May 29, 2005

Library to house desert history

Mojave group gets grant for building

By Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

GOFFS - A former railroad depot that six decades ago hosted thousands of troops training in the Mojave Desert is to be reborn as a library to house a rich collection of desert history.

Directors of the California Cultural and Historical Endowment have awarded a grant of $499,500 to build a library to hold the Mojave Desert Archives, gathered by Western historian Dennis G. Casebier during the past 50 years.

The archives, the single largest collection of historical material dealing with the Western migration and pioneering ventures in the Mojave, includes more than 6,000 volumes of published works, 50,000 photographs and 4,500 maps of the region dating to the pioneering quest for the West.

The collection is housed in various buildings at the 20-structure Goffs Cultural Center. The center includes the original Goffs School, which was built in 1914 and is now a museum, and a twice-moved dwelling constructed in 1927 that serves as a library.

It will take about two years to construct the library, which will be designed in the image of the historical Goffs railroad depot, which operated from 1902 to 1956. In the early 1940s, thousands of soldiers training in desert warfare arrived and departed from the depot, which was demolished in 1956, Casebier said.

The grant to the Mojave Desert Heritage Cultural Association, founded by Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, in 1993, is one of 13 awarded out of 276 applications for funds through the endowment, supported by Proposition 40.

In 2002, California voters approved the Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks and Coastal Protection Act, known as Proposition 40, to set aside $267 million for historical and cultural resource preservation.

Kevin Starr, California historian emeritus, said the endowment's mission is to document the contributions of the many groups of people who make up California. It also helps Californians to deepen their understanding of the state's history, its present society, and themselves.

"The receipt of this generous grant marks the first time we've gotten support from outside our own membership of about 800 people," Casebier said. "The bulk of the work at the Goffs Cultural Center ... has been done by volunteers from California, Arizona and Nevada."

Viewing the upcoming construction project, volunteer Chris Ervin said, "Now the work really begins."

Among the volumes in the collection at Goffs are originals of official reports of the 1853-54 Whipple expedition, which surveyed a route for a Pacific railroad across the Mojave.

"We also have the official reports and map of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who brought camels to California from Texas in 1850," Casebier said.

"The collection includes everything related to the East Mojave, dating to 1850. There was nothing before that."

Casebier said the center acquired the volumes "one at a time and there is a story behind each one."

The volumes also include 2,000 loose subject files pertaining to individuals of interest and specific cultural sites. It also contains an extensive collection of old area newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets, and material culled from federal records in the National Archives.

"We also have compiled 700 oral histories," Casebier said. "We're constantly looking for volunteers to help us continue this important work, and are searching for desert old-timers to participate in our extensive oral history program."

Casebier, 72, a Kansan who served in the Marine Corps at Twentynine Palms for 22 years, later was employed as a Navy physicist working with guided missile systems in Corona. During visits to Washington, D.C., he frequented the Library of Congress and the National Archives, conducting research on the East Mojave.

After writing a book in 1970 about the Arizona territory, Casebier started Tales of the Mojave Road Publishing Co., which has produced 24 titles. Sixteen were authored by Casebier.

"In 1980, I started in earnest with the library collection," he said.

A year later, Casebier formed a volunteer group that continues today, called the Friends of the Mojave Road.

"We worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to develop the Mojave Road and other historic trails into the back country," he said.

For this work, Casebier and the group received the bureau's highest national award for volunteer service.

Upon retiring in 1990, the Casebiers bought the old Goffs school and 113 acres around it, intent on opening a desert cultural center. Three years later, they helped found the nonprofit, tax-exempt Mojave Desert Heritage Cultural Association to take over the property.

"In 1998, Jo Ann and I deeded the school and the 1-acre school yard to the association, restoring the school to its 1914 condition," Casebier said. "In 2001, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places."

The Casebiers donated 70 acres of their property to the cultural association in late 2002.

May 26, 2005

GAO Releases Desert Tortoise Recovery Results

$100 Million Later We Still Don't Know Anything About The Mojave Desert Tortoise

WatchDog Watch
Center for Regulatory Effectiveness (CRE)

According to the Government Accounting Office, the federal government in the last 25 years has spent over $100,000,000 on recovery actions and research for the Mojave Desert Tortoise, a listed species under the Endangered Species Act. Despite all this time and money, GAO found that "it is still unclear what the status of the tortoise is and what effect, if any, recovery actions are having on the species...."

Winston has no reason to question GAO's facts and conclusions. He does have some other questions, though.

First, why is the federal government spending $100,000,000 on a tortoise found only in the Mojave Desert? The answer is that it's on the ESA list. That, however, doesn't answer the next question: Is it worth it?

Leaving that question unanswered, Winston wants to know why after all this time and money do we still have no idea whether the time and money have done any good? According to GAO, the answer to this question is "research has not been coordinated in a way to provide essential management information." Winston is not an expert in this area, but he suspect he could find a nice place for the tortoise to live for a lot less money and in a lot less time. Real estate is still cheap in the Mojave Desert.

By the way, this GAO report contains a list of all the reports GAO has issued with regard to the ESA. They provide good but depressing reading. Rarely has a government program with such good intentions wasted so much time and money and accomplished so little.

GAO Desert Tortoise Recovery Results Report

May 20, 2005

County Buying Tax-Delinquent Mountain Lots

Redevelopment official cites need for complete infrastructure study; project foes are skeptical

Old Fire of October 2003

The Alpenhorn News
by Glenn Barr

In a move sure to trigger suspicion among local property owners, the San Bernardino County Redevelopment Agency quietly signaled its intention Friday to buy up 134 tax-delinquent residential lots in Cedar Glen rather than allow them to be sold to the highest bidder.

Assistant Tax Collector Dennis Draeger told The Alpenhorn News on Tuesday that the Redevelopment Agency had filed with his office on the eve of the scheduled, semi-annual tax sale a request for what’s called a Chapter 8 sale. The request means that ownership of the lots in the Old Fire-ravaged community will pass to the agency – whose governing body is the County Board of Supervisors – rather than individual buyers, including Cedar Glen residents wishing to rebuild their devastated homes larger than before.

Under a Chapter 8 sale, Draeger said, a government agency may request that properties scheduled for tax sales be sold to the agency instead, to satisfy a public purpose, as required in the California Revenue and Taxation Code.

“We don’t have the authority to deny that request,” said Draeger. “We have no choice.”

John Nowak, manager of the Redevelopment Agency, identified the public purpose of the lots as possible sites for infrastructure upgrades in the Cedar Glen Redevelopment Area project, which the Board of Supervisors initiated last fall.

Many Cedar Glen residents have questioned the involvement of their County representative, Supervisor Dennis L. Hansberger, in the redevelopment project, noting that Hansberger’s parents, who are in their late 80s, are part owners of land adjacent to the project area, land that could skyrocket in value once the redevelopment and its infrastructure were in place.

Though the supervisor’s father, Leroy Hansberger, has revoked his son’s power of attorney on the land holdings, skeptical opponents of redevelopment say Dennis Hansberger still stands to inherit the land, along with his brother.

The upgrades, Nowak said, would likely include new roads, widening existing roads for emergency vehicle turnarounds, water pipelines and even a reservoir.

By purchasing the lots, the Redevelopment Agency could end the ability of some Cedar Glen residents to rebuild their fire-ravaged homes any larger than they were by denying them the ability to merge their tiny lots with adjoining properties. They can rebuild on existing lots if the new house is fully within the lot boundaries and if it has a septic tank.

Though by having a public purpose Nowak’s explanation for his agency’s action apparently meets the test of state law, some community residents are not satisfied, seeing the move instead as a way for the county agency to acquire land for redevelopment easier and faster than through the cumbersome eminent domain process. Others interpret the move as an example of the county’s disregard for their wishes about rebuilding.

Redevelopment Agency ownership of the lots could also slash the overall cost of the project by allowing public acquisition of more than one-fifth of the community’s lots at the cost of unpaid taxes plus administrative costs, rather than at fair market value.

Draeger and Kelly McKee, the tax sale supervisor for the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office of San Bernardino County, said the Redevelopment Agency can buy the lots for the minimum bid, which equals the amount of unpaid taxes plus fees. In most cases that figure ranges from $2,000 to $5,000, they said, meaning the agency might be able to acquire all the properties for a sum ranging from $268,000 to $670,000 – far less than would have to be paid if they had first been sold to private owners.

In a redevelopment district, the governing agency acquires properties from their owners at fair-market value, through a process called eminent domain, and then makes them available to developers contracted to build housing and other facilities within the district.

Every May and August, properties throughout the county on which taxes are at least five years in arrears are offered for sale to the highest bidder by the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office, over the Internet. The current week-long sale began May 13 and runs through Friday. The Cedar Glen properties were removed from the sales list on Friday, May 13. Owners with overdue taxes had until May 12 to pay the arrearages and redeem their lots.

Nowak told The Alpenhorn News on Tuesday that the Redevelopment Agency requested the removal of the Cedar Glen lots so a “full analysis” of the properties could be conducted by the county to determine their suitability for meeting future infrastructure needs for the Cedar Glen Redevelopment Project.

Specifically, he said, roads will be needed for the project, as well as turnarounds for fire trucks and other emergency equipment. Water-system improvements will also be needed for the redevelopment, he said, including pipelines and possibly a reservoir.

Nowak said he hopes the property analysis can be completed “in just a few months,” after which lots the redevelopment agency has determined it does not need can be sold to the highest bidder. However, Draeger called the processing of a Chapter 8 request “an elaborate process” and said it could take up to 12 months for the Redevelopment Agency to acquire the property.

First, he said, the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office will put together the require documentation, and the Board of Supervisors will have to approve the request. Then it must receive approval from the State Controller.

“We didn’t have time to do a detailed analysis, parcel by parcel,” Nowak said in response to observations by some community residents, skeptical about the redevelopment plan, that many of the lots are steep and not appropriate for building roads or other infrastructure.

The Alpenhorn News learned of the Redevelopment Agency’s action from Dave Stuart, executive director of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives (RMHL), an organization formed to help victims of 2003’s Old Fire to rebuild their homes. A total of 336 homes were destroyed in Cedar Glen by the arson-caused fire.

Stuart said he learned of the action from a Cedar Glen resident named Sue Bowen who, along with her husband, had been trying to buy one of the lots adjacent to a lot they own on which the house was burned.

Contacted by this newspaper, Bowen said she had tried to buy the lot on Eucalyptus Road last year but was outbid. However, “the buyer didn’t perform,” she said, so the lot was returned to the sale list. Bowen and her husband were ready to bid when the sale opened Friday, only to discover, to their disappointment, that it was missing from the list, along with all other delinquent Cedar Glen lots.

Stuart said Cedar Glen properties can be identified on the tax-sale section of the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s web site by the four-digit numerical prefix “0330” or “0331.” A check Monday evening of the still-available properties revealed no properties with either prefix.

Bowen said she and her husband lost three houses in the Old Fire, one their residence and two they hoped to fix up and rent. Since the fire, she said, they have purchased a Cedar Glen home that survived the blaze, but still want to rebuild the homes they lost.

“I just feel this is kind of a dirty trick,” Bowen said. “Cedar Glen properties should stay with Cedar Glen people, and not be given to some developer.”

She said her attitude toward the proposed redevelopment project – which is expected to allow 2,000 homes, though the community is zoned for up to 4,400 – began to change at a Board of Supervisors meeting last November where the project was discussed.

Bowen said she witnessed two women, one a senior citizen, “dragged away in handcuffs” while voicing their concerns.

“That changed my whole idea of what these people (county officials) are capable of,” she said. “They don’t want to hear us. I don’t think they have our best interests at heart.”

Bowen noted that it’s been more than 18 months since the Old Fire, “and we don’t even know what the redevelopment plan is. Something stinks.”

But even slashing the project’s density by more than half, from 4,400 to 2,000 homes, still represents a threefold increase in Cedar Glen’s residential density. Just before the fire, Stuart said, there were 709 residential water connections serviced by the Arrowhead Manor Water Company, Cedar Glen’s water supplier, which is now in receivership. Of that number, 637 connections were active.

Because of the shaky financial state of the community’s water supplier, the future of water service in Cedar Glen is a topic of intense interest to property owners. Stuart said RMHL has commissioned a wide-ranging independent study of Arrowhead Manor and other water-supply options for Cedar Glen, along with the costs of each.

The contractor performing the study, San Bernardino-based Engineering Resources of Southern California, will complete the study this week and present the 20-page report at an RMHL-sponsored public meeting this Saturday at 1 p.m. at Lake Arrowhead Community Presbyterian Church on Highway 173.

In a telephone interview, Nowak declined to comment on the fate of Arrowhead Manor or how water might be supplied to a redeveloped Cedar Glen, saying only that that issue “is being addressed in the EIR (environmental impact report).”

Meanwhile, a recent occurrence that may complicate water-related decisions for Cedar Glen is the mailing of a May 12 letter to Cedar Glen property owners by Thomas L. Sutton, director of San Bernardino County’s Special Districts Department.

Sutton’s letter describes a proposal by Supervisor Hansberger to form an “improvement zone” within existing countywide County Service Area 70 to provide roads and water service for Cedar Glen.

The letter says forming the zone could result in public acquisition of Arrowhead Manor, which he said currently owes more than it is worth. If the water system were publicly owned, Sutton said, it would be “operated independently under my office. We have approximately 20 other water and sewer districts under our control, and this would just be another.”

The biggest benefit of forming the improvement zone, Sutton said, could be the potential for federal grant funds to finance some of the project’s infrastructure, including upgrading the water system “to a public standard.” Doing so would give the system sufficient pressure to fight fires without assistance from other water agencies.

Sutton said the zone’s formation could upgrade Cedar Glen’s road system and enable the county, with property owners’ consent, to provide an agreed-upon level of road service – like snow plowing, culvert repairs and maintenance – for a set price each year, payable on the owners’ tax bills. A similar arrangement exists in Cedarpines Park.

As dramatized in the Old Fire, one of Cedar Glen’s biggest needs may be an alternate exit route, other than Hook Creek Road, the long cul-de-sac serving much of the community. Sutton said the County Public Works Department’s transportation section is analyzing Cedar Glen’s road system and will recommend specific needs to the Redevelopment Agency.

“I can’t imagine that an alternative route wouldn’t be included in that report,” Sutton said.

May 9, 2005

Deserted towns await reshaping by new hands

Las Vegas Review-Journal

The deserted town of Amboy, Calif., waits for traffic along its stretch of historic Route 66. The new owner of the town wants to restore it and reopen many of its businesses. Photo by WARREN BATES/REVIEW-JOURNAL

One of them started as a 19th-century whistle-stop on the almost-finished transcontinental railroad. The other is even older but didn't bloom until Route 66 went from dirt to pavement in the 1920s.

Now the towns of Palisade, Nev., and Amboy, Calif., could find fresh life in the hands of new owners.

The 160-acre Palisade township site was sold at auction for $168,750 on April 26. Then, last week, Southern California restaurant owner Albert Okura closed a $425,000 deal to buy Amboy.

"It's just the way it was 40 years ago. It has not changed," said Okura, 53. "And it's in the middle of nowhere. It's like time stood still in Amboy."

The historic town lies 150 miles southwest of Las Vegas, in a stretch of Mojave Desert that Nat King Cole and others have dismissed with barely a pause between "Kingman" and "Barstow" in the song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66."

The remains of Palisade can be found along the Humboldt River at the northeastern edge of Eureka County, a 400-mile drive north of Las Vegas.

Besides new owners, the two deserted towns have something else in common: Both managed to cling to life long after the world moved on without them.

For Palisade, the boom and bust came about 55 years apart, and the town's slow death lasted almost as long.

The town was born in 1868, as the Central Pacific Railroad -- later known as the Southern Pacific Railroad -- pushed east toward its historic meeting with the westbound Union Pacific on May 10, 1869, near Promontory, Utah.

"What really hurt Palisade was the railroad decided to put the division point in Carlin, about 10 miles to the north and east," Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha said.

The division point served as the railroad's maintenance yard for the area and the spot where locomotives were added to eastbound trains to pull them over the Pequop Mountains.

As a result, Palisade never grew larger than a few hundred people, but it did get its own post office in 1870. "That was something," Rocha said.

Three years later, it became part of newly formed Eureka County.

"Major mining around Eureka was really starting to take off," Rocha said. "What gave Palisade some life was the construction of the Eureka & Palisade Railroad."

But by the late 1930s, the mines had been tapped out and the railroads were struggling against new competition brought by the burgeoning highway system.

"As Eureka goes, so goes Palisade," Rocha explained. "Once that railroad went under, once the rails were torn up, that pretty much signaled the start of a long decline for Palisade."

The town's only real brush with infamy -- and lasting fame -- came late on the night of Nov. 7, 1932.

President Herbert Hoover had just delivered the final radio address of his doomed re-election campaign during a stop in Elko, and the presidential train was headed west toward Palo Alto, Calif., so that Hoover could vote in his hometown the next day.

But as "Railroad One" neared Palisade, it was forced to make an unscheduled stop when railroad personnel surprised two men who appeared to be trying to sabotage a railroad bridge up ahead.

Varying accounts of the thwarted assassination attempt appeared in newspapers the next day.

Rocha said the "Reno Evening Gazette" quoted one railroad official who claimed the bridge had been rigged with 22 sticks of dynamite. Another official told the paper that nothing was found "but an old stick of powder."

Within 20 years, Palisade was all but done. The government closed the post office in 1961, and "it was a virtual ghost town" by 1970.

Amboy's decline was much more sudden, though the town itself outdates Palisade by half a century.

Founded by miners in 1815, Amboy did not truly boom until Route 66 did in the 1920s. The town's heyday as a desert oasis for highway travelers lasted 40 years.

Then in 1972, brand new Interstate 40 opened 15 miles to the north, and Amboy found itself on the road to nowhere.

Despite the decline, Okura said he was thrilled to buy the town last week from 88-year-old Bessie Burris, who spent more than 20 years in Amboy before moving to nearby Wonder Valley.

Apparently, Burris was pretty pleased, too.

Bonnie Barnes said her grandmother got several higher offers, but what sold Burris on Okura was his enthusiasm.

"He wanted it real bad, but now he's not quite sure what to do with it. You could tell that," Barnes said. "But that's OK. If there's passion, there's good. This was the right way to go to preserve the town."

After all, Okura knows a little something about historic preservation.

In 1998, he paid $135,000 to buy the site of the first McDonald's restaurant. Now the old building in San Bernardino, Calif., houses an office for his chain of 30 Juan Pollo restaurants and a museum filled with McDonald's memorabilia.

A museum is also a possibility for Amboy, which Okura has promised would not be the sort of place where tourists would be gouged.

But Okura's motives are not entirely selfless. He said he hopes to use some of the "good will" he gets from buying Amboy to expand his restaurant chain eastward, along the old Route 66 corridor.

One place he will not be putting a new Juan Pollo outlet, though, is Amboy itself. "Never, ever, ever," he said. "I want to keep that the way it is, and restore it."

To Okura, that means the eventual reopening of the town's most widely photographed structure, Roy's cafe.

In all, Okura's $425,000 bought him 10 buildings on 934 acres, including the cafe, a gas station, a motel, a post office, a school, a church and an airstrip. It was a pretty good deal for him, considering he offered to buy Amboy from another owner just two years ago for $1.2 million.

Okura said that offer eventually was rejected, as was the high bid of $900,000 when the town was offered for sale on e-Bay in 2003.

Two years later, the bank foreclosed and ownership of the town reverted to Burris. By then, Barnes said, the place had been picked clean and was badly neglected.

"I hope the people who live out in the area don't expect miracles," Okura said. "I'm not the miracle man."

The future of Palisade is even less certain.

Out of a crop of several hundred potential bidders, the townsite was purchased by an unidentified buyer who asked to be known only as "the Ghost from the East Coast."

Greg Martin, owner of the San Francisco auction house that conducted the sale, said he knows the new owner but does not know what the man has planned for the property.

"He doesn't know himself, but he likes the idea (of owning it)," Martin said. "You can buy 150 or 160 acres somewhere, but that's all it is.

"To me, (Palisade) is the equivalent of buying a valuable antique."

May 4, 2005

Amboy changes hands

Businessman pays $425,000 for historic desert town

The Press-Enterprise

For roughly the median price of a home in Redlands, Juan Pollo founder Albert Okura bought himself a town.

Amboy, a desert relic along historic Route 66, gained a new owner Tuesday afternoon. Bessie Burris, who owned the land with her late husband, Buster, signed over the deed to Okura on Tuesday in downtown San Bernardino.

Okura said he paid $425,000 for the 690 acres that is Amboy. The land includes Roy's Café and adjacent gas station, a town office, a motel building with cottages, a restroom, an airplane hanger and a church, all closed. Bonnie Barnes, Burris' granddaughter, said the post office is the only piece of Amboy still open.

At its peak in the 1950s, Amboy had a population of more than 800 and served as a key stop along Route 66.

When Interstate 40 opened in 1972, the traffic moved north and Amboy became another fading oasis in the desert. Amboy's schoolhouse closed in 1999 when the last of its students moved away.

Amboy is nearly a ghost town today, but Barnes said the highway is starting to see cars again as the desert's population grows.

The town made news two years ago when owners Walt Wilson and Timothy White put it up for bid on eBay.

The highest bid, $995,900, was below the undisclosed minimum bid and the sale didn't proceed. The asking price was $1.9 million.

Burris, who sold the town to Wilson and White in 2000, regained the town in a foreclosure this year.

As she prepared to sign her name to documents closing the sale, Burris, 89, talked about her memories of the town.

"We used to have a lot of fun," Burris said, standing in a shaded spot outside First American Title. "We had motorbikes, we had a houseboat. We had everything we wanted."

The sale price is less than a quarter of the asking price from two years ago and less than other offers, Barnes said. The family chose to sell to Okura on the promise that he will preserve and restore Amboy as part of the lore of Route 66, she said.

Okura said his first task will be to restore electricity and basic utilities to the town.

He then plans to reopen the restroom near the gas station, and work on getting the motel, café and gas station ready to reopen.

And no, there won't be a Juan Pollo in Amboy. But that doesn't mean the town won't help his business.

"I will get much more goodwill from restoring Amboy than anything else I could do with it," Okura said.

The company is planning a broad expansion into desert communities, and Okura said he hopes Amboy will be a friendly gesture toward residents he wants to court as customers.

May 3, 2005

OUR OPINION: Pulling the plug on wildlife

Victor Valley Daily Press

So the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that has taken the appelation "tree huggers" to new heights, is again on the march in its attempt to control the desert. This time, the group has resorted to its favorite tactic — a lawsuit — to stop the conversion of wells left on abandoned ranches into "guzzlers" as watering holes for wildlife. Another environmentalist organization, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, has joined in the suit.

Daniel Patterson, speaking for the Center, told the Daily Press this week he was not opposed to hunting in the Mojave National Preserve — where the wells are — but that hunting "would be better" if a natural ecosystem were maintained.

"Better," of course, is entirely subjective. We're reasonably certain the Center would agree that the presence of a more accessible and dependable water supply would result in more wild animals, which, for hunters, means "better" hunting.

Absence of water would mean fewer animals, wouldn't it? So the Center seems to be making an argument that, if applied to housing, would insist that fewer houses make it easier to buy one. That's upside down.

But of course the hunting argument is a pretext. What's really of concern to the Center, and to PEER, is our old friend the desert tortoise. The guzzlers, they say, attract ravens, which prey on desert tortoise hatchlings.

But even that is wide of the real reason for all of this, which is that hunters are humans who like to go into the wild to pursue their avocation, and the Center for Biological Diversity and PEER, as do all environmental activists, think humans should be barred from places like the Mojave National Preserve.