September 29, 2003

Bush Administration Formalizes Anti-Wilderness Policy

Issues Directive to Halt Future Wilderness Consideration on BLM Land

Press Release
Wilderness Society

On September 29, 2003, the Bush administration issued a national policy guidance preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from inventorying or protecting wilderness-quality lands. This decision formalizes a court settlement between the Bush Administration and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt. The new directive by the Department of the Interior for its land managers reverses decades of wilderness policy and puts the interests of drilling, mining, logging and road construction ahead of the public interest. This directive is the latest of a number of steps the Bush Administration has taken to weaken protection for America's wilderness areas.

The new directive, in the form of an instruction memorandum, specifically prevents land managers from inventorying and recommending BLM land for wilderness study and designation. The 80,000-acre Sand Tank Mountains in Arizona, recently acquired from the Department of Defense, and the spectacular 38,000-acre Roan Plateau in Colorado (transferred to BLM in 1997) are among the first casualties of this policy change and now officially lose any opportunity for wilderness consideration and protection. BLM's abandonment of protection for wilderness lands outside the Reagan-era wilderness reviews revokes a policy followed by every president since Jimmy Carter.

For nearly three decades, on-the-ground BLM management experts considered the values of wilderness on the same level as other possible land uses -- including development -- and provided the American public an opportunity to have a voice in the use decision.

The guidelines suggest that BLM will have the authority to protect "scenic values," "unfragmented habitat," and restrict ORV use, but the steps the agency must go through essentially preclude any true protection of wilderness-quality lands as wilderness study areas.

The Bush Administration often touts the 22 million acres of wilderness areas and wilderness study areas (WSAs) on its lands as evidence that no more protection of these areas is needed. But that 22 million acres is less than 10 percent of all public lands managed by BLM. In addition, the Interior Department has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision that permits citizens to hold the Department accountable when it fails to protect wilderness character. The Administration also touts alternate designations such as "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" or ACECs, as suitable replacements for wilderness. But these areas are often open to destructive uses such as oil and gas drilling, logging or mining. For example, one-third of all ACECs in Colorado have already been leased for drilling.

This formal policy has an immediate effect on wildlands in several states including Colorado where 600,000 acres of public land in the state are withdrawn from future consideration as wilderness. Places like Vermillion Basin are stripped of potential protections by this top-down policy.


In April 2003, the Department of Interior settled a lawsuit with the state of Utah that impacted tens of millions of acres of land in the West managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The backroom deal rescinded interim protections for millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands and reversed the department's long-standing policy to inventory and recommend lands for wilderness designation. Land managers, tasked with planning the use of public land by the BLM, have been without formal guidance on how to implement the profound policy changes resulting from this backdoor deal. In addition, many local BLM staff first learned of the administration's actions through media reports. As part of the settlement, the Bush administration threw out the Wilderness Inventory Handbook, which guided land managers in fairly inventorying wilderness-quality lands and protecting them during BLM land use planning -- as required by the Federal Land Policy Management Act.

July 1, 2003

Conservation Program in Pioneertown

From County of San Bernardino Special Districts Web site:

The Low Desert Water District, CSA 70 W-4 also known as Pioneertown, has experienced water quantity problems throughout its history. The past few years have been symptomatic of the drought conditions that have been experienced across the County of San Bernardino and the Western United States. The severe drought has diminished the potable water supplies and continues to be a challenging situation for the Division and the customers of Pioneertown.

In August 1996, a drought situation occurred that reduced potable water supplies to dangerously low levels. During that event, the Division enacted the Stage III Drought/Emergency Condition Severe, enabled by an ordinance adopted by resolution 90-493 of the Board of Supervisors for the County of San Bernardino. This resolution and conservation ordinance 90-11 was communicated to the people living in Pioneertown by personal visits to each residence and business in the community. The resulting affect was a dramatic turnaround in the supply of potable water in the storage reservoirs that serve Pioneertown. When the situation was communicated to the people of Pioneertown they responded by reducing their water consumption by 25-30%.

During the summer of 2002, a similar set of events began to affect the potable water supply in Pioneertown. The Division recognized these events and drafted a conservation notice packet that included the ordinances 90-493 and 90-11, and a brochure with water saving tips. The notice explained the situation and the stage of the Drought/Emergency Condition, Stage III Severe, which again resulted in the customers reducing their water consumption and avoiding further actions by the Division.

In May of 2003, the Division again recognized trends that would indicate the affects of the drought and the effect it would have on Pioneertown. Another notice was developed, which included the 2 ordinances, 90-493 and 90-11, along with a Water Conservation Checklist adapted from the California Department of Water Resources Office of Water Conservation’s “The Water Conservation Checklist”. An analysis of the water consumption by the customers was performed and high users of water were identified. These high users included accounts that had exceeded their usage from the previous year’s billing period and accounts that are in the 95th percentile of consumption, which is between 25 and 33.45 hundred cubic feet (hcf).

The Division again went door-to-door handing out packets and answering questions in an effort to help the customers reduce their water consumption. The customers identified as high users were personally contacted, offered assistance in reducing their water consumption, and given a special message, which included a mandated reduction of 25-30% of their water consumption.

June 22, 2003

Colorful photographer liked B&W

By Joe Blackstock
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

It's a hot day in 1936, and you're driving the family's Model A on Route 66. You stop in dusty Kingman, Ariz., for gas and decide to buy a postcard for the folks back in Pennsylvania.

That postcard -- maybe a Navajo scene or perhaps a view of the Grand Canyon -- probably had "Frasher" stamped on it somewhere.

Your postcard, and hundreds of thousands of others, came out of a studio on East Second Street in Pomona, operated by Burton Frasher.

Frasher, and later his son Burton Jr., operated Frasher's Inc. for the better part of a half-century -- starting in the 1920s -- was perhaps the West's leading producer of postcards.

And most of those postcards were shot by the elder Frasher as he traveled throughout the West recording scenes for his largely black-and-white postcards.
Burton Frasher Sr. (1888-1955)

And the work of Frasher was not simply lost on postcards long ago discarded by Aunt Susan back in Ohio. Most of Frasher's original artwork -- including many negatives -- remains in the possession of the Pomona Public Library.

The collection is a historical record of the pre-freeway West, from the heights of the Sierra to below sea level in Death Valley.

Frasher's collections became very important to the Department of Interior about 30 years ago when plans were made to open the recently acquired Scotty's Castle in Death Valley for tours.

The problem for the government experts was they had no idea what the interior of the lavish home looked like when it was occupied by Walter Scott -- better known as the eccentric con man Death Valley Scotty.

Fortunately, Frasher had befriended Scotty and had been allowed to photograph the interior in the 1930s. From Frasher's photos, the interior of the castle has been authentically furnished and open for tours.

Frasher had originally came to California as a boxmaker, traveling to the area where fruit was being harvested for shipping. He came from his native Colorado with a love for photography.

He landed in Lordsburg (today's La Verne) with his bride Josephine and set up shop there doing portraits and selling stationary. He later moved numerous times before opening his studio in Pomona.

Burton Jr., in a 1979 interview, said his father got into the postcard business as a result of his love for fishing and traveling into the wilds.

Apparently one Sierra resort operator suggested he use his pictures of the area to make postcards for his customers.

"The next I knew, dad was making postcards. And later, he said postcards were keeping him fishing," said the younger Frasher, in La Verne Magazine.

Every so often, usually with his little dog, the elder Frasher took off for northern Arizona or Utah or Bishop Creek to film a new set of postcards.

Proofs of these photos were assembled in sample notebooks, and later his salesmen showed them off to the owners of stores interested in selling them to tourists.

And his trips provided some real adventures.

Frasher drove a car into roadless Death Valley in 1920. On another trip he reached Bodie, the famed Mono County mining town and now a state park, before it was gutted by fire. He and his family once were snowed in for three days at Keyes Point in Death Valley.

Frasher created a friendship with members of Indian tribes in northern New Mexico and Arizona and was often afforded access to their homes and rituals that few before had seen.

The postcard business survived the Great Depression, but Frasher's black-and-white postcards had to change when store owners wanted color postcards by the 1940s.

Frasher was no real fan of color, especially since it greatly changed the economics of the postcard business, but he did produce about 7,000 in color.

One Sunday in April 1955, "The Postcard King of the West" died while working at his desk in Pomona at the age of 66.

His son, also a professional photographer, operated the business in Pomona until 1971 until he moved to Twentynine Palms. The younger Frasher died in Rancho Mirage in 1992.

The Pomona library was given the Frasher collection of perhaps 60,000 photos and postcards, though the archives has yet to be completely inventoried.

Part of the collection included thousands of negatives on highly flammable nitrate film, a type no longer used. Due to fire restrictions, most of those negatives had to be destroyed, though copies of many of the photos were saved.

And what was the most popular Frasher postcard? It wasn't shots of Scotty's or the Sierra or Lake Tahoe.

Frashers' best seller, with more than 3 million copies, was called "Native Son," a photo of a scruffy forlorn burro standing alone in the desert.

May 8, 2003

One of the Most Unusual Positions at CSUF

Office of Public Affairs
California State University, Fullerton

Former graduate student Rob Fulton has lived at the Desert Studies Center in the eastern Mojave Desert for 17 years as the center's resident manager. Thousands have visited the center to study geology, paleontology, climatology, astronomy, desert flora and fauna, and the natural history of the area.

Rob Fulton
Position: Resident Manager, Desert Studies Center
Other Stuff: California native Rob Fulton was a biology graduate student on campus when he heard about the newly acquired Zzyzx facility that became the Desert Studies Center. For years, Fulton said he was “geographically challenged” for a social life and remained single. That changed about six years ago when he was introduced to Sandra, an X-ray technician he later married. They live year-round at the center in an air-conditioned residence.

As resident manager of the Desert Studies Center – where the winter temperatures can dip to 8 degrees and summer temperatures soar to 120 degrees – Rob Fulton must have one of the most unusual staff jobs in the CSU system. He is responsible for managing the development and operations of the facilities, which can support up to 80 students and faculty members. This includes operating all on-site utilities, maintaining library and museum holdings, organizing lodging and equipment needs of visitors, leading tours, teaching classes and working on research projects.

Situated in the Mojave National Preserve at Soda Springs, the center is a scientific field station operated by a consortium of CSU campuses. Originally a resort operated by evangelist Curtis Springer, it serves more than 1,500 students, researchers and visiting scientists, each year, according to William Presch, professor of biological science and center director.

Q: How did you first learn about the Desert Studies Center?

A: When I became a graduate student in 1979, I saw an announcement requesting student labor to help renovate the center. Since I was already a bit of a desertphile and was proposing to do my research in the desert, I decided to sign up. I got a call from the center coordinator Alan Romspert, who said, “OK, here’s the deal: meet us at the loading dock on Friday night. We’ll pick you up, take you there and bring you back Sunday night, and we’ll take care of the food.”

Q: When was this?

A: I believe it was Oct. 5, 1979. It was about 105 degrees that week. I was a city boy and not acclimated to working hard labor in the desert. My first job was to help hand dig a four-foot-deep sewer trench. I was assisting then caretaker Jerry Gates. He was a very colorful individual and carried a .22 pistol in his belt – a skinny fellow with a billy goat beard who spoke in an odd manner. I later learned he had part of his jaw and tongue removed due to cancer. I thought, “they’re sticking me down in this hole with this guy that’s all dressed head to toe in denim, with a pistol on his belt and a big cowboy hat with a huge hawk feather sticking out, and I’m hot in my shorts and T-shirt.”

The two of us were using big steel bars to pry rocks loose while digging out the trench. After about three or four hours, I went to lift a big rock, blacked out and fell back down into the trench. I don’t think it was a heat stroke, but obviously I had overexerted myself. Jerry, who seemed so scrawny and insignificant to me, pulled me out. He got some others and they dragged me to the dining hall and laid me out on a couch, and pumped me full of water and salt tablets. That was my first exposure, my first day at the Desert Studies Center.

Q: Did you come back?

A: I continued to come back for the duration of my graduate studies. [Fulton graduated with a master’s degree in biology in 1984.] The bath and shower buildings and some other buildings were constructed by student labor. I learned to lay concrete blocks and to apply stucco. I had already learned some carpentry skills from my father, but I learned a great deal more working with the trades people from campus.

Q: So it was like a second education?

A: Yes, it was similar to the “Helping Hands” program that Doc Springer ran during the original construction of the resort. He brought out homeless and often untrained people from L.A.’s skid row and taught them to help build and operate the facilities. Now, instead of derelicts from Los Angeles, students were tackling the tasks necessary to operate the old resort as a university field station. Those were really formative years for me. I made a lot of friends in graduate school who worked at the Desert Studies Center, and are friends to this day. Some of us still get together and socialize and reminisce about our days here. We’ve all gone on to other things, but still get together to share vacations and other activities.

Q: So you’ve been here 17 years as manager?

A: I came here as resident caretaker for the first six months in January 1986 and have been here ever since. Living facilities have improved. When I first came here I lived in a small mobile home that is now used for visiting researchers. I only had power available for a few hours each evening, minimal cooling and heating during the hot and cold weather. I was much younger then! I had battery-operated radios for my entertainment. We had no telephone. Eventually things have improved. We now have cell phones; we have radio-telephone communications, satellite TV, satellite Internet, 24-hour solar power, a nice comfortable well-insulated house with full air conditioning and forced air heat – all the comforts I could expect. A lot of people think it’s odd that somebody would want to live out here. They think it’s so far from civilization and the conveniences of living in an urban environment. I can’t see living any other way. There’s no commute to my job. It’s not an inconvenience to get supplies from the nearest town, even though it’s a couple of hours drive. We combine our needs and our errands and do it in one big shopping trip. I conduct business by phone and do a lot of my thinking while I’m driving on the highway.

Q: So the desert suits you?

A: This environment is beautiful to me. I can enjoy watching the seasons change. There are limitless opportunities for continued exploration. There are many places where I have yet to go and get to know intimately. I’m learning more every year about the finer points of things that are not in my primary discipline [biology], such as earth science, climatology, archeology and cultural history. I really like this job and this place. I feel really fortunate to serve the university in such an interesting job.

April 28, 2003

Wilderness takes a massive hit

The door closes on new BLM wilderness proposals

by Matt Jenkins
High Country News

For years, wilderness groups have been hounding the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to continue to identify lands worthy of formal protection as wilderness. An initial round of wilderness inventories, completed in 1991, led to protection of 6.5 million acres of BLM wilderness. But citizens' wilderness groups argued that substantial areas of potential wilderness were overlooked. In Utah, for instance, the original BLM inventory identified 3.2 million acres which met Wilderness Act criteria - areas larger than 5,000 acres with "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." But the Utah Wilderness Coalition argued that the true number was closer to 9 million acres and - under the direction of Clinton-era Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt - the BLM re-inventoried its Utah lands, ultimately identifying an additional 2.6 million acres eligible for protection.

But on April 11, the BLM stepped back in time. The Department of the Interior settled a lawsuit with the state of Utah, eliminating the 2.6 million acres of potential wilderness identified during the 1990s. Not only that, but Interior also agreed to prohibit the BLM from conducting further wilderness inventories or designating new "wilderness study areas" without explicit congressional direction - a policy the Interior Department intends to extend across the West.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton outlined the new policy in letters sent the same day to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. It effectively knocks tens of millions of acres out of the running for wilderness protection - and it will likely open up wildlands to development just as the BLM implements a new industry-friendly policy for oil and gas drilling on its lands.

"You have to understand just how radical a proposition this is," says Jim Angell, an attorney for Earthjustice, the nonprofit law firm that represents several wilderness groups. "What they're saying is: Those wilderness inventories that got done, for the most part, under Reagan - and were deeply flawed and highly political back then - are what we're stuck with. BLM can't even re-inventory its own lands to see if they're eligible for wilderness. They have to turn a blind eye to those lands and continue to develop them."

A long battle

The 1964 Wilderness Act directed the U.S. Forest Service to identify forestlands that might qualify for protection as wilderness. But it wasn't until 1976, with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), that the same mandate was extended to the BLM. FLPMA required BLM to complete a one-shot, nationwide inventory of eligible wilderness by 1991. As a result, Congress formally protected 6.5 million acres of BLM land as wilderness, while another 15.5 million acres were protected as wilderness study areas for future consideration.

But the BLM's responsibility didn't end there. Federal law requires the agency to maintain an ongoing inventory of potential wilderness. That opened a window of opportunity to wilderness groups, which argued the agency's initial surveys were far from complete. After years of on-the-ground surveys by citizens, the groups took their findings to the BLM and urged the agency to consider more areas for protection.

"It's been very common practice for the BLM to recognize that the first inventories that were done in the mid- to late-'80s, were not entirely accurate," says Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Interior Secretary Babbitt recognized this and in 1996, he called for the re-inventory of BLM land in Utah, which ultimately identified 2.6 million more acres of potential wilderness.

The agency did a similar thing in Colorado. In 1996, the Colorado Environmental Coalition pushed the BLM to re-evaluate the Vermillion Basin, an oil-and-gas hotspot in the far northwest corner of the state that was being eyed for development by the Marathon Oil Company (HCN, 8/5/02: Land plan attracts an anti-grazing gorilla).

"We were making the case that BLM shouldn't allow any wilderness-damaging activities until (it) has a chance to take a second look," says Jeff Widen of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. And the BLM agreed, identifying some 600,000 acres of land - not only in the Vermillion Basin, but around the state - to protect as wilderness study areas until Congress could consider them for formal wilderness designation.

These re-evaluations were not without controversy. In 1996, the state of Utah sued Interior to invalidate Babbitt's new survey. The state abandoned the suit after an appeals court upheld the BLM's authority to re-inventory wilderness. But this March, Utah refiled, and just two weeks later - on April 11 - the state and the Interior Department announced that they had reached a settlement.

"The timing of the suit is incredible," says Widen. "A number of state-based wilderness groups tried to intervene, and before the judge ever even ruled, Interior just came out of the blue and settled this thing." The settlement follows a Bush administration pattern of inviting lawsuits that could weaken environmental protection and then settling them out of court (HCN, 10/14/02: Wildlife Service bows to home builders).

The end of wilderness?

The new policy could demolish efforts for more wilderness protection - and it is likely to spread quickly region-wide.

The Utah settlement came on the heels of two March letters to Norton from Republican senators and congressmen in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California and Montana, asking that "the Bureau of Land Management immediately suspend any new wilderness reviews of public lands other than reviews specifically directed by an Act of Congress." In her April 11 letters to Senators Bennett and Domenici, Secretary Norton made it clear that the invalidation of wilderness proposed after 1991 would extend across the West.

"It's pretty clear that what we're going to see BLM start doing pretty quick is start leasing lands (for oil and gas development) that are in citizens' wilderness inventories," says Ken Rait of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. In Colorado, the first land on the block could be the Vermillion Basin and the energy-rich Roan Plateau near Rifle. In Utah, it's the area around Moab as well as the Book Cliffs outside of Green River, which have long been eyed by oil and gas companies.

The Arizona Wilderness Coalition's just-released, million-acre wilderness proposal for the remote Arizona Strip, north of the Grand Canyon, is also on the rocks, and the new policy affects wilderness efforts in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho, as well.

Wilderness groups are still pondering their response to the move, but a lawsuit seems likely. Says Widen, "BLM didn't say to the oil and gas industry, 'You applied for drilling permits back in 1980-whatever, so you had your chance.' "

"This is a major issue for the future of the BLM and how it will manage its lands in the 21st century," says The Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth. "It's wrong for the administration to say, 'We're never going to do wilderness again.' "

Matt Jenkins is an assistant editor for High Country News.

• U.S. Department of the Interior, John Wright, 202/208-6416,;

• The Wilderness Society, Dave Alberswerth, 202/833-2300,;

• Campaign for America's Wilderness, Doug Scott, 206/342-9212,

April 14, 2003

Change comes slowly to Escalante country

In the BLM’s showcase monument, local grudges and national politics create a nasty quagmire

by Michelle Nijhuis
High Country News

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Kate Cannon looks like she was born to work here. The spacious deputy superintendent’s office, the trim Park Service uniform, the low-watt glow of self-assurance; she’s got all the trappings of an accomplished bureaucrat. She’s got the experience, too. She speaks nostalgically of long-ago summers spent at Isle Royale and Canyonlands, and of the fistful of parks she left behind during her climb up the agency ladder. This post at the Grand Canyon could easily be the high point of a successful career.

Cannon, though, has already had her dream job, and it wasn’t with the National Park Service. Little more than a year ago, she was the proud manager of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah — the first national monument overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

The job demanded much more than a change of uniform. The almost 1.9 million-acre monument was intended not only for sightseeing and backpacking and scientific research, but also for limited grazing and oil and gas development. The monument aimed to manage all these uses carefully, for the long-term health of the land. Grand Staircase-Escalante also had a larger mission: Its staff was to lead the way for 14 other, smaller BLM national monuments established during the Clinton administration. Together, the new monuments cover nearly 5 million acres, a small but significant share of the more than 260 million acres managed by the BLM.

It was a huge, high-stakes experiment for the BLM, and success required changing the very culture of the agency. For Cannon, it was a plum of a job. The redrock canyons were staggeringly beautiful, the research possibilities were endless, and the potential for a new, more conservation-oriented sort of multiple-use management was real and immediate. It was, she says, the most complex challenge of her career. The challenge was short-lived. In late 2001, after about three years in the manager’s office, Cannon was offered a choice by her superiors: Take a post with the Park Service at the Grand Canyon, or move to Washington, D.C., and oversee an environmental impact statement for energy development on BLM lands.

The decision wasn’t difficult. By the end of the year, Cannon had packed up and moved south.

Cannon’s abrupt departure, many say, has been chilling for the colleagues she left behind, and that fear has slowed the agency’s massive effort to transform itself. How the Bureau of Land Management lost this highly qualified staffer, and also the momentum she and others brought with them, is a peculiar story of local grudges, presidential politics, and the nasty collision between them.

THOSE WHO LIVE NEAR THE ESCALANTE canyons call their home “the country,” as if the canyon rims on the eastern horizon are the shores of an independent republic. “My family has always ranched in this country, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” some say. Or, “Before I got to the country, I was just a climbing bum.” Or, “Him? He just hasn’t been in this country long enough to understand it.”

The most common expression, though, goes something like this: “I came to the country, and I fell in love at first sight.”
No wonder. The canyons’ smooth red rocks and green cottonwood oases and crooked slices of blue sky have an overpowering, almost narcotic beauty. Sometimes, in some places, this land doesn’t just look like another country. It looks like another galaxy.

So it’s hard to find a neutral person around here. Loyalties are cherished for generations, and memories are as long and deep as nearby Glen Canyon. Nearly everyone loves the land, knows it well, and is dead sure what should and shouldn’t be done with it.

Maybe that’s why the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the state’s most aggressive and influential environmental group, got its start here a couple of decades ago, and why these small towns have also produced some of the region’s most reactionary county commissioners. The generation-long struggle between environmentalists and their foes in Escalante country has been nothing less than a holy war. Though it’s been mostly a battle of words, casualties have included cows (shot), cabins (burned), bulldozers (sabotaged) and the Burr Trail, known as one of the most spectacular backcountry drives in the world (paved). On Sept. 18, 1996, then-President Clinton forced this complicated, contentious little nation to face the rest of the world. By establishing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Clinton opened the debate over the Escalante country’s future to a national constituency (HCN, 4/14/97: Beauty and the Beast: The president’s new monument forces southern Utah to face its tourism future).

The surprise proclamation was a gigantic victory for environmentalists, who had been trying for years to block a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau. The monument, which prevented new mineral leases on its lands, effectively squelched the project.
Others in Escalante country were less than pleased. Remember the high school students who released dozens of black balloons, the residents who grimly set fire to an effigy of Clinton? These were the folks who’d grown up angry at the government, infuriated by the gradual tightening of grazing and logging restrictions on the surrounding public land. To them, the monument was just another example of federal meddling.

“The land wasn’t ours, but we felt like it was,” says former Kanab Mayor Karen Alvey. “It was as if we’d adopted a child, then been told we were no longer needed.”

Frustration about the monument has flared up regularly in recent years, and its expression has often been personal and threatening. In the town of Escalante, some tied effigies of backpackers to the hoods of their pickup trucks, then lined up their vehicles on the town’s main drag. When a couple of outspoken environmental activists from Berkeley, Calif., moved to town, their support of wilderness and opposition to a local reservoir project earned them repeated visits from vandals (HCN, 5/24/99: Greens not welcome in Escalante).

IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS BOILING STEW OF RESENTMENTS sat the Bureau of Land Management, freshly anointed by Clinton as a manager of national monuments. The agency, and the monument staff in particular, faced massive pressures from above, below, inside and out. Opponents in the local communities were mired in their own fury.

Environmentalists, though pleased about the president’s proclamation, were wary of the BLM’s livestock-and-mining past. High-level Park Service staffers felt they should have been the ones to manage world-class piece of land. And though many within the BLM were flattered and excited by the new responsibility, some of its old guard resented the exhortation to change.

The Clinton administration did its best to shore up the monument and the near-friendless agency. Kate Cannon’s predecessor, Jerry Meredith, got a $5 million budget in 1997 and a “dream team” of about 20 high-powered planners from the BLM and other state and federal agencies.
By the end of 1999, the team had come up with a management plan that emphasized scientific research and the primitive, “frontier” nature of the land (HCN, 11/22/99: Go tell it on the mountain). There would be no Park Service-style visitor center inside monument boundaries, no parking lots, no new paved roads.

Though grazing, recreation and most other uses would be more closely watched than they had been, any additional restrictions would be based on existing law.

The management plan got mostly good reviews from environmentalists. “They did a very good job of developing a management plan that was true to the (presidential) proclamation,” says Pam Eaton of The Wilderness Society’s Four Corners office.

Even local critics started to unbend a little. The monument had begun hiring a steady stream of local high-school interns, and town and county politicians started to talk about making lemonade out of lemons. Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd, who had been outraged by the proclamation, realized the monument could and should benefit his county. He began traveling to Washington, D.C., to stump for federal funds, and he even became friendly with the likes of Clinton’s Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt.

Judd says he’s done his best to forget his initial anger: “I tell people that if I try really hard, I can remember the monument (proclamation). But I don’t choose to.”
Dell LeFevre, one of the Garfield County commissioners who championed the paving of the Burr Trail, isn’t quite so sanguine. “It was a chickenshit trick, as underhanded as you can get,” he says without hesitation. But the monument has, at least indirectly, helped make his life a little bit easier.

Long before Clinton’s proclamation, the BLM had been gradually restricting LeFevre’s grazing allotment along the Escalante River. Fewer cattle on the riverbanks meant thicker willows, and the canyon was becoming tougher to navigate on horseback. One day, miles from home, LeFevre’s horse punched through the roof of a beaver den, fell, and pinned him firmly to the ground. His horse was unable to right itself, so LeFevre lay there for four or five hours, staring up at the blue sky and racking his brain for an escape.

LeFevre had just resigned himself to shooting and butchering the horse when he remembered the long-ago advice of a muleskinner acquaintance. He rummaged in his bag, pulled out a warm can of Pepsi, and carefully poured a few drops into the horse’s ear. The horse started, shifting just enough for LeFevre to scramble out and start extricating his horse.

“After that,” he says, “I thought, ‘What am I doing in this river?’” LeFevre called Bill Hedden, the director of the Grand Canyon Trust’s Moab, Utah, office. Since 1998, Hedden had been quietly negotiating with interested ranchers, offering to buy out and eventually retire their permits along the Escalante River (HCN, 2/1/99: Fun-hogs to replace cows in a Utah monument). LeFevre traded his permit in the river for part of an allotment on the Kaiparowits Plateau, a decision he says was good for both his business and his disposition.

LeFevre is a larger-than-life figure: a veteran county commissioner, the father of 14 adopted kids, and one of only two or three people in the entire county to make a full-time living off his cattle. His unexpected decision helped dampen the community’s wrath about the monument.

Just as things were looking — well, not peaceful, but more or less quietly resigned — a stack of butterfly ballots in Florida were counted and recounted, and national politics landed on the shores of Escalante country once again.

“I’LL BET THEY TOLD YOU they were making lemonade out of lemons,” says Mike Noel sarcastically, speaking of LeFevre, Judd and others. Noel is a recently elected Republican state legislator and a former BLM staffer; he spent 22 years working in the Kanab field office, the last of them as project director for the Kaiparowits coal mine proposal. He hates the monument, and he can’t stand the locals who have started to come to terms with it. Of all the people in Escalante country, monument supporters and opponents alike, Noel is one of a handful who still thinks the monument can be overturned.
Noel is one of the leaders of the Canyon Country Rural Alliance, a group formed from a defunct chapter of People for the USA. Though few of the leaders of the group are full-time cattlemen, they’re determined to keep the sinking industry afloat — even if it means bashing the ranchers who choose to deal with the Grand Canyon Trust.

“It doesn’t matter if the ranchers want to do it,” says Noel. “It just doesn’t matter. They’re selling their heritage for a mess of pottage.” LeFevre has heard such arguments more than a few times. “I’ve caught hell for this,” he says of his decision to work with the Grand Canyon Trust. “Not from ranchers, but from those who are going to save the world.” For once, he’s not talking about environmentalists.

Many residents, like LeFevre, consider the Canyon Country Rural Alliance extremist. But just before the 2000 presidential election, alliance leaders got an unexpectedly dramatic boost from Mother Nature.

The summer of 2000 was the third summer of severe drought in Escalante country; in the monument, even the sagebrush was dying. Kate Cannon, who had stepped into the manager’s job in 1998, took the advice of her range staff and warned all the ranchers on the monument that they might have to pull their cows off early. By mid-August, 80 to 90 percent of the forage was gone, and most ranchers had taken their cows off the land. Cannon ordered the remaining three ranchers to remove their cows by Sept. 1.

Ranchers Gene Griffin, Quinn Griffin, and Mary Bulloch refused to budge. In October, Cannon sent agency wranglers and a helicopter to find and impound the mostly wild cattle, and the ranchers became immediate heroes of the wise-use movement. Followed by a crew of supporters, the trio traveled to Salina, Utah, where the BLM had taken the cattle for sale. It’s not clear what happened next, but by the end of the day the local county sheriff had allowed the Griffins and Bulloch to open the sale-lot gate, load the animals into their trucks, and take off down the freeway for Arizona.

Mary Bulloch, who lives in a cramped trailer just south of the Utah state line, remembers the showdown fondly. “It was real Western around here for a while,” she says with a smile. “I got calls from all over the place, telling me congratulations, and I said, ‘Yep, there’s nothing like being a cowboy in the middle of society, is there?’”

The cattle dustup, combined with the results of the 2000 election, got Kane County feeling feisty all over again. “I saw that map with all the red squares,” says Noel, referring to the Republican sweep in the Rocky Mountains, “and I thought, ‘Finally, rural America is going to have a voice.’”

In spite of the Canyon Country Rural Alliance’s high hopes, and the swell of local encouragement they got after the presidential election, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument didn’t disappear along with President Clinton.

So Noel and his allies started in on Kate Cannon. Her enforcement of agency regulations — crystallized during the confrontation with the renegade ranchers — represented everything they disliked about the BLM’s new attitude. They complained loudly to the Utah congressional delegation, and some even traveled to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2001 to meet with then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Fulton.
“There was a drumbeat of criticism directed at her by Mike Noel and others,” says David Alberswerth, a former Interior staffer who now directs The Wilderness Society’s Bureau of Land Management program. “She was clearly singled out by disaffected local people, and they definitely had a great deal of influence.”

By December 2001, the disaffected had gotten their way. Fulton says he doesn’t recall a discussion of Cannon during the meeting in Washington, and says Cannon’s transfer was “an internal BLM decision.” Others inside and outside government offices, however, say the transfer order came from a high level in the Interior Department. The administration, some say privately, was eager to placate the monument opponents they’d wooed during the presidential campaign.

IN THE MONUMENT OFFICES, housed in an old middle school in Kanab, new monument manager Dave Hunsaker is good-naturedly doing his homework. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been exchanging letters to the editor with Kane County commissioner Mark Habbeshaw — the latest skirmish in the continuing brouhaha over the Grand Canyon Trust grazing retirements. “We are tenacious, if nothing else,” Hunsaker says wryly.

Kate Cannon’s successor doesn’t try to pretend that his job is an easy one. “Kate tried very hard to follow the (management) plan, and the counties had no one else to zero in on,” he says. “I, too, am finding that I get zeroed in on.”

Hunsaker hopes the arguments in Escalante country will someday target policies, not individuals. To that end, he’s trying to smooth out relationships with the monument’s most dogged critics. Hunsaker, a genial guy who jokes that he’s been “married to the BLM for years,” seems particularly well-qualified for the task.

Under Hunsaker’s direction, much of the work in these offices — and on the land — has continued apace since Kate Cannon’s departure. Sixty federal, state and university scientists are conducting research in and around the monument, studying everything from fossil turtles to native seed banks to local oral history. The monument staff has organized several popular lecture series in the area, and two visitors’ centers have opened in local communities.

Many in and out of the monument offices say the area’s fossils, artifacts and natural resources are better protected under the monument designation, thanks to Grand Staircase-Escalante’s substantial people power. Sage Sorensen, a longtime recreation planner for the agency, remembers when he was the only person keeping an eye on hikers, horses and dirt bikes in the Escalante canyons. “It was way more than one person could handle,” he remembers. He’s now relieved to be part of a 20-member recreation staff.

But the effects of Cannon’s sudden exit are still reverberating through these offices. Though new administrations routinely replace agency staff at the state and national levels, it’s extremely unusual for someone on Cannon’s rung to lose a job for political reasons. Her departure, along with the rapid-fire transfers of two other high-level BLM staffers — California BLM Desert District manager Tim Salt and Idaho state director Martha Hahn — was an unmistakable signal from the top. “Just seeing two or three moves like that was enough to scare people,” says a former BLM official who asked not to be named. “Everyone is afraid they’re going to get fired.”

So the monument staff is acting with a great deal more caution, especially when it comes to the more explosive local controversies. One of the most contentious — and hopelessly complicated — issues in Escalante country is the control of roads on public lands. The monument management plan cracked open that emotional debate, directing the agency to place “open” signs on the 908 miles of open monument roads and physically close the remaining routes. The monument transportation plan also requires that part of each year’s budget be spent to block off and otherwise close old roads.

The agency has signed the open monument roads that lie within Kane County, but it hasn’t placed signs on roads in neighboring Garfield County or closed any roads within the monument. Garfield County opposes the signing of roads on its side of the line, arguing that the county, not the federal government, controls the routes under Revised Statute 2477 of the Lode Mining Act of 1866. The Department of Interior halted processing of all RS 2477 road claims six years ago, and Hunsaker says the monument won’t take action until Interior delivers new guidance on the issue (HCN, 2/3/03: Road warriors back on the offensive). But many environmentalists say the BLM could start closing roads if it chose to.

“There’s nothing — except fear of a lawsuit — that’s keeping the BLM from enforcing its transportation plan,” says Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The Grand Canyon Trust effort to retire four large grazing allotments along the Escalante River is also stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Though the group’s trades and buyouts have already removed cattle from all or part of some 18 allotments in the watershed — deals that were reviewed and approved by the agency “without a peep” from the local communities, says Bill Hedden — the Canyon Country Rural Alliance is doing its best to block the most recent proposals.

The alliance’s leaders have been encouraged by continuing local support; last year, several of them were elected to posts in town, county and state government. They’ve also taken heart from public statements by top-drawer Bush administration officials. Interior Solicitor William Myers opined in late 2002 that the BLM could not completely exclude cattle from an allotment within a federal grazing district; BLM director Kathleen Clarke, a Utah native, recently told the Society for Range Management that “for too long, there’s been an attitude that the only way to address range that is challenged is to remove the cattle.”

In January 2003, the Utah state office of the BLM approved the environmental analyses of the four proposed grazing retirements, but said the long-term fate of all retirements would be decided in a monument-wide environmental impact statement on grazing. That document is behind schedule, and a final version is not expected until November 2004.

Hedden, who has watched his once crowd-pleasing project devolve into a local bogeyman (“Don’t Trust the Trust,” says a common bumper sticker) says national politics and local resentment have been a deadly combination. “When the Bush administration got in, it was like throwing red meat to wolves,” he says. “The attitude was, ‘Now all we have to do is go for the throat, and make it so these new managers act like obedient sheep.’”

SO WHAT ABOUT THE NEW BLM? The national monuments, with Grand Staircase-Escalante as their flagship, were supposed to haul the agency into a brave new era. This administration is giving the BLM a not-so-gentle push in the opposite direction. What’s a conservation-minded land manager to do?

She, or he, can take comfort in two words: national monument. No national monument has ever been overturned (in fact, no one is quite sure how to do it) and, despite the best efforts of Mike Noel and his allies, the Grand Staircase-Escalante is unlikely to be an exception. Even the National Landscape Conservation System, the BLM’s new office for national monuments and other special designations, has so far weathered the political storm (see story below).
Interior Secretary Gale Norton has been much less enthusiastic about the slew of new monuments than her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, and she has announced some guidelines that could weaken protections at the more recent designations, but she has said that planning for all monuments will move ahead.

Grand Staircase-Escalante’s budget has fluctuated slightly in recent years, but it was a substantial $6 million in fiscal year 2003. The other BLM monuments have much smaller budgets — ranging from less than half a million dollars for Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico to $2.4 million for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in eastern Montana — but they have still been able to hire some staff and start work on their management plans.

Some of these monuments also enjoy a lot more local support than Grand Staircase-Escalante, perhaps because of Babbitt’s efforts to meet and negotiate with locals before Clinton continued his second-term monument tour. The popularity of some of these places has led to new problems (see story page 11), but a nearby fan base might help these monuments in unfriendly times.

So the lifespan of the BLM monuments is likely to be significantly longer than that of the Bush administration. The new, tougher BLM might not emerge as quickly as Clinton and Babbitt had hoped, but it could still be on its way.

Kate Cannon, for one, is hoping to be part of that agency. “If you’re going to manage land, you need to go where the land is,” she says. The hundreds of millions of acres managed by the BLM, she says, are becoming more and more important — not just for recreation, but also as open space.

Monument management shouldn’t turn the BLM into a clone of the Park Service, she points out. “Even though I love parks, I don’t want that model spread across the landscape,” she says, gesturing out her office window toward the stuffed parking lots of Grand Canyon Village. Parks, she says, are an “easy introduction” to wild land. The BLM monuments can offer a vastly more varied experience.

Cannon and many other agency-watchers say the monuments demand something quite different of the BLM: stricter enforcement of the agency’s own unique conservation regulations. The rules are based in long-standing law that declares multiple use, sustained yield, and environmental protection to be the agency’s guiding principles. These values have often fallen prey to funding cuts and short staffing. The monuments, with their bulked-up budgets and specialized staff, have given the agency a chance to improve on history.

“We have a commitment to the public,” says Cannon, “and I don’t mean we the monument, I mean we the BLM. The monument is a small test of whether the BLM can meet its commitment to the public.” Just a short stroll from Cannon’s office, on the southern lip of the Grand Canyon, President Clinton read the brief proclamation that established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. To some, that September afternoon felt like the victorious end of an exhausting battle. To others, it felt like the ultimate insult.

From nearly seven years out, that fateful afternoon looks a little bit different. It has turned out to be just the beginning of a difficult test for the BLM, and the beginning of a new and even more complicated debate over Escalante country. The outcome of that test, and the debate that accompanies it, depends on the people who love this extraordinary place: those who live here and those who visit from afar, those who work outside the agency and those who work within it. The true ending of this story, it seems, has yet to be written.

April 12, 2003

Wilderness Protections Rolled Back

In settling Utah lawsuit, White House reverses Clinton policy. New approach may alter how millions of acres are treated across the West.

Elizabeth Shogren
Los Angeles Times

Utah charged that the BLM had illegally been managing those areas as if they had already been wilderness study areas, stalling or killing many mineral development projects. It argued that until Congress designated these areas as wilderness, the BLM should permit mining, drilling, use by off-road vehicles and other development.

The struggle over the fate of federal lands in Utah -- especially the red rock canyon country of southern Utah -- has long been heated. The state has less land designated as wilderness than any other in the West -- 801,000 acres, the vast majority of it on national forest land. Only about 20,000 acres of southern Utah's red rock canyon country, which draws tourists from around the globe, are protected as wilderness.

In the BLM's first wilderness review of its land in Utah, the agency found 3.2 million acres that met the criteria, and most of those areas are designated as wilderness study areas. (Abstract)

March 1, 2003

NPS: The Mojave Phone Booth Incident

Neglected SpaceTo Protected Place: An Administrative History of Mojave National Preserve by Eric Charles Nystrom, March 2003

Excerpt from "Chapter Six: Park Management and Administration"

Every national park has had to face problems that arise from visitors' expectations that differ from the course of action required by the Park Service's mission, but Mojave National Preserve has seemingly faced more than its share of these issues, chiefly because of the area's governance under BLM's much more lenient rules less than a decade ago. One of the most unusual incidents began as a minor movement of performance art enthusiasts and their followers rose to international prominence as they worshiped the object of their affection - a lonely telephone booth, at the end of a long string of poles. Park Service employees were amused at first, but chuckles turned to concerns as visitor traffic increased and booth enthusiasts left behind offerings of art and junk, like pilgrims at a pop culture shrine. Concerned about impacts to desert resources, aware of the expiration of Pacific Bell's right-of-way, and unmoved by the apparently frivolous arguments of the phone booth users, the NPS ensured the booth's removal. Booth enthusiasts flooded Mojave headquarters with angry emails and phone calls, and charged the Park Service with only welcoming certain kinds of visitors with open arms, the counterculture's retread of the argument used by almost any group that finds the NPS mission in the way of their personal use of a public place.

A telephone was placed in the California desert around 1948 along a telephone line that stretched from Highway 91 through the east Mojave to Route 66. The idea was to provide local cinder miners with a means of communication with the outside world. The phone itself, known as "Cinder Peak 2," had to be cranked by hand. Emerson Ray, owner and operator of the nearby Cima Cinder Mine, requested the installation of the booth. Sometime in the mid-1960's the phone was replaced with a regular payphone, which was upgraded again sometime in the late 1980s as touch-tone payphones became the norm. [236]

The phone had long been listed on American Automobile Association maps of the area - the word "Telephone" at the junction of a couple of dirt roads. Early visitors to the booth were lured to the area by the apparent incongruity of a telephone seemingly in the middle of nowhere, 15 miles from a paved road. In May 1997, one traveler wrote a letter to a fan "'zine" for the Washington band "Girl Trouble," describing the remote phone. This fired the imagination of Godfrey Daniels, a Tempe, Arizona-based computer programmer and sometime artist, who resolved to call the booth's number every day until he received a response. His breakthrough occurred in late June 1997, less than a month after he started calling, when he reached Lorene Caffee, operator of the local cinder mine, as she made calls from the booth. [237] Daniels, in a transcript of the phone call posted on his website, was clearly thunderstruck by the fact that the booth actually existed, and vowed to visit some day.

Daniels made his first trip to the site in late August 1997, after receiving a Xeroxed map of the area from Dennis Casebier. He got lost, presaging the experience of hundreds who would follow in his tire tracks, and arrived after dark. Still, the booth inspired him:

"It was just as I had imagined it--a lonely communications outpost at the end of a long, long chain of telephone poles. All its glass had been shot out, but I thought it was beautiful. At that moment I felt I might never leave it." [238]

The story of the booth spread rapidly, posted by Daniels on his website and popularized through contacts in the counterculture art world. When he first made a trip to the booth, no one called - Daniels paged a friend so he could hear what an incoming ring sounded like. Most of the commentors on his website were friends from the art world or people who happened across the site accidentally. A series of radio appearances and small news articles, starting as early as 1998 and increased in frequency by April 1999, drew more visitors to Daniels' webpage. The overall tone was still friendly. One writer detailed her plans for an Easter weekend campout, and Daniels replied that he would try to show up. [239] Phone traffic could be heavy if a trip to the booth was publicized in advance. Camping overnight at the booth on his way to the 1998 Burning Man festival, the phone rang almost constantly, enough so that Daniels had to take the receiver off the hook to get some sleep. [240]

Media attention began to spread the word about the funky telephone booth in the middle of nowhere. A visitor in early July 1999 logged three calls in an hour and a half, more than typical but hardly a portent of things to come. [241] As news of the booth spread, the number of visitors to the area also increased. The new enthusiasts came from all walks of life, but they all had the phone booth in common. Andria Fiegel Wolfe, an interior designer from New York, flew cross-country with her sister to answer calls at the booth in their birthday suits. Two southern California men, who had only met online, took a roadtrip to the booth to hang up the receiver when they received constant busy signals. An Arizona man, Rick Karr, acting on orders from the Holy Spirit, spent more than a month camped beside the booth in the middle of summer in 1999. Karr read scripture to astonished callers and documented every one in a logbook, recording over 500 calls. Mike Sims and Ron Kling set up a party at the booth, complete with food and a punk band, to promote their website. [242]

The story of the "loneliest phone booth in the world" was picked up by major news outlets after mid-1999, and the added publicity proved fatal to the booth. Flash News Service first told of the new phenomenon, and the story was subsequently investigated by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the San Bernardino Sun, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, among others. When news of the booth, along with maps and directions, appeared in major papers serving populations within driving distance of the location, the increase in visitors to the site was enormous. The Los Angeles Times reported Daniels' plans for a Y2K celebration at the booth, and the deluge of self-invitations from people who wanted to be part of the action convinced Daniels to stay away. Dozens of TV crews, including major nationwide networks, made the trip to the Mojave. The phone would hardly be placed in the cradle before it would ring again. Even David Letterman did a spoof, documenting "the mic stand in the middle of nowhere." [243] Those people who had learned of the booth's existence before the media blitz lamented its newfound popularity. One wistful post noted that "Something kinda dies after Brokaw gets ahold of it...know what I mean?" [244]

Many of the residents of the area did not mind the popularity. Charlie Wilcox, a local with a tow truck, made money from ill-prepared booth visitors who ignored warnings not to take two-wheel drive cars on the sandy roads. However, one nearby rancher, Tim Overson, was not happy with the booth or the unusual people who gravitated to it. His frustration was due in part to the fact that the best road to the phone ran literally right through his front yard, and when people got stuck, they often knocked on his door. Mary Martin noted Overson's method of occasional revenge: "although he won't admit it - he'd go on out and cut the wire." [245]

Nothing prepared Mojave management for the popularity of a lonely phone booth. Pacific Bell's right-of-way for the phone booth expired in 1992, and the company hadn't bothered to renew it. The line wasn't very profitable, and much of the need for the cross-desert telephone link had been eliminated when a microwave tower was installed further south, leaving the Mojave Phone Booth at the end of a long line of poles.

With the increased notoriety of the booth and the extensive activity at the site, the NPS grew ill at ease. In early May, park staff happened upon a campfire at the booth, blazing away unattended. This was the final straw: Park Service officials "had a chat" with Pac-Bell and encouraged the phone company to remove the booth. Without notice, Pacific Bell hauled the booth away on May 17, 2000, leaving the counterculture in mourning and the press writing requiems for the "loneliest phone booth on Earth." [246]

The Park Service was deluged with emails, phone calls, and letters from outraged supporters of the telephone booth. Daniels posted Superintendent Martin's park phone number and email address on his website, and exhorted booth supporters to call: "Do it. Do it. Do it till you're satisfied." [247] Many pro-booth correspondents pointed out the appearance of hypocrisy: "[I]sn't this a form of recreation? I thought our system of National Parks was for recreational use?" [248] Almost all protested NPS claims of environmental damage in the area. Some took issue with other parts of the boilerplate NPS reply, which charged booth visitors with bringing decorative white quartz rock to the site and interpreted a note that one user left at the booth reminding visitors to the keep the area clean as evidence of the volume of trash left behind by visitors. [249] Others were threats, including one bomb threat that sounded serious enough to prompt the Park Service to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [250] Many supporters attempted to verbalize their affections for the booth: "It had SOMETHING...something about it was almost mysterious." [251] "Folks...had a possibility to get out for a while from their every day life..." [252] "I'll probably be mourning its death on and off for the rest of my life." [253] The rhetoric of loss, while exaggerated, seemingly reflects a real depth of feeling about the phone booth. The NPS did receive a small number of letters in support of its action, from the National Parks Conservation Association and other individuals who resented the booth as a man-made intrusion inconsistent with the features that were supposed to exist in national parks. [254]

The furor took a considerable time to die down. Almost two years after the booth's removal, the superintendent continued to receive several booth-related emails a week. The incident and the subsequent reaction after the booth was removed illustrate the difficulties posed to the Park Service by the history of the eastern Mojave as a working landscape. When applied to a place that had long been managed for multiple uses, the NPS mission of preservation and protection can seem unduly restrictive to users wishing little resistance to their exercise of unlimited freedom in the form of worshiping a quirky phone booth on public lands.

Last Updated: 05-Apr-2004

February 17, 2003

Stay True to Rancher's Deal

Los Angeles Times

Life has always been something of a gamble for 76-year-old Howard Blair, who scratches a bare living out of a vast stretch of Mojave Desert, just as his father and grandfather did before him. Blairs have been cattle ranching in a corner of what is now the Mojave National Preserve since the 1880s, living off 1,000 acres of their own and more than 200,000 acres of grazing land leased from the federal government.

But Blair and his family face a special gamble now. Their 7IL Ranch will soon be the only working cattle ranch within the 1.6-million-acre preserve, and environmental groups are threatening to go to court to make them stop running their 400 cows, 25 bulls and 300 or so calves altogether.

The lawsuit's premise is that the cattle pose a threat to the endangered desert tortoise. Citing just that danger, a federal court in 2001 sharply curtailed grazing on land outside the preserve, which was established by Congress nine years ago and is managed by the National Park Service. The same litigants as in the earlier legal action -- the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- have signaled they plan a similar suit against the Blair operation, near the Providence Mountains 62 miles northeast of Needles.

The Desert Protection Act guaranteed the Blairs and others that they could continue to run their ranches in perpetuity. That was a special provision inserted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the law's major author. But, as The Times' Rone Tempest reported last week, the provision did not take into account the potential suits under the Endangered Species Act that have halted cattle operations at eight ranches just outside the preserve. Other ranchers have sold out at handsome prices. Presumably the Blairs could too if they acted now. But if the environmental groups are successful in their suit, the market value could drop to nothing.

Feinstein says she will do whatever she can to see that the Blairs can stay. And even Eldon Hughes of the Sierra Club says: "These are good people. There may be some middle ground." He's right. They are and there is. It's called common sense.

The lawsuit claims the cows step on the tortoises and crush their burrows. Blair says the cows stay clear of the reptiles, repelled by their smell. Either way, and despite the fact that the tortoises are endangered, they still roam vast stretches of California desert far out of range of the Blairs' paltry herd. The cattle pose a minuscule threat compared with that of the Department of Defense, which wants to expand its desert maneuvers in the Mojave and is seeking exemption from environmental laws.

To allow one family to run its ranch three more years or five generations more would not wipe out the tortoise or undermine environmentalists' important efforts to push destructive enterprises from fragile public lands. Nor would it preserve the cowboy way of life. But Congress and the president of the United States made a deal with the Blairs. They should stick to it.

February 9, 2003

High Noon at the Blair Ranch

The last cattle ranchers face pressure to leave Mojave National Preserve. The endangered desert tortoise may drive them out.

By Rone Tempest, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

WHISKY BASIN, Calif. -- Howard Blair has outlived two wives, endured years of searing drought and survived sudden freak storms that tossed massive boulders down the Providence Mountains toward his homestead. He lost his favorite horse to a bite from the deadly Mojave green rattlesnake.

Now, he must decide whether to sell the ranch that has been in his family for generations or to stay and run the risk of financial ruin.

At 76, with white hair and a slight hitch in his gait from a hip replacement, Blair is old enough to recall the last gunfight in the Mojave and the days when every little Southern Pacific Railroad town here had a weekly square dance. He watched the two-room Essex Elementary School, 23 miles away, shrink from more than 30 pupils to just four, two of whom are his own grandchildren.

Arriving in the 1880s, the Blairs were among the first ranching families here. Now, they are the last. When the sale of a neighbor's federal grazing rights becomes final later this month, Blair and his son Rob, 45, co-owners of the Blair 7IL Ranch, will be the only working cattlemen in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve.

Where 20,000 cattle once roamed a range the size of Delaware, there are now only the Blairs' 400 cows, 25 bulls and perhaps 350 calves left in the preserve.

Though the Blairs hang on for now, they are vulnerable to the same pressures that prompted their neighbors to sell out. Like many Western ranchers, the Blairs own grazing rights to the land most of their cattle use. But the land itself belongs to the federal government.

A federal court decision to protect the desert tortoise, an endangered species that lives only in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, threatens the Blairs' future in a way drought or natural calamity never has.

The court ruling, handed down in the summer of 2001, sharply curtailed grazing on federal land just outside the preserve. Now, the environmental groups that filed the first suit have announced their intent to challenge grazing within the preserve. If the groups prevail again, the Blairs could be ordered to remove their cattle.

The family can offer the ranch for sale now to a conservation group that would remove the cows and manage it in the best interests of desert wildlife. Or, they can hope that a judge will rule in their favor.

Amid all the uncertainty, difficult questions loom over the Blair household.

Will the April roundup be the ranch's last? Will this be the last trip for the horses to the sweet grasses in the high pasture? Will there be another family reunion in the shade of Howard Blair's fruit trees?

"We've been praying about it a lot lately," said Kate Blair, Rob's wife and mother of their three children. "Frankly, there's a lot of things that are way beyond our control." Kate, 41, is a UC Santa Barbara graduate with a geology degree who works on a National Park Service maintenance crew, cleaning outhouses and campgrounds, so the family can have health insurance.

"With these people holding the Endangered Species Act over our heads, we know we are going to have to go," Howard Blair said, sitting in the dim light of his living room as a cowboy movie flickered on the TV. "We just don't know when. Whether it is 10 years or next year, we don't know."

On the television screen, actor Tom Selleck, on horseback, looking as though he had just emerged from the tanning salon of a Beverly Hills health club, pronounced defiantly, as if on cue, "As long as there is one cowboy left, it ain't over."

The Blairs are among the last holdouts in a disappearing breed of high-desert cowboys scattered across the American West. Their way of ranching is more difficult than in many other places because there is less rainfall and less grass. In the central Texas hill country, for example, a cow and her calf can survive on two acres of grassland; in the cattle-raising areas of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, they require only one acre.

In the Mojave, it takes at least 300 acres to support a cow and calf. Where the sparse grass is thinnest, it requires up to 3,000 acres. Riding herd demands long hours, skilled horsemanship and a wealth of natural savvy. "Sometimes we go two to three years without finding some of them," said Howard Blair. All-terrain vehicles, which have replaced horses on many ranches, don't work here -- the land is too rough and uneven, the cattle too skittish.

The complexity of ranching here is evident from the list of ranch assets Rob Blair keeps on a blackboard in his workshop. Spread over the ranch's 210,000 acres are 45 water tanks, 24 corrals, 23 windmills, 37 natural springs, 96 miles of fence and 62 miles of plastic water pipeline. All of them require regular maintenance. If a windmill breaks down or a water line ruptures, a tank that supplies a hundred head of cattle can go dry. Even in his 70s, hobbled by a bum hip, Howard Blair still regularly climbs 20 feet to the top of ranch windmills, dodging spinning blades as he wrestles with bent and broken iron pump rods.

Despite the unceasing work and marginal profits, there is a loyalty to the land that sometimes defies reason. By any sane measure of land use, biologists argue, this should not be cattle country. It's too arid.

Tucked in the horseshoe-shaped Whisky Basin, the Blair 7IL is six miles from the nearest paved road, 62 miles from Needles, the nearest town of any size.

The ranch consists of two modest one-story wood-frame houses where the Blairs live and a collection of solar panels, generators, camper trailers, a maintenance barn, tack shed and a dozen pickup trucks of assorted vintage nestled next to an abandoned silver mill.

In a good year, the ranch might gross $100,000, out of which the Blairs must pay grazing fees, buy new equipment and parts, purchase supplemental feed and veterinary supplies and pay for fuel.

Each of the adult Blairs supplements the ranch income with other work. Howard and Rob operate road graders and backhoes for neighbors. Rob sells handmade saddles.

Until recently, the Blairs had reason to feel secure here.

Nine years ago, when the Mojave National Preserve was created under the Desert Protection Act, the Blairs thought they had won the right to ranch here "in perpetuity" thanks to a special provision in the bill written with them in mind by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The special Blair-Feinstein connection dates from 1993, when the senator, researching the desert bill, visited the 7IL ranch by helicopter and became instantly, fiercely attached to the Blairs.

A Sympathetic Senator

"I'm basically a city girl," Feinstein said in a recent interview. "Here was this young couple, Rob and Kate, with three young children living in a way that runs contrary to all the television sitcoms that emphasize the goofy side of America. I saw clearly the value and the pride of their way of life. Howard showed me something inside one wall that had been written by his great-grandfather. So when we drafted the bill for the preserve we did it so grazing could continue at the same level it had before."

"Me and her are different in politics," Howard Blair said of Feinstein, "but she's been good to us."
Today, Feinstein vows to protect the Blairs "as long as I am breathing or even after I'm breathing." But her efforts may not be enough to save the Blair ranch if a judge agrees with the same arguments against grazing made by environmentalists in the most recent case involving cattle and endangered species in the Mojave.

That case led to severe restrictions on livestock grazing on most of the eight ranches still operating in the desert surrounding the Mojave preserve.

The ruling followed days of testimony from biologists and desert scholars detailing the devastation wrought on desert tortoise habitat by grazing animals that stomp on tortoises, crush their burrows and destroy brush cover needed to protect their young from swooping ravens.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who brought the first suit in federal court, have filed notice to sue the Mojave National Preserve over the same issues.

Damage to the Mojave can take a long time to heal. Tank tracks from pre-World War II maneuvers conducted by Gen. George S. Patton still scar the desert floor.

Environmentalists say a host of animals has been harmed by grazing, among them the Mojave ground squirrel, spotted bat, yellow-blotched salamander and yellow-eared pocket mouse. Grazing, they argue, also has introduced dozens of nonnative plants and is crowding out 29 native plant species.

The Blairs dispute the evidence, contending, for example, that cattle steer clear of tortoises. "They can't stand the smell," Howard said. "If a cow smells a tortoise, she'll make a big effort to circle around it."

As the environmental pressure mounts, an ambitious program by Mojave preserve Supt. Mary Martin has successfully retired all the working ranches in the preserve, except the 7IL. Martin has found nonprofit groups willing to pay up to $10 million for property near the Blairs and says she knows of buyers interested in their ranch.

Rob Blair, who sits with Martin on the Mojave preserve advisory council, is suspicious of the superintendent's motives. "Mary Martin would like us to leave," he blurted during a drive to the ranch headquarters. "It would be a feather in her cap if she drove every rancher out of the park."

The Blairs own barely 1,000 acres, a fraction of the land their cows use.

For the privilege of running their stock on preserve land, the ranchers pay $1.35 a month for every cow-calf pair. In the Blairs' case that amounts to about $6,000 a year for the grazing rights to 210,000 acres.

Forgotten in that equation, environmentalists contend, is that this is all public land, not the private domain of the ranchers. They say the price paid for grazing is much too little to compensate for the damage done to the desert.

A hundred miles away in her Barstow office, Martin denied putting any pressure on the Blairs to sell. "The decision to sell is theirs," she said. "If they say they want to stay they have the choice."
But Martin said that if she were in the Blairs' place, she would probably sell out and use the money to buy private land somewhere else.

"It's hard not to look around the desert and see what has happened to other folks. On the BLM land where the grazing was stopped," Martin said, "there was no compensation at all."

Even some of the environmentalists who have pushed for an end to livestock grazing across the Mojave have a soft spot for the Blair family.

"These are good people. There may be some middle ground," said Elden Hughes, who chairs the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee.

Hughes, who grew up on a ranch near Whittier, still sees a role for the Blair ranch as a kind of living museum, with the Blairs acting as resident "historian interpreters." He believes some of the herd could be kept as a kind of historical display.

As their fellow ranchers sell out, the Blairs have looked on in frustration. "What kind of price are you going to put on this lifestyle?" asked Rob Blair.

Judging by the prices obtained by other ranchers, the family might be able to demand $3 million to $4 million for their holdings. Their fear is that the pending federal lawsuit, if successful, could drop the market value of the ranch to almost nothing.

Over a family dinner one recent evening, Rob Blair summarized their predicament:

"These kids are the fifth generation," he said, pointing to his three freckle-faced offspring. "This is our home and nobody wants to leave. But we all agree that if they are going to run us out, it's better to leave with something than empty-handed."

Clear Skies and Coyotes

With their future in limbo, even the most ordinary tasks take on special meaning.

Rising with the dawn, drinking bitter instant coffee and grilling bacon in his cluttered kitchen, Howard Blair said he never tires of the great symphonic beauty of the desert -- the starry night skies and the cry of the coyotes.

At sunrise, the nearby Providence Mountains turn luminous shades of rose. Airliners streaking toward Ontario, Los Angeles and Las Vegas airports leave cross-hatched pink vapor trails in the high desert sky. Golden dust plumes swirl in the windy territory south of the distant Old Woman Mountains.

"Well, I guess I'll say grace then," Howard said softly over a stack of griddlecakes. "Heavenly Father, thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for the safe journey home last night. Thank you for watching over us."

Driving home later, after taking some horses to a high pasture, Rob Blair recalled a poem he first heard recited by John Wayne.

"I think it fits our situation," he said.

With that, the rangy 6-foot-3 onetime Needles High School football star broke into verse.

The poem describes a pair of Mexican horsemen coming upon what looks like a deserted ranch. When they near the ranch the riders are surprised to see an old caballero appear in the doorway. Asked why he is still living in the abandoned ranch, the old man replies "mis raices estan aqui." (My roots are here.) The Spanish refrain repeats several times in the poem.

Back at the ranch, Blair produced a book of his own poems he said he had composed while riding. One of them, titled "The Range of Time," reflects the Blairs' current frame of mind.

There's a group of men that are going extinct
We were raised upon the range
When today's society looks back at us
They think we're kind of strange
They tried to put us in a story book
Because they say times have changed
And there's a modern way of doing things and we need your open range.