherever people were and wherever they wanted to be," as Paul Snyder, director of the newly opened Route 66 Museum in Kingman, Ariz., puts it.

It's this Route 66, a gritty mental Polaroid framed by Walker Evans, that still grips the imagination of thousands of visitors who come here from around the globe every year. And it was this Route 66 that now flashed hypnotically across the stormy landscape, with hardly another human being in sight.

Such trance-inducing solitude may be tougher to find in the coming months. Seventeen years after its last broken fragments were decommissioned by the federal government and left for scavengers, Route 66 has become America's best-known comeback trail. Since the mid-1980s, dozens of books, videos, TV specials and travelogues have celebrated its motley heritage. This year, the 2,448-mile artery stretching from Illinois to Southern California is being feted with barbecues, biker rallies, mariachi concerts, car shows, arts and crafts festivals, rodeos, foot races and tractor pulls, right up to and beyond its official 75th birthday on Nov. 11. Not surprisingly, automobile clubs and major car manufacturers are backing some of the misty-eyed appreciations.

But the Route 66 revival can't be written off merely as manufactured nostalgia. Once a tattered road that time forgot, the highway is now part of a growing movement that reflects shifting cultural values. Route 66 preservation groups have sprung up in all eight states the road traverses, and under the Historic Route 66 Corridor Act, signed into law by President Clinton, $10 million in federal funds will be used over the next decade to help restore businesses and tourist attractions along the way.

To its boosters and interpreters, Route 66 has become the Moby Dick of American roadways, a convenient catch-all symbol of the frontier spirit, middle-class Manifest Destiny or, at the other extreme, Kerouacian free-spiritedness. If it didn't already exist, American pop culture probably would have to invent it. Which, in a sense, is what it's been doing for the past seven decades, as became clear during a recent 1,300-mile odyssey from the San Bernardino foothills to the New Mexico border and back.

At one time, Route 66 linked Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago with the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, making it the world's longest drive-thru metaphor. Although photographs showing the road ending at the Santa Monica Pier have been revealed as fakes, it was invested with a sea-to-shining-sea unity and a brawny New Deal populism. It even had its own soundtrack, courtesy of the late Encino resident Bobby Troup, who had been "getting his kicks" (and, one hopes, his royalty checks) from "Route 66" for more than half a century.

Today, huge swaths of the road have been interred beneath interstates, or cut and pasted into charmless frontage roads and spotty commercial strips, like the one that escorts motorists through Fontana and San Bernardino before plunging on through the Cajon Pass.

There, on L.A.'s suburban fringes, nature takes a back seat to chain restaurants, gun and ammo shops and the Adult Fantasy 66 Book and Video store. Fifty yards or so to the east, the Wigwam Village Motel, a vestige of better times, urges guests to "Do It in a Tee Pee." Easy to see why Frank Lloyd Wright concluded that, "Route 66 is a giant chute down which everything loose in this country is sliding into Southern California."

But around Victorville, where the metropolis finally dissolves into the desert, the spirit of the road takes over, tugging motorists past fossilized trailer parks and crumbling Mexican restaurants. Twenty miles east of Barstow, in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it hamlet of Newberry Springs, a truck pulls into the Bagdad Cafe, which, like much else on Route 66, partly owes its survival to the power of Hollywood myth-making.

Inside, Phil Dickson, the 22-year-old cook, labors over a deep fryer while his wife Jessica fields orders behind the counter. "Are your buffalo burgers really buffalo?" one trucker wants to know. Jessica shrugs.

The cafe is a classic instance of fictional greasy spoon imitates life imitates greasy spoon. A dozen years ago, the down-and-out diner formerly called The Sidewinder was cast as itself in the cult film "Bagdad Cafe," about the odd-couple friendship that develops between a German woman stranded in the California desert and the black woman who runs the local hash house. The movie was only a minor stateside hit, though it later spun off a CBS comedy series starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton. But "Bagdad Cafe" struck certain Continental viewers as a charming American parable of eccentricity and tolerance, setting off a stunning Euro-tourism boom.

Today, the real Bagdad Cafe, which sells videocassettes of the movie, is listed in Japanese, French and German guidebooks, and its guest log is filled with comments like, " Fantastique! Comme le film !" Slowly, the cafe is even catching on with jaded Californians. "Huell Howser's come through here, Peter Fonda came through here," Dickson says. "There's a lot of Europeans who base their whole visit to the U.S. on making this one of their pit stops."

No ordinary Hollywood auteur, however, could've dreamed up the cafe's star attraction, General Bob, a T-shirted, ponytailed Baron Munchausen who claims he once spoke 9,000 languages (including fluent hyperbole) and now diverts travelers with tales of his globe-trotting escapades. Peering through wraparound sunglasses, General Bob leans over his roast-beef sandwich and mutters conspiratorially that no one in town, not even the seemingly happy-go-lucky Dickson, can be trusted. "I've had 600 people in this town trying to kill me," he says. "Six-, 8-year-olds, they're the spies, they're the lookouts."

Just then, a young Parisian couple enters the diner and orders up chocolate milkshakes. Yes, the man says eagerly, they'd seen "Bagdad Cafe" years ago and decided to stop by en route from Las Vegas to L.A. At the cash register, Dickson discreetly offers some advice about General Bob. Apparently, several European TV news crews have reported his stories as gospel truth. "Don't believe everything he tells you," Dickson adds redundantly.

"Brave New World" author Aldous Huxley, who lived for more than 25 years in Southern California, once wrote that the shimmering light of the desert can bestow either clarity or madness on its inhabitants. Which condition best described General Bob? Which, for that matter, best describes Route 66 and its two-lane, split personality? Before World War II the road offered desperate people an exit from poverty and ruin. Afterward it came to epitomize affluence, recreation, family, the good life. How could those disparate paths be reconciled? And what did either have to do with the flotilla of SUVs and 18-wheelers roaring by on I-40, a few dozen yards away?

"Try us, you'll like us," promised the sign at the Best Motel in Needles, which fronts on Route 66. But a $22 room there featured dead bugs in the bedsheets and an air conditioner whose preset dials kept the temperature barely below sweat lodge conditions, making sleep possible only in fitful snatches.

Next morning, at the Hungry Bear Diner, a booth covered in Route 66-pattern fabric supplied the ideal spot for plotting a passage to Oatman, Ariz. A fraying, Hollywood movie-set vision of a frontier town, tucked inside the hair-raising curves of the Black Mountains, Oatman has two distinct claims to fame. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned there in 1939, and a population of wild burros left over from mining days still roams the streets, soliciting edible donations from tourists. Tin-roofed shacks and gardens constructed from found objects offset tchotchke boutiques and the Oatman Hotel. Weekends are reserved for staged gunfights.

But the town's real attraction, looming on all sides, is a landscape of surpassing beauty and strangeness: teetering rock fortresses, cars held together by rust, wind-scoured chasms that drop away hundreds of feet into nothingness. According to a posted sign, so terrifying were the area's snaking roads, especially the infamous Sitgreaves Pass, that many Okies and Arkies would hire locals to tow their Model A's and T's through to safety. Ansel Adams would've loved this place. Or Mad Max.

A marker designating "Historic Route 66" (as the road's remains now are called) leads out of Oatman, down through a valley and on into Kingman, Ariz., a sprawling town of 21,000 that somehow feels much larger. At the impressive new Route 66 Museum, which opened last May in a converted powerhouse, director Paul Snyder says this artery's origins go back way before the Great Depression.

For centuries, Native Americans had been using local trails as trade routes connecting the Southwest and Mexico with the Pacific Coast. By 1851, the U.S. Army was mapping out a road along the 35th parallel, an ancestor of the legendary highway. Toward the end of the 19th century, railroads were bringing immigrants and tourists into the area. Fred Harvey furthered the cause with his turn-of-the-century empire of hotels and restaurants laid out along rail lines. "There was a whole culture built up along this road," Snyder says.

The guts of the museum's permanent exhibition is a series of black-and-white documentary-style photos of migrant families. These stark images of hollow-cheeked children flopped on filthy mattresses, and grim-faced police inspectors at the California state line, are underscored by a famous passage from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath": "And they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

Snyder shakes his head. "There's plenty of people buried out by the roadside," he says. "You wouldn't know it, but they didn't make the trip."

The exhibition's final third is devoted to a re-creation of a Route 66 small-town Main Street, complete with a beautifully restored banana-yellow 1950 Studebaker. A wall plaque describing the road's postwar heyday comes spiked with a liberal dose of conservative perspective: "Closets were for clothes, not for 'coming out of.' Gay meant joyful, bunnies were small rabbits .... 'Made In Japan' meant junk."

Downstairs, a gift shop operated by volunteers from the Historic Route 66 Assn. of Arizona offers every conceivable item capable of bearing the Route 66 logo: shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers, golf balls, steering wheel covers, jigsaw puzzles, tote bags, bar stools. Among the shoppers are a Hawaiian couple, Clint Bidwell and Debbie Chun, who bought a neon clock, some die-metal cars, and patio party lights for an upcoming birthday party in L.A. "There's a car theme going on at the party," Chun explains, "so we thought, Route 66."

Like the old road markers that have long since been torn down or stolen, Route 66 hails from an age when America seemed infused with a monochromatic directness, a black-and-white starkness. It permeated not only movies and television but attitudes about race, religion, sexuality, the future.

That may be one reason why the 98-mile segment of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman astounds with its Technicolor variety and vitality. Driving this gorgeous slice of mesquite-covered hills, broken every few miles by a restaurant or solitary general store, is like driving through a hand-colored still photograph, circa 1945. Or like reading Steinbeck's best prose: by turns majestic and humble, coolly workmanlike and wildly romantic, even sentimental. The landscape, beyond merely stirring, feels sacred.

That connection runs deep for the people of the Hualapai Tribe, whose reservation rises on a brow of Route 66 in Peach Springs. But times have been tough since the interstate was built. Nowadays, virtually the only local employment option is conducting helicopter or rafting tours of the Grand Canyon, says Michelle LaPointe, a planning clerk at the tribal office. Most guidebooks make no mention of the reservation, a clutch of identical earth-toned homes, many abandoned, with boarded-up windows and trash-strewn yards. On one back porch a group of young children practices firing a pellet gun.

Beyond a great wall of mountains, the tiny railroad town of Seligman (population 1,000) meanders into view. Visiting Seligman without stopping by Angel Delgadillo's barber shop is like visiting Buckingham Palace without meeting the Queen Mum. Many regard the 74-year-old haircutter, whose older brother Juan runs the next-door Snow Cap Drive-In, as the savior of Route 66 in the Southwest. When I-40 bypassed Seligman in September, 1978, Delgadillo began organizing business owners into an association to promote the historic road.

"Here in America we all clamor for something bigger, better, brighter.

You talk to people from Germany, Holland, their countries have been torn up by wars. We do it with our tractors," says Delgadillo. An avuncular presence, he retired from haircutting four years ago but will whip out his clippers on demand if a visitor requests a trim.

Nowadays there's virtually a nonstop parade of European and Japanese sightseers through the barbershop and adjoining gift store, both of which are lined top to bottom with business cards, license plates and other mementos. "They want to take a little bit of us," Delgadillo says, "and they want to leave a little bit of themselves."

Past Seligman, Route 66 dawdles, pauses, nearly grinds to a complete halt. Then it loops back into I-40 west of trendy Flagstaff, where the hippie-chic skiing and rock-climbing crowd cruises the downtown espresso bars, but many locals prefer the Museum Club, a boot-scootin' country music saloon with trees planted in the middle of the dance floor.

Fifty years ago, before the theme-parking of America, such a sight might've stopped a traveler in his tracks. But as the miles fly by, no man-made object on Route 66 retains the power to amaze. Not the guitar-player statue standing on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., immortalized by the Eagles in their '70s pop hit "Take It Easy." Not the famous giant Twin Arrows that rise above the ruins of a once-booming truck stop, where a half-dozen big-riggers usually can be found idling, as if expecting a ghostly waitress to sidle up and murmur, "Coffee, hon?"

Not the town of Joseph City, site of both the oldest Mormon community in Arizona and the equally revered Jack Rabbit Trading Post, which, besides offering the usual Kachina dolls and Minnetonka moccasins, lures passersby with a unique homemade brew.

"Cherry cider is our big thing. I guess you could call it the gimmick," says Phil Blansett, who ran the Jack Rabbit for 25 years with his wife, Pat, before turning it over to their daughter and son-in-law.

He says there's "less riffraff" now that this corner of Route 66 has been supplanted by a shiny concrete ribbon.

Not even the geodesic "country store"/gas station that abuts the mile-wide, 570-feet-deep Meteor Crater, "This Planet's Most Penetrating Natural Attraction."

"Did you ever see 'Starman,' the John Carpenter movie, with Jeff Bridges?" asks the female attendant. "Good movie. Came out around the same time as 'Star Wars' so it kind of got lost. Shot it right here. He plays an alien who crashed in Wisconsin and takes the body of a woman's deceased husband. In the movie, he goes into a cafe and the cook brings him some cherry cobbler, and he doesn't know what it is. Sat right there and ate it. Good movie."

Maybe that's it, I thought: How can a bumpy, inconvenient old country lane hope to compete with the exciting new Virtual America?

Turning south into the Petrified Forest, the diesel fumes and golden arches began to melt away. Even Route 66 yields to the ancient floodplain, where crystalline logs lie scattered like giant necklaces and time hangs in suspension.

Stripped of nostalgia by the desert's primal simplicity, Route 66 was, at last, more place than myth. The trip was ended. Two roads led home. The quiet one made the most sense.

July 12, 2001

East Mojave cattle ranchers get BLM hearing

Desert Dispatch

BARSTOW — Desert ranchers struggling to keep their rights to graze cattle on federal lands will get their day in court July 24.

It’s not a typical court, however. It’s a U.S. Department of Interior administrative court, to be convened in the Barstow City Council chambers.

Officials expect the hearing to run two weeks, and everyone expects a full house.

“I’ve been wanting this evidentiary hearing out of the Department of Interior for a year,” Dave Fisher, president of the High Desert Cattlemen’s Association, said. “This is not a show. This is a fight for my livelihood.”

The seven affected cattle ranchers are appealing a Bureau of Land Management decision to kick their cattle off public desert lands — lands home to the threatened desert tortoise.

Interior officials have until Aug. 24 to decide. If the cowboys lose their appeal, the livestock must be gone from 285,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert by Sept. 7.

“It’s the defense of liberties, the defense of rights and of due process,” said local Assemblyman Phil Wyman, R-Tehachapi.

“It’s the line in the sand. Dave Fisher has become the poster child for the defense of private property ... There but by the grace of God go any citizens.”

Many local officials are paying more than lip service to their support of the ranchers — and their protest of the BLM decision.

In May, San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Bill Postmus stripped the local BLM of free access to the county dumps — a move BLM officials said keeps them from cleaning up the tons of garbage illegally ditched in the desert. Postmus says the BLM shouldn’t rely on the county to pick up the tab and should pay dump fees itself.

In April, San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod — calling the BLM's actions in the cattle clash "arbitrary and unreasonable" — canceled a deal allowing BLM officials to enforce state and county laws on local federal lands.

At about the same time, 28 members of the state Legislature — led by Wyman — fired off a letter to Mike Pool, director of BLM California operations.

The battle over cattle began some 16 months ago when an environmental coalition called BLM on the carpet for not protecting threatened desert species, including the beleaguered desert tortoise. They sued in federal court.

In an out-of-court settlement in January, the BLM agreed to — among other concessions — stop cattle grazing on federally owned desert lands.

May 9, 2001

Preserve enacted to separate LA from Las Vegas

Excerpt from "The US National Park Service's partnership parks: collaborative responses to middle landscapes"

by Elisabeth M. Hamin
Community and Regional Planning
Iowa State University

Federal land ownership, traditional uses—the Mojave National Preserve

In 1994, President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act into law, upgrading and expanding Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Monuments to National Parks, and creating the Mojave National Preserve (MNP). The MNP is about 1.5 million acres of searing brown desert interspersed with beautiful oases and dramatic hills. The vast majority of the land in the preserve area is ranched, although because the conditions are so difficult, fewer than 3400 cattle (US National Park Service, n.d.) are actually grazed by about ten families total. A fair bit of small game hunting also occurs, with quail, rabbits and the occasional mule deer as the main targets; a few coyotes and bobcats are trapped each year. More politically important in the fight over the designation were the 10 or so big horn sheep that the California State Department of Fish and Wildlife permits to be hunted each year; these are potent prizes for big-game hunters. The Mojave area has long been a rich source of minerals, although in recent years actual working claims consist of a few major corporate mines with smaller local operations few and far between. Virtually all of the Mojave lands were already federal, but at the time of the designation they were managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is another branch of the Department of the Interior.

A curious thing happened during the negotiations surrounding getting the act passed. Park proponents, who included the major environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, pushed to get the Mojave protected at the highest possible level—as a national park. Park opponents, who included traditional use groups such as the mining industry, cattlemen's association, and pro-hunting groups as well as many local residents, instead argued hard against any inclusion in the NPS. Each side ended up with a partial victory, and a partial defeat. Under the compromise rules Congress laid out in the preserve's authorizing act, ranching and hunting will continue virtually unchanged; some mining may continue, but it will be regulated under the strict mining in the Parks Act of 1976. While in the past the park service has managed incidental grazing or hunting, in the Mojave it becomes a central part of the management role. Because so much of the preserve is under private use and management, working with grazers, miners and homeowners will be central to achieving park unit goals.

One of the reasons why in the end this compromise was acceptable to the pro-park environmentalists may have to do with the reasons for wanting the land protected in the first place. The Mojave is located directly between the sprawling megalopoli of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and directly in the path of growth for each of them. Park proponents never publicly asserted that one purpose of the Mojave designation was to place a measure of growth control on those two expansive desert cities. But in series of interviews, persons outside of NPS management but active both for and against the designation suggested that a significant goal of the bill was growth management for the southwestern desert. By placing the land under park service management, proponents could assure that a big brown belt placed strategically between the two metropolitan areas would prevent the eventual development of one massive, continuous sprawl.

from Land Use Policy
Volume 18, Issue 2, April 2001, Pages 123-135

Land Use Policy is The International Journal Covering All Aspects of Land Use