September 26, 2004

In the Mojave Preserve, Emotions Still Run Hot

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. — To many, this is a place to hurry through. The austere expanse of scrubby desert and jagged mountains in the care of the National Park Service is more popular as a shortcut between Los Angeles and Las Vegas than it is as a destination.

A recent Park Service survey found that the majority of the 650,000 annual visitors here spend less than three hours before moving on. The survey reflects a hard truth: The 1.6-million-acre preserve is an acquired taste.

As the preserve's 10th anniversary approaches, its proponents celebrate it as a citadel of nature amid an onrushing tide of development, while local residents continue to resent the limits on off-road exploration, hunting, cattle ranching and other economic activities.

About an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, the preserve was established as part of the California Desert Protection Act. The legislation set aside more land than any previous conservation law in the lower 48 states. It expanded Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments, conferring national park status on each, and it created new wilderness in areas managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In all, the act increased protection for more than 9 million acres of desert.

If the acreage lacks the majesty of the Grand Canyon and other desert parks, it makes up for it in sheer scope. The three desert parks help keep intact a chain of wildlife habitat and migration pathways from the San Bernardino Mountains to the San Jacinto Mountains.

"We almost have a wildlife preserve from Joshua Tree through to Death Valley. That's a wildlife corridor 100 miles wide," said Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee. "That is an amazing achievement."

The Mojave National Preserve is home to about 200 native plant species, including the Mojave yucca and its menacing-looking cousin, the Spanish bayonet, as well as one of the country's largest and densest Joshua tree forests. Some of the rocks here date back 2.5 million years. The preserve supports a broad array of animal life: bighorn sheep, desert iguanas, chuckwallas, the long-nosed leopard lizard, 10 species of snakes and the threatened California desert tortoise.

The preserve was created over the angry objections of miners, motorcyclists, ranchers, rock hounds, hunters and property owners who argued that their freedom to enjoy the desert or eke out a living in it was being subordinated to the well-being of cacti and reptiles.

In Washington, D.C., congressional opponents sought to restrict the preserve's first budget in 1995 to $1. After President Clinton's veto, Congress allocated money, but only enough to hire a staff of four.

A decade later, the bitterness remains. Critics accuse the Park Service of systematically phasing out activities that Congress intended to protect. One of the most acrimonious debates has been over access. New rules barred motorized travel on desert tracks and trails that historically were open to Jeeps, dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.

Now, as the Park Service prepares for next month's anniversary celebration, San Bernardino County supervisors are threatening to punch 2,500 miles of roads through the preserve, saying they're entitled to do so under a 19th century statute enacted to promote settlement of the Western frontier.

"The Park Service wants to return to the time of the Indians. These guys are anti-people," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Assn., which represents private property owners who own parcels within public land. Cushman grew up in the Mojave. "They only want enough visitors to justify their budget. It's a new paganism: They worship trees and sacrifice people."

Park Service officials insist the only human activity they want to restrain is the illegal sort, and they have encountered plenty of that — the running of methamphetamine labs, the rampant poaching of protected animals and the dumping of household trash and industrial waste.

Friction between the Park Service and law-abiding residents was inevitable. When the Park Service took over, about 1,200 people owned property inside the preserve. Cattle grazed across 940,000 acres. There were 9,000 mining claims.

In 1996, Catellus Development Corp., the former real estate arm of the Southern Pacific Railway and the largest private landlord within the preserve, began mining surveys and subdivision mapping. A Las Vegas developer announced plans to build 100 homes and a golf course on privately owned land within five miles of the preserve's largest herd of desert bighorn sheep.

Lawmakers specifically designated the land a preserve and not a park accommodating such traditional human uses as hunting, trapping and cattle grazing. At the same time, it was intended as a sanctuary for a desert ecosystem that had been under stress from decades of human activity. Many of the area's natural springs had disappeared, a casualty of livestock grazing and some 4,000 feral burros, which had also destroyed native plants and tortoise habitat.

With help from conservation groups, Mojave preserve Supt. Mary Martin, who has worked there since its inception, launched a campaign to retire grazing rights and buy out the largest private holdings. Catellus is gone. No mines are currently operating, and Martin's staff is cleaning more than 600 abandoned mines. Livestock occupy little more than a quarter of the land they grazed in 1994. Only one cattle ranch is left.

Martin said preliminary results of a water survey indicate 150 functioning springs, the most ever recorded there.

"We've had a lot of successes, we really have," she said. "The desert tortoise is much more protected. Visitors now have marked trails to hike on. The dunes are in better shape — we've now got vegetation there. The water situation is much improved. We've managed to keep development out of the park. I believe we are absolutely managing the preserve in the manner that Congress told us to."

Yet conflicts persist.

Martin wants to remove at least some of the 139 "guzzlers," or man-made water sources, maintained by hunters to help sustain game animals. Martin said drowned tortoises have been found in 27% of the guzzlers.

The guzzler dispute underscores an age-old debate between those who believe that natural conditions should determine the size of wild herds and those who want to ensure a plentiful supply of big game.

Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, strongly disagrees with those who say that the National Park Service's management is subverting the intent of Congress.

"Congress said those activities may continue," Patterson said. "There's a difference between allowing an activity, and planning and managing for it."

Many in San Bernardino County "have lost sight of the 'national' part of the preserve," Patterson said. "It's not the 'San Bernardino Preserve' or the 'Barstow Preserve.' It's a national preserve."

But Congress did promise local benefits. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other supporters of the Desert Protection Act said it would boost the fortunes of a region too long dependent on a 19th century economy of ranching and mining.

Joshua Tree and Death Valley are significant tourism draws, bringing in $46 million and $44 million respectively each year to local economies, according to a 2003 study by the National Parks Conservation Assn. The Mojave National Preserve lagged significantly behind, generating $5.1 million.

Barstow Mayor Lawrence Dale said he had no idea whether visitors to the preserve stayed in the city.

"I don't think it has had an impact one way or another," said Dale, who said he has never visited the preserve.

Critics may exaggerate the changes, but for them, the Mojave they cherished is less accessible. It was a place where families prospected around old mines and drove right up to the low-lying mountains for picnics among the boulders.

"There was a functional piece of Americana out here. But now, is it better off? I don't really see it," said Dennis Casebier, a local historian and 50-year resident of the area.

But Casebier's Mojave was doomed, say preserve advocates like Elden Hughes.

"The vision was that this was a living museum from the 1890s," Hughes said. "The vision was an impossible one, and not even a good one. You have the fastest-growing urban center, Las Vegas, and the L.A. Basin spilling over the mountains, and you think you are going to keep ranching there? Parks and wilderness are something you can keep. The laws are strong."