December 11, 2002

A union of cowboys and Indians

By Christopher Reynolds
Los Angeles Times

The Autry Museum of Western Heritage -- a young, wealthy institution created by a singing movie cowboy to explore western myth-making along with history -- will consummate a two-year on-again, off-again courtship by merging with the cash-strapped, collection-rich Southwest Museum.

The merger rescues Los Angeles' oldest museum from a life-threatening financial crisis and brings the Southwest's 350,000-item inventory, one of the world's leading collections of Native American art and artifacts, under the same umbrella as the Autry's $100-million endowment.

The move, Autry Director John Gray said, gives the museums a chance to present "a dynamic dialogue between the cultures that made up the American West. There's no other museum that really does that."

Autry and Southwest officials said their pact, outlined in a signed memorandum of understanding, came together through votes on Nov. 21 by the Autry's trustees and directors and on Friday by the Southwest trustees.

Although museum officials said they hope to raise a new building to accommodate many Southwest programs adjoining the Autry's courtyard in Griffith Park, the museums plan to retain separate identities. However, their research functions are to be combined in an Institute for the Study of the American West, and together the three entities will be known as the Autry National Center of the American West.

The institute's first mission: To spend six months deciding how to use each of the museum sites, and to chart a course for how to most effectively unite the institutions.

To start the merger rolling, Gray said, three of the Southwest's 24 trustees will join six to nine of the Autry museum's directors to form a new board of directors to steer the umbrella organization. Most other top supporters of the two museums -- including the Southwest's 21 remaining trustees and the more than 80 members of the Autry Board of Trustees -- will be united on a second board, a level below the board of directors.

Gray will serve as top executive of the parent organization, and Duane King, executive director of the Southwest Museum, will remain in his position.

Autry officials estimate the overall cost of the merger at $100 million, and they aim to cover its cost with new joint fund-raising in coming years.

King said the organization's new stability "should make it easier to attract support, including support from Native American communities." The new enterprise, he said, "becomes greater than the sum of the parts."

In the short term, Autry officials said, the Autry is likely to spend from $500,000 to $1 million to sustain the Southwest's operations in 2003.

Although museum officials are making no guarantees about the historic but bedraggled Southwest building on Mt. Washington, Gray said, "the goal is to have it operate in a public way," while acknowledging that renovating the aging structure might cost $10 million.

For any expansion in Griffith Park, the Autry will need city approval. In recent years, the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., an organization of residents near the park, has been wary of projects that could bring substantial new traffic to the area.

Those and many other details of the museums' union will be worked out in a "due diligence and planning process" that will include solicitations of public input over coming months, Gray said.

Under current plans, the two museums will continue to have separate curators and docents, managing their own collections and exhibitions. They would be free to lend items to each other -- which the two have already been doing for years, officials noted.

The Southwest Museum, founded in 1907, has for the last decade suffered through a series of leadership crises. In 1993, former Director Patrick Houlihan was convicted of removing about 20 valuable baskets, tapestries and paintings from the museum's renowned Native American collection and secretly selling or trading them.

The Southwest's current need for financial help was made clear by a report commissioned a year ago. The confidential report, a draft of which was obtained by the Times, was undertaken by Daniel Belin, an attorney and nonprofit management consultant. It found that the museum's trustees were contributing too little money, paying too little attention to finances and consequently squandering their credibility among other potential donors.

The report also sounded out alliance possibilities with representatives of several other cultural organizations -- including the Autry, the casino-rich Pechanga Indian tribe in Riverside County, the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. Except for the Autry and the Pechangas, most expressed doubts about the cost and logistics of preserving the collection, its current site and the institution's independence.

The Southwest board "had become more a collector's club than a museum board," said a source familiar with the museum's internal operations who requested anonymity. In the last two years, more than a dozen board members have left the Southwest Museum.

The Southwest Museum's King acknowledged that his board's fund-raising had lagged in recent years, but he said giving accelerated dramatically in late 2001 when, faced with financial calamity, board members gave or raised $1.1 million as part of a campaign to meet a $250,000 matching grant from the Ahmanson Foundation.

The Southwest's partner in this marriage comes from vastly different roots. From its beginnings 14 years ago, the Autry has been viewed by many museum insiders as an institution with more money than gravitas, its 51,000-item collection running from 19th century maps to memorabilia from Autry's show-business career, its leaders drawn from outside traditional museum management ranks. Gray, who took over as director in 1999, spent most of the last 20 years an executive for First Interstate Bank.

But in recent years, the museum has added staff and mounted increasingly ambitious exhibits in its 45,000 square feet of gallery space. Programming this year has included an exhibition on Jews in the Old West and presentations on the history of the African American cowboy.

Outsiders saw the merger on one level as an eleventh-hour rescue operation but also as an exciting marriage of resources.

Jack Shakely, who has watched the evolution of both museums over more than a decade in his role as president of the California Community Foundation, hailed the merger's "wonderful" possibilities.

Had it not come through, he added, "a lot of us were worried that the temptation to sell artifacts might become irresistible" to the Southwest's leaders.

In late 2001 and early 2002, it seemed likely that the museum would form a different kind of partnership, with the Pechangas. The deal would have given the Pechangas a chance to display items from the Southwest collection in a new cultural center to be built in coming years; in exchange, the Pechangas were to pay the museum $750,000 to $1.3 million yearly. But when the proposal went to the reservation's general membership, voters balked.

Pechanga spokesman Butch Murphy said that members wanted more information and expressed "concern over the amount of money being talked about." Southwest officials declined to say what other institutions apart from the Southwest had expressed interest.

Michael Heumann, chairman of the Southwest Board of Trustees, said in a prepared statement that the move was backed with "strong, strong consensus" after "a thorough exploration" of options.

Two for one

The Southwest and the Autry will merge under an umbrella financial organization; research functions will merge but the two will be siblings rather than one entity. A new Southwest building is planned near the Autry in Griffith Park; possible uses of the historic Southwest building on Mt. Washington will be studied.

Southwest Museum

Founded: 1907

Operating budget 2000-01: $2.2 million, with a reported deficit of $903,000

Attendance revenue 2001-02: $35,066

Endowment: $3.4 million

Autry Museum of Western Heritage

Founded: 1988

Operating budget 2001: $14.5 million

Attendance revenue 2001: $435,000

Endowment: $100 million

Source: Southwest, Autry museums

September 30, 2002

Water as Business Taps Into Fears

Environment: Concern over possession of a natural resource as a commodity and the possibility of firms' taking treatment shortcuts hamper deals.

by Michael A. Hiltzik
Los Angeles Times

The apparent breakdown of a deal between private Cadiz Inc. and the public Metropolitan Water District to build a $150-million water storage facility in the Mojave Desert raises an issue that may become more relevant to the state's water future: What role is there for private enterprise in supplying water to the California public?

The question evokes fears of the kind of corporate profiteering and market manipulation alleged in the wake of energy deregulation in the state. If anything, privatizing water may be an even more sensitive issue, given its stature as a natural resource essential for physical, as well as economic, health.

In part because of the dangers of cutting corners on water treatment and system maintenance, public-interest advocates have long been wary of efforts to turn over public water supplies or systems to private enterprise.

"One of the things we learned in the energy deregulation debacle is not to give private companies a free hand in the management of a natural resource," said Peter H. Gleick, president of Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security and coauthor of a study critical of global water privatization. "Water is too important to be left solely in private hands."

Still, many private entities are active in the water trade throughout the state--and some are planning to become more deeply involved.

Among them are owners of water rights in the river-rich north who deliver supplies to the parched south. Others are small-scale farmers who agree to fallow acreage during droughts in order to divert irrigation water to cities and suburbs. And some view the state's geographic imbalance of supply and demand as a long-term commercial opportunity.

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, for example, a real estate venture between two life insurance companies--Zurich Financial Services and Kemper Insurance Cos.--is proposing to build reservoirs on two marshy islands to hold surplus floodwater for release during dry periods. Layne Christensen Co., a Mission Woods, Kan.-based mineral, energy and water company, is expanding water storage facilities in Kern County that already are under contract to provide dry-year supply to the MWD.

But many other private entities have been lured by visions of riches to be made in the business of moving around water supplies within the state--only to be crushed in a bureaucratic and political wringer.

"A lot of companies trying to move water across the delta have not been successful because it's complicated," said Jerry Johns, water transfer chief for the California Resources Agency. "It requires a lot of overhead. The physical issues are hard. Water rights are complicated. If your business plan is moving water from north to south, you should be prepared to spend a lot of time working out how that's done."

As a commodity, water is protected by a shield of regulation, tradition and emotion that can turn even the determination of who owns the right to use water under what conditions into a forbiddingly complex task. These complexities have blindsided some of the country's most sophisticated private investors, leading to some spectacular missteps in recent California history.

In the mid-1990s, the wealthy Bass brothers of Texas bought up 30,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley, hoping to profit from the spread between the $12.50-per-acre-foot price they paid for Colorado River water as farmers and the $250 that San Diego would pay them to divert it as urban supply. Too late, the Bass family discovered that the water rights did not belong to them as landowners but in trust to the Imperial Irrigation District, which opposed the Bass sale. (The Bass family still made a profit in the Imperial Valley. Meanwhile, the district moved to strike its own deal--still under negotiation--with San Diego.)

Three years ago Azurix, a water-trading subsidiary of Enron Corp., paid $31 million for a 13,000-acre ranch in Madera County, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley farming region. The idea was to allow customers to store as much as 400,000 acre-feet of water in an aquifer under the ranch, extracting it in dry periods as needed. Local farmers viewed the proposal as a pretext for stealing their natural water supply. (An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons--enough water to meet the needs of two average households for a year.)

"The Azurix project was perceived as a threat, as a means of taking our water and sending it away to the highest bidder," recalled Kole Upton, a pistachio and almond farmer who headed a local water users' group opposed to the project. The Madera County Board of Supervisors eventually passed an ordinance requiring their consent to any water transfers out of the district. Azurix later disintegrated in the Enron bankruptcy. A unit of Layne Christensen has since taken over the property.

May 29, 2002

Remaking the Grade

A new fund from Porsche will help repair original path to Big Bear Lake

Postcard image of the Clark Grade, circa 1919. (Putnam Valentine, Photographer)

Los Angeles Times

A volunteer effort to repair Clark's Grade, a 142-year-old dirt track that once was the only way up to Big Bear Lake, is the first beneficiary of a grant from Porsche Cars of North America under its new Cayenne Crossing program.

Porsche created the program to promote its entry this year into the sport utility vehicle market with the Cayenne and will donate funds to the restoration of historic roads and off-road trails across the country during the next few years.

A second donation in California, to be announced this year, will assist a Route 66 support group's effort to restore portions of the historic highway in the Mojave Desert and to install directional signs and historic markers along that portion of the route.

Porsche executives will not say how much they have dedicated to Cayenne Crossing, but it is expected to be a multimillion- dollar program.

The initial grant, announced Tuesday in ceremonies at the foot of Clark's Grade, will fund a three-year effort by volunteers with the nonprofit San Bernardino National Forest Assn. to repair the steep six-mile dirt track that began as a trail for pack mules in 1860. These days it is used by off-road driving enthusiasts but has been severely compromised by erosion.

"We call it a challenging four-wheel-drive trail," said Kris Assel, executive director of the forest preservation group.

Clark's Grade was opened in 1860 by rancher Hiram Clark as a way to get supplies from the Redlands area to miners working in Holcomb Canyon in the San Bernardino Mountains. The canyon, site of Southern California's largest gold rush, is just north of modern-day Big Bear Lake.

Clark's mule trail followed a steep series of switchbacks originally tramped out as a footpath in 1845 by explorer Benjamin Wilson, who climbed up from the Santa Ana River at the foot of the mountains behind Redlands.

Wilson found a deep valley when he crested the mountains and, after spotting many grizzlies, called it Bear Valley.

The valley then had only one natural lake, at its east end (now called Baldwin Lake), and remained unpopulated for decades. It was ignored even during the gold rush, when by 1866 there were 1,500 miners living in nearby Holcomb Canyon, said valley historian Tom Core.

And though busy, Clark's Grade "was just a crude mule trail that remained a trail until the 1890s, after the dam was built," Core said, and the valley floor was flooded to create what now is called Big Bear Lake.

Bear Valley was dammed in 1884 by Redlands land speculators who had found that oranges grew quite well in the area. They wanted to create a mountain reservoir to supply water so they could sell the otherwise-arid land for commercial groves.

The resulting lake initially was called Bear Valley Reservoir, then Pine Lake and Bear Lake. It finally became Big Bear Lake in the late 1890s because developers farther down the mountain had created a smaller lake they called Little Bear, which later became Lake Arrowhead.

After the reservoir formed and fish began breeding in it, the area was discovered by lowlanders and became a popular, though hard-to-get-to, retreat for visitors from Redlands, San Bernardino and even as far away as Upland and the eastern edges of Los Angeles, Core said.

The first automobile road into the area came up from Running Springs to Fawnskin in 1885. The valley got its first hotel in 1894, Core said, "and has been a resort area ever since."

To help boost tourism, a group of speculators formed the Bear Valley Wagon Road Co. in the early 1890s, he said, and turned the Clark's Grade mule track into a one-lane dirt road that could be traversed by automobile to provide a second route into the valley.

Because the road was only one lane and quite steep, traffic up and down the grade alternated.

A group would form at the bottom of the grade and the road would be opened to let them drive up, while a group of travelers leaving the valley would form and wait at the head of the trail, Core said. The last car in the upward group was given a flag, and when the driver arrived in the valley, he would hand the flag to the driver of the last car waiting in line to go down and the direction of travel would reverse.

"They had to do it that way because there were almost no places to pass, and it was so steep you didn't want to get caught heading in the wrong direction and have to back up," Core said.

Although an asphalt road from San Bernardino into the valley was built in 1924, Clark's Grade remained a popular secondary route until the 1930s, and it has never been abandoned.

"But it's in terrible shape today," Core said. "I lead tours up here and used to take groups down the grade, but the last time I did it, about three years ago, one car burned up its brakes and I decided it had deteriorated too much to do group travel anymore."

Assel said her foundation's volunteers spend hundreds of hours a year keeping fast-growing brush cut back along the edges of Clark's Grade but have not had the money for other maintenance.

With the Cayenne Crossing grant, the forest association will be able to provide funds to the U.S. Forest Service for grading and other repairs on the road, Assel said.

Some of the funding also will be used to prepare and install directional and informational signs along the route.

"The support from Porsche will enable us to do a lot of postponed maintenance," she said. "It will remain a four-wheel-drive route, but we'll be filling in eroded ruts, shoring up crumbling shoulders and making sure this historic route can remain open for the public to enjoy."

May 13, 2002

Does desert cross cross the line?

by Matt Weiser
High Country News

A white cross cemented atop a rock outcropping in Mojave National Preserve has become the center of a fight over religious freedom on public land. The six-foot cross, made of metal pipes, was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has served as a local gathering point for Easter sunrise services. But it could come down if the American Civil Liberties Union prevails in a lawsuit against the Interior Department.

Located south of Interstate 15 near Baker, Calif., the cross has faced increasing scrutiny since it was included in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve in 1994. The ACLU sued the federal government in March 2001 on behalf of former National Park Service employee Frank Buono, who considers the cross a federal endorsement of Christianity and an unacceptable union between church and state.

The National Park Service contends the cross is an historic memorial to war veterans. In January, state Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, tacked a rider to a defense appropriations bill, designating the cross as a national war memorial and appropriating $10,000 for a commemorative plaque.

For Wanda Sandoz, whose husband, Henry, has maintained the cross for 18 years, the cross is a reminder of America's war dead. But, she says, "I also think of Christ dying on the cross."

ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg says the cross is a religious symbol that does not belong on public land. "It's insulting to say this is a war memorial, when it obviously doesn't represent lots of people who fought and died for this country," he said.

The case will be reviewed this summer in U.S. District Court in Riverside.

March 29, 2002

California Dunes May Be Reopened to Off-Road Vehicles

New York Times

Federal officials are proposing reopening land that had been off limits to riders of dune buggies and other off-road vehicles in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, which in recent years has been the site of virtually unfettered chaos on holiday weekends.

A proposal drawn up by the Bureau of Land Management seeks to reopen 49,310 acres of dunes that were closed to off-road vehicles under a settlement reached in November 2000 between the bureau, a coalition of off-road clubs and three groups of environmentalists, who were concerned about the damage being done to endangered plants and animals.

''The administration seems to be abandoning a negotiated settlement that would provide a balanced approach to the use of the dunes,'' Daniel R. Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Idyllwild, Calif., said today.

Mr. Patterson and other environmentalists believed that their settlement with the government precluded a retraction that would allow unlimited use by the off-roaders, who come in the thousands to race in towering dunes near the five areas that are currently protected.

''We're pretty much blown away by the fact that we have an arrangement between conservationists, off-roaders and the B.L.M., and approved by a federal court, and now the Bush administration is seeking to dismiss that deal,'' Mr. Patterson said.

The bureau's proposal says the area provides a ''world-class recreation opportunity,'' and adds that with increased policing and monitoring the effects of the off-roaders and other users can be mitigated. One area, for instance, would be limited to no more than 525 vehicles at any time for the first year of the plan, with future numbers adjusted according to the effects on the landscape.

The plan, which has a 90-day comment period, calls for establishing curfews ''in areas of historic lawlessness'' and ''limiting alcohol use to established camp areas.''

But law enforcement officials have had difficulty policing the dunes, especially on weekends, when as many as 200,000 people come to the area, about 150 miles east of San Diego. Last Thanksgiving, there was a homicide, two stabbings, two fatal accidents and innumerable brawls.

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management, which has final say over use of the area, did not return calls seeking comment.

The environmentalists are trying to save endangered species like the Peirson's milkvetch plant, which is unique to the Algodones Dunes, and the desert tortoise.

''If they're not going to keep the areas closed where the plants and other endangered species are, then the plan fails to protect the American people's precious resources,'' said Terry Weiner, a botanist and coordinator for the Desert Protective Council, which seeks protection for Southwestern deserts. ''You cannot appreciate the dunes if you're raging across them at 40 miles an hour with smoke in your face and deafening noise.''

The November 2000 agreement was reached between the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Bureau of Land Management and five off-road groups, including the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which says it has 600,000 members.

Dan Meyer, general counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- which says it has 10,000 federal, state and municipal workers as members -- said his primary concern was the bureau's own law enforcement officers, who are charged with maintaining order against often overwhelming odds.

''The rangers come to us because they're concerned about all that off-road vehicle traffic and, basically, how they're supposed to be traffic cops for thousands of off-road vehicles,'' Mr. Meyer said. ''There's a real sense of lawlessness out there. It's something out of 'Mad Max.' ''

Harold Soens, a member of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, which has sued the Bureau of Land Management over the earlier closures, said of the proposed change, ''I think it's a good deal.''

He added, ''At the moment, you're putting more people in a confined area, and they'll eventually ruin the landscape.''

The Algodones Dunes, which lie in a 40-mile swath north of the Mexican border, have been a source of controversy for years. The 32,240-acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, to the north of the area currently under revision, has been permanently closed to off-roaders.

The Bureau of Land Management document lists 80 animal and bird species and more than 60 plants found in the area.

March 24, 2002

A Fight to Protect Home on the Range

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post

The cowboys on Dave Fisher's ranch have an unwelcome new chore: They are wrangling to save a reptile.

In cattle roundups like none other in the West, they saddle up at daybreak and set out for hours along rocky trails that wind through miles of grazing land here in the Mojave Desert, searching for cows that may be unwittingly wiping out small tortoises indigenous to the region.

The work is rough and slow, and Fisher, a grizzled rancher who prefers the old rules of the open range, would rather not bother with it. But for the first time, he has no choice.

"The environmental folks," he said, "are changing everything."

It all began this month. After years of lawsuits, studies and court hearings, he and every other cattle rancher in the Mojave are being forced to remove herds from nearly a half-million acres of federal grazing land during the six months the imperiled desert tortoises emerge from burrows to mate and forage for food.

The range may never be the same in this blazing and barren mountainous region 150 miles east of Los Angeles. It is the latest battleground in the West's chronic conflict over public land, which is escalating once more. Conservation groups are engaged in new fights over protections won for threatened species in recent years, and land interests that say their livelihoods are being ruined by such campaigns are hoping a sympathetic White House will defend their cause.

To keep cattle away from tortoises, federal land managers are erecting fences across long stretches of grazing areas. Once a week, they also are patrolling for cows now considered trespassers on turf they have long roamed. Ranchers, who face fines and other penalties if they fail to comply with the regulations, are shutting off water wells in some areas in the hope of moving herds.

Environmentalists say the steps are hardly too much to ask of ranchers to help save the desert tortoise, which the federal government declared a threatened species more than a decade ago. They say grazing cattle can crush tortoises or their burrows, eat vegetation they need to survive and trample ground plants they use to hide from desert predators.

The tortoises, about a foot long, are also vital to the health of desert wildlife, biologists say. Other species use their burrows as homes, too. By some estimates, hundreds of tortoises could once be found on every square mile here. Now the tally, at best, is dozens. The tortoises live underground when the desert climate is harsh but come out during the spring and fall, which is when ranchers now have to clear out their cattle.

"Livestock is certainly not the only threat these tortoises face. It's just the most unnecessary threat, and the one that we can most control," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has led the fight to limit grazing in the Mojave. "All ranchers have to do is move their herds off some of the land for some of the year. It's a real reasonable deal, and it's what's most in the public interest."

But ranchers say they are reeling from the restrictions. Rounding up and moving cattle from such large swaths of land is complicated and expensive, they say, because of the desert's difficult terrain and limited water supply.

Some ranchers contend the new rules could cost them several hundred thousand dollars and force them to reduce the size of their herds or drive them out of business altogether.

"This is giving us a real hard time," said Ron Kemper, whose cattle graze on 150,000 acres in the Mojave. "You just can't step outside and say, 'Come here, cows.' I really think some people hope this makes us all go bankrupt and leave the land."

Officials in San Bernardino County, in which most of the Mojave lies, are supporting the ranchers. Some say environmentalists are exaggerating the trouble that cattle cause and contend the tortoises face much more danger from ravens and the growing army of weekend warriors driving off-road vehicles through the desert. They also worry that the restrictions will harm the local economy.

Bill Postmus, a county supervisor, sees even bigger stakes. The clash over the tortoise, he said, is in many ways a struggle over what the priorities of the West should be. "It's not just about a few old ranchers out here," he said.

The plight of the desert tortoise has long been a subject of intense federal debate. Near the end of the Clinton administration, after years of scrutiny into what ails the species, the Bureau of Land Management negotiated a settlement with environmental groups that had sued to limit grazing in the Mojave.

Ranchers were supposed to be ordered off sensitive land last spring. But after dispatching investigators to the desert and spotting cows all over newly restricted areas, environmental groups charged that the federal land agency had decided to ignore the agreement after President Bush took office.

They returned to court and won another victory when U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a Clinton appointee who oversaw the settlement, accused the Bush administration of violating "the letter, the spirit and everything about" the limits on grazing. Alsup threatened to hold federal officials in contempt and ordered the process to begin last fall. Furious, the ranchers appealed.

But an administrative judge appointed by the Interior Department to hear the case upheld the earlier ruling, although he said the BLM did not adequately consult with the ranchers about the change coming to the range.

Some ranchers appealed again and won temporary reprieves last fall just as they began removing cattle. Since then, ranchers have reached an uneasy truce over the issue and are cooperating with BLM officials. A few are still plotting legal strategies to try to overturn the grazing limits.

At times, local authorities have feared the tense dispute would erupt into violence, but none has been reported.

"So far, so good," said Larry Morgan, a conservationist with the BLM's Mojave office. "This is a big adjustment for everyone. The ranchers are pushing the cattle out, but in some places there's nothing to stop them from going right back. It's hard on them, and it's hard on us to get out there and monitor what's going on."

Environmentalists say they have doubts that federal officials are enforcing the grazing limits. They are sending their own investigators into the desert to make sure cattle are no longer in sensitive tortoise habitat.

"We realize things aren't going to change overnight," Patterson said. "But we're not going away on this issue."

Fisher, whose family has been ranching in the Mojave since the 1920s, sounds both defiant and defeated about the new policy. He is president of the local cattlemen's association and says that all the talk on the range these days is about whether to keep fighting or to give up and sell.

He owns about 400 cows and now has to keep them off 65,000 acres. Until BLM officials finish building a fence stretching 12 miles across the land he uses, he has cowboys working dawn to dusk to get cattle out and off the restricted area. Many of his cows are native, he said, and do not want to leave the only water spots and trails they know.

"We've never been kept out of our spring country before," Fisher said. "And when they want to start taking away my family's livelihood like this, I've got to say, 'Whoa.' But heck, I suppose what's happening is also probably just inevitable. It's all changing out here."

Dave Fisher, whose family has been ranching since the 1920s, says the new rule protecting tortoises could put some ranchers out of business.Hundreds of tortoises could once be found on every square mile of the Mojave Desert. The tally has dropped to dozens per mile.

February 19, 2002

History Captured Alive

Dennis Casebier is an expert at oral histories

Victor Valley Daily Press

Dennis Casebier, executive director of the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association (MDHCA), has interviewed 200 people who once lived in Lanfair Valley.

Starting in 1910, the well-watered valley north of Goffs enjoyed a homesteading boom.

But as will happen, bust followed.

“Of 400 homesteads,” Casebier says, “fewer than 200 ‘proved up.’ The people I interview now have all left Lanfair Valley.

“I do oral history in an empty land.”

On April 26, he met with members of the Mohahve Historical Society and students of Leo Lyman, professor of history at Victor Valley College, to discuss what Casebier has learned about collecting oral histories (“an art form, not a science”).

Much of what Casebier shared has as much to do with courtesy as with research technique.


“Oral histories take a lot of time,” Casebier said, “so don’t scrimp on equipment. I use a Bell & Howell recorder and standard-size 90-minute cassettes. A 60-minute tape is too short, a 120-minute tape too thin.”

Remarking that Nikon makes a lens especially for photographing photographs, Casebier urged the amateur historians to have their pictures of documents developed at a top-of-the-line photo lab.

Be prepared

Because every interview subject leads to somebody else, Casebier maintains a computerized list of old-timers’ names, addresses and phone numbers. Every now and then, he prints it out and puts the most recent version in his car.

“And I always carry a tape-recorder,” he said. “Who knows, I may have to go to jail tonight, and there I’ll meet an old-timer on my list.”

Advance notice

To assure a potential interview subject that he and the MDHCA are professional, Casebier may put an old-timer on the organization’s newsletter mailing-list.

“Hopefully,” he said, “when I do call, they’ll have been waiting to hear from me.

“But I never send a potential subject a copy of one of my books (e.g., Casebier’s “Guide to the Mojave Road”). If I did, they’d tell me what’s already in the book.

“But after our interview, I may give them a book.”

Knowledge of the topic

Although each subject contributes something of value, Casebier said, “You need to know more about the topic than any one person you interview.”

Citing a subject who remarked, “My grandfather lived in Blake, not Goffs,” Casebier said, “In fact, Blake and Goffs are the same place. Briefly changed to Blake, the name was later changed back to Goffs.”

Potential for intimidation

No matter how much you know, Casebier said, never correct the subject, for that will surely turn them off: “And don’t flaunt your own knowledge of a topic.”

“Shut up and listen”

In line with the above, Casebier said, if an older person gets a blank look, don’t prompt them: “They are thinking, so let them think. It takes time to remember events of 60 years ago.”

Follow-on notes

Rather than disturb the flow of recollection, write down questions as these occur to you, and ask them later.

“Make sure to tell the person why you are writing notes,” Casebier said. “As it is, most of your questions will have been answered by the time a person stops talking.”

He also warned interviewers to watch for signs of fatigue, “for if the subject is tired, they won’t give their top performance. Suggest a break for a few hours or, if possible, come back the next day.”

Maintain control

If a subject goes off about an old hurt (ranting, for example, against the government or a family member), he permits it — for a while. Then he steers them back to the topic at hand.

Military service

In an exception to his “Maintain control” rule, Casebier lets veterans tell their war stories even if these have nothing to do with Lanfair Valley. “I try to get what I need first,” he said, “but they deserve it.

“For veterans of World War II, I always ask, ‘Where were you when the war ended?’ and ‘What do you think of the atom bomb?’

“A guy who’d fought at the Battle of the Bulge was on a troop ship, heading from Le Havre to the Pacific, when he got word of Hiroshima. ‘I’d been good as dead,’ he said. ‘Now I wasn’t.’ ”

Casebier added: “Always ask a vet what unit he served in. This will help historians who come after you.”

One person at a time

Dismissing family reunions as “having no value except as a chance to add to your old-timer list,” Casebier stressed the importance of not allowing other people to interrupt a subject: “Be willing to say to an adult child, ‘I’d like your mother to answer this.’ ”

But having interviewed two people separately, it can pay to talk with them together.

This is what Casebier did with a man and a woman who’d gone to school together in 1914 and hadn’t met since:

“By interviewing them separately, and then together, I got so much more than I could have gotten from either one alone.”

Raise the comfort index

“Most of my people are elderly, simple folk,” Casebier said, “and so I start with easy questions: What is your full name? Any middle name? Your date of birth and where? Who were your parents (you may get a story out of that)?

“Maybe I’m chicken, but if there is a touchy issue, I put it off. For example, if I already know that the subject’s grandfather made moonshine.

“Once I was scheduled to interview the only man to spend time in San Quentin for cattle rustling. When I rang the bell, an elderly man with an oxygen tank opened the door.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ But he brought up San Quentin right away.”


Back home from an interview, Casebier promptly duplicates the tapes.

“Never transcribe from original tapes,” he cautioned. “Instead, transcribe from duplicates. You can also mail dupes to a volunteer transcriber who may not be the best interviewer but is a much better typist than you.”

According to Casebier’s wife, Jo Ann, “All transcription is verbatim. No language or factual errors are corrected.”

Remarking that he prides himself on capturing candor, Dennis Casebier said, “There was once a lot of prostitution in Searchlight (Nev.).

“When I mentioned this to one woman, she said, ‘Go down the street and talk with so-and-so. She was a whore.’ ”

Which may be why it’s Casebier’s policy not to enter a history in the MDHCA data base as long as the subject is alive — without their express permission.

Photographs and documents

To preserve homestead papers, postcards and other ephemera, Casebier brings a photocopier to each interview.

He also solicits photos: best of all as gifts to the MDHCA, next best as loans. Barring that, he photographs pictures on site.

In any event, Casebier said, “I organize the photos in the order that they’ll be copied — and ask the person to talk about each one. I also photograph what’s written on the back.

“The best interview subjects are teachers. They’ve spent their whole lives talking, appreciate what we are doing, and understood the need for caption material.

“I believe the caption is 50 percent of a photograph’s value.”

Just as he duplicates tapes, Casebier copies every image twice and in the same sequence. “That way,” he said, “I’ve got a backup set in case one batch of negatives is lost at the photo lab.” He added that “a scanned digital-image is no substitute for a continuous-time print from a negative.”

Leads for other interviews

An important part of any oral history is developing leads to other subjects. To make it easy for people to contact him, Casebier leaves cards with everyone he speaks to.

“Another way to get leads,” he said, “is to print an old photo and caption in the newspaper. This is sure to provoke calls from people eager to tell you the truth of the matter!”

Established in 1883 as a siding for the Southern Pacific Railway, Goffs grew in importance when, in 1907, a short-line railroad connected it to the rich mines at Searchlight.

By 1911 there were enough children living in Goffs (the sons and daughters of railway employees) to require a school: at first a rented, frame structure; later a handsome Mission-style building.

The school served a total of 412 students before closing down in 1937, obviated by a new school in Essex.

The old Goffs schoolhouse is now the centerpiece of the 113-acre Goffs Historic Cultural Center (founded by Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, in 1989) and headquarters for the nonprofit Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association.

“The other day,” Casebier said, “we were having a board meeting, and an elderly lady appeared in the door of the schoolhouse. When I asked, ‘May I help you?’ she said, ‘I’m part of the puzzle.’ “She was one of the 412 students.”

Of their shared passion for oral history, Casebier told his audience: “My only regret is that I didn’t start earlier. It’s taught me how to listen and how to appreciate the elderly.”