... to prevent Hoffman from overruling NPS biologists who said artificial watering systems should not be installed in the Mojave National Preserve in California ...
The Ledger - Lakeland, FL
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees is a watchdog group of 410 former Park Service workers. The average member worked for the NPS for 30 years. Suffice it to say they have an abiding interest in seeing these national treasures protected.
Indeed, when the nation's park system was created in 1916, Congress declared the "fundamental purpose" was to "conserve the scenery and the national and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
As longtime employees, coalition members were committed to that goal. As retirees, they are still devoted to it.
They are extremely disturbed about a proposed rewrite of NPS rules that has managed to grow to nearly 200 pages with no public input and little attention. The group uncovered it recently, and has sounded the alarm.
It is, said Bill Wade, former superintendent of the Shenandoah National Park and the coalition's executive council chairman, an "astonishing attempt to hijack the management of the 388 areas of our nation's park system and convert them into vastly diminished areas where almost anything goes."
Jerry Rogers, former associate director for cultural resources of the NPS, said the rewrite "stands nearly 100 years of national-park stewardship on its head."
Judging from the language in the draft document (available at www.npsretirees.org), their assessment of impending commercialization and exploitation are not without foundation.
Instead of having preservation as its "fundamental function," the NPS mission would become avoiding "impairment," which the document defines as permanent and irreversible damage. That basic shift opens the parks to all manner of development.
This sentence in the current rules now governs new activities for parks: "In cases of doubt as to the impacts of activities on park natural resources, the Service will decide in favor of protecting the natural resources." It is completely eliminated in the proposed rules. While current rules referred to parks as "classrooms of our heritage," the coalition notes the new ones see them as recreation opportunities.
The proposed rules also would require the NPS to obtain approval from state agencies in areas where the NPS now has the sole responsibility of acting on behalf of all U.S. citizens. The revised rules instruct the NPS to "cooperate" with towns and cities rather than to merely seek "collaboration."
Officials of the coalition for the park retirees said the proposed regulations are mainly the product of Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department who oversees the Park Service. He was Wyoming state director for Vice President Dick Cheney from 1985 to 1989 when Cheney was in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hoffman then served as director of the Cody, Wyo., Chamber of Commerce until early 2002, when he was appointed to the deputy assistant's post.
This spring, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit to prevent Hoffman from overruling NPS biologists who said artificial watering systems should not be installed in the Mojave National Preserve in California.
The Park Service is apparently trying to distance itself from Hoffman's proposals now that they've become public. David Barna, NPS spokesman, told the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune that Hoffman was "playing devil's advocate" with the proposed rules and "had some initial suggestions and prompted us." Those suggestions are now being revised, he said.
Craig Obey, vice president for governmental affairs with the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonpartisan parks-protection organization, said it's difficult to believe Hoffman's ideas formed in a vacuum: "I would find it surprising that someone would put something like this together as a think piece. Documents like this are put together with a purpose."
Obey's association, along with the Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society released a joint statement criticizing the proposal.
It ended: "As watchdog organizations, we share the concerns expressed by park professionals that these policy revisions depart radically from the fundamental stewardship ethic that has preserved our national parks from their beginning. We urge the Department of Interior to immediately abandon this rewrite, heeding the advice of National Park Service professionals who have effectively managed our heritage for decades."
Immediately, if not sooner.
August 30, 2005
... to prevent Hoffman from overruling NPS biologists who said artificial watering systems should not be installed in the Mojave National Preserve in California ...
From Staff Reports
Victorville Daily Press
SAN BERNARDINO — The Mojave National Preserve fires have been put out. But concerns associated with the National Park Service's management of the region are just heating up.
San Bernardino County's concerns with the management of the preserve go beyond the fire and the perceived lack of aggressiveness in preventing or suppressing, according to First District Supervisor Bill Postmus. He's concerned about the removal and obliteration of the ranching community within the preserve as well as the removal and obliteration of the water guzzlers that served both livestock and wildlife. Postmus said in a prepared statement he's also alarmed at the regulatory control exerted by parks service over the use of County owned and maintained roads within the preserve.
Other concerns include what he termed "strong-armed law-enforcement tactics" exerted by NPS on neighboring private lands within the preserve; the dogged pursuit of reclaiming property with alleged non-conforming uses.
The Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 by the California Desert Protection Act. That law also created vast areas of congressionally designated wilderness, which previously had roads and had allowed access, but for which Congress and environmentalists wanted protection.
San Bernardino County actively opposed the creation of the Mojave preserve. In one effort to quiet opponents, the Park Service created an Advisory Commission to include local government representation. But Postmus said his predecessor sat on the commission and provided input — but was ignored. The Commission never met since Postmus was elected 2000.
National Parks Service officials did not comment Monday.
Concerning June's Hackberry Complex Fire that burned 70,636 acres in the east Mojave said that hat if the ranching families were still in the region, much quicker action could and would have been taken when the fire first broke out.
Prior to the Desert Protection Act there was a plan for desert management that contained a degree of wilderness designation on truly roadless areas. That plan was ignored. This resulted in many necessary back country roads being closed — even limiting access by fire trucks, the supervisor said.
Nothing can undo the damage that has been done by the recent fire to the landscape or to the private homes and property in the area. But there are repairs that can be accomplished.
"The anticipated appointment of a new superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve is a great opportunity to demonstrate leadership and to restore order from the top in an administration that is less agenda-driven than the previous administration," Postmus said.
August 26, 2005
By Julie Cart, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
A series of proposed revisions of National Park policy has created a furor among present and former park officials who believe the changes would weaken protections of natural resources and wildlife while allowing an increase in commercial activity, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles.
National Park Service employees warn that the changes, which were proposed by the Department of the Interior and are undergoing a Park Service review, would fundamentally alter the agency's primary mission.
"They are changing the whole nature of who we are and what we have been," said J.T. Reynolds, superintendent of Death Valley National Park. "I hope the public understands that this is a threat to their heritage. It threatens the past, the present and the future. It's painful to see this."
The potential changes would allow cellphone towers and low-flying tour planes and would liberalize rules that prohibited mining, according to Bill Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Larry Whalon, chief of resource management at Mojave National Preserve, said the changes would take away managers' ability to use laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act to oppose new developments in parks.
Although Interior and the Park Service are free to change the service's management polices at any time, they have been amended only twice. The last time was in 2001.
Officials at the Park Service's Washington headquarters downplayed the significance of the proposed revisions, saying they were less a reflection of policy than an attempt to start a dialogue.
The changes are the brainchild of Paul Hoffman, who oversees the Park Service and was appointed deputy assistant secretary of the Interior in January 2002.
Hoffman came to the Park Service after serving as director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyo. He had previously served as Wyoming state director for then-U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney from 1985 to 1989.
"Paul Hoffman had some initial suggestions and prompted us," said David Barna, a Park Service spokesman. "Paul Hoffman was playing devil's advocate. He was saying, 'Show us, the political appointees who make policy, why do you do things the way you do?' It was a starting point. We're a long way from that now. They have drafted a new raw draft."
The proposed changes, which have been in the drafting stage for two years, were leaked this week. About the same time, a group of 400 retired Park Service employees scheduled a news conference for today to announce a campaign to block the changes from taking effect.
Members of the group said they were particularly concerned about policy changes that would allow snowmobiles to travel over any paved road in any national park in the winter; elevate certain activities already occurring in some parks, such as grazing and mining, to "park purposes" — which would ensure their continuation; and change the acceptable level of air quality from "natural background" to air that has been altered by human presence.
Park Service management policies are based on congressional intent, case law and the 1916 Organic Act, and have afforded parks the highest level of natural resource protection of any federally managed land. The policies instruct Park Service officials to balance visitor use with wildlife needs, resource protection and historic preservation, generally holding protection and preservation as their highest goals.
The Interior Department's proposed changes hinge on what Park Service employees say is a revision of what they have been taught is one of the highest priorities: to do no harm to the park.
Since its inception in 1916, the Park Service has been charged with maintaining parks "unimpaired" for future generations to enjoy. According to current policies, when park officials determine an activity may lead to impairment, officials are authorized to ban the activity.
The proposed changes would alter the definition of impairment from "an impact to any park resource or value [that] may constitute an impairment" to one that can be proved to "permanently and irreversibly adversely [affect] a resource or value." Critics say the new definition would set a standard that is impossibly high.
The policy changes were presented to Park Service officials in July. The Department of Interior sent a copy of the revisions to Park Service headquarters in Washington, which forwarded it to its seven regional directors. The directors responded by sending a searing memo to Park Service Director Fran Mainella, criticizing the revisions.
The agency convened a working group of 16 longtime employees Aug. 3 in Santa Fe, N.M.. The group met for three days to try to settle on a compromise version of Hoffman's proposal.
"I was profoundly shocked at how far it went," said a participant in the workshop. He said the group continued to work on the rewrite but was not sure if its watered-down version would be acceptable to Interior officials.
A Park Service supervisor participating in redrafting the policy said a new version was not ready. He rejected the assertion that Hoffman's version was intended only as a provocative idea-generator.
By Supervisor Bill Postmus
From "Postmus Notes", a periodic electronic newsletter from the office of Bill Postmus, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors for the County of San Bernardino
The Mojave National Preserve fires have been put out. But concerns associated with the National Park Service’s management of the region are just heating up.
San Bernardino County’s concerns with the management of the Preserve go beyond the fire and the perceived lack of aggressiveness in preventing or suppressing it, including, but not limited to:
The Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994 by the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA). That law also created vast areas of congressionally designated wilderness, which previously had roads and had allowed access, but for which the Congress and environmental activists wanted "protection".
San Bernardino County actively opposed the creation of the Mojave Preserve. In one effort to quiet opponents, the Park Service created an Advisory Commission to include local government representation. My predecessor sat on the commission, provided input, and was ignored. The Commission had a 10-year life, which expired in 2004, but it never met during my tenure as a County Supervisor, which began in late 2000.
From early on, the Park Service had marching orders to manage the Preserve as a National Park, and to manage it according to Clinton-era Washington-directed criteria. One of the County's specific inputs was to retain the ranching infrastructure, and to keep committed stewardship on the ground. Instead, NPS set about buying out and getting people off the land almost immediately.
With respect to the fire, I suspect that if the ranching families were still in the region, much quicker action could and would have been taken when the fire first broke out. Part of the obliteration of the ranching culture has also involved the dismantling of all of the range improvement and development projects, including a vast system of wells. Their water could have helped fight the fire. There is a new fight brewing over whether the wells can even continue to be used to siphon a trickle of water for the remaining wildlife.
Prior to the Desert Protection Act there was a plan for desert management that contained a degree of wilderness designation on truly roadless areas. That plan was ignored. This resulted in many necessary back country roads being closed (even limiting access by fire trucks).
Going beyond the fire issues, when the Preserve was created, the Park Service immediately installed regulatory road signs (“No Commercial Vehicles”, etc.) on our roads in the region. The Service did not consult with the County.
Now, after ten years, we are embarking upon negotiations with the Park Service on the management and cost-effective maintenance of this system. I assure residents and property owners of my commitment to maintain this link to San Bernardino County government within the Preserve.
We have been forced to accept a management and culture that is foreign to our way of life that includes private stewardship. This culture prefers to manage resources in the name of "protection" and "preservation."
We can't restore the livestock industry in the region, but we can, perhaps with some creative management, keep a group of committed private residents and landowners in the area to provide stewardship of the land. These kinds of interests should be welcomed by the Park Service, not viewed as "inholders" to be dealt with.
Nothing can undo the damage that has been done by the recent fire to the landscape or to the private homes and property in the area. But there are repairs that can be accomplished.
The anticipated appointment of a new Superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve is a great opportunity to demonstrate leadership and to restore order from the top in an Administration that is less agenda-driven than the previous Administration.
This recent devastating fire doesn't have to be just another sad chapter in the history of the Mojave Preserve. It could serve as an example of the need for a partnership between the federal, state and local governments for the good of not only the natural resources, but also for the people of the area.
August 18, 2005
National Park News
Mojave National Preserve
On August 5th, a Budget rental box truck was observed parked two miles from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Cima, California, within the park. Rangers Kirk Gebicke and Joe Spillane contacted the two men, Alejandrio Zamudio and Alfredo Cienfugo-Benitez, seated in the truck.
They determined that the men had been drinking and that their reasons for being parked in the area did not add up. The two men gave the rangers permission to search the vehicle, which proved to be empty.
While a computer check was being run on the pair, ranger Wayne Dingman found a bindle of cocaine four feet from the point where Cienfugo-Benitez had thrown it into the roadside grass. Both men were arrested.
The rangers consulted with Union Pacific special agents and found that the duo had possibly been involved in thefts from trains and were in the park to collect stolen property.
The two men were turned over to Union Pacific police for follow-up interviews, then taken to jail.
A ground and aerial search of the railroad tracks the next day led to the discovery of 75 stolen television sets that had been thrown from a train. The estimated value is in excess of $225,000.
Rangers and UP special agents watched the property throughout the night to see if other gang members would return for the property, but without results.
August 4, 2005
As US agencies and courts declare sites as holy ground, critics charge the government is establishing religion.
TWO CASES: A federal court decision declared Rainbow Bridge in Utah (left) a protected site because of its spiritual value to Southwestern native Americans. Another federal decision allowed scientists to proceed with examining 'Kennewick Man' (model shown, right), the 9,300-year-old human remains that Washington native groups claim as an ancestor. SARA E. RICHARDS/AP; KEVIN P. CASEY/AP
By Brad Knickerbocker - Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
ASHLAND, ORE. – The relationship between government and religion has been a complicated issue ever since the architects of the new American republic made it the lead item in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and Thomas Jefferson argued for "a wall of separation between church and state."
It remains a difficult legal and political issue, as witness the US Supreme Court's recent split decisions on public displays of the Ten Commandments. It may be even more complex involving claims by native Americans, whose spiritual and religious practices are so connected to what they see as holy ground.
A series of court cases and federal agency policy decisions have attempted to thread subtle differences between the constitutional protection of the "free exercise" of religion and the equally important prohibition against the "establishment" of religion.
As with the Supreme Court's two-way decisions on the Ten Commandments, federal courts seem to have moved in conflicting directions.
Holy monuments vs. sacred ground
In one case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against an 8-foot cross that had stood since 1934 on a hill in the Mojave National Preserve in California commemorating US soldiers lost in World War I. Yet another panel of judges from that same appellate court ruled that the owner of property in Arizona could not extract sand and gravel for commercial concrete from his land because Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni tribes considered it to be sacred.
Critics say that declarations of hallowed ground by the federal government - just as in cases involving Christmas crèches and other religious displays - go against the First Amendment. "That's a clear establishment clause violation," says William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. He reads the court decisions as "no to Christianity, yes to pantheism."
Ruling in the Arizona case, brought by gravel pit owner Dale McKinnon, three Ninth Circuit judges saw things differently. "Because of the unique status of Native American societies in North American history, protecting Native American shrines and other culturally important sites has historical value for the nation as a whole, much like Greece's preservation of the Parthenon," wrote Judge Betty Fletcher.
"The Establishment Clause does not require governments to ignore the historical value of religious sites," Judge Fletcher wrote. "Native American sacred sites of historical value are entitled to the same protection as the many Judeo-Christian religious sites ... including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; the Touro Synagogue, America's oldest standing synagogue, dedicated in 1763; and numerous churches that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala."
Among the more well-known sites at least partially protected because of their religious and cultural importance to native Americans are Medicine Wheel and Devil's Tower in Wyoming, Rainbow Bridge in Utah, and Cave Rock on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.
The US Forest Service has closed Cave Rock to climbing, a move that is being challenged in federal court by the Access Fund, a 1.6-million member group that represents recreational climbers. Some observers predict that the case could end up in the US Supreme Court.
Related to such cases is the history of "Kennewick Man," the 9,300-year-old skeleton found on federal land in central Washington State in 1996.
Defining 'native' American
Indian tribes in the area claimed the "Ancient One," as they called him, as their own to bury. The federal government agreed, citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which provides for the return of sacred items, human remains, and other things to lineal descendants and "culturally affiliated" Indian tribes. No further excavation was allowed at the site.
But a group of eight scientists - asserting that the remains may be more nearly related to the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan, Polynesians, or even Caucasians - sued for the right to conduct detailed study. The scientists won that case in federal court, and they recently spent 10 days examining Kennewick Man at the University of Washington in Seattle.
That has led to a push in Congress to amend NAGPRA so that it applies to the remains and artifacts of any indigenous American people whether or not they have any proven cultural affiliation to present-day tribes.
"Everyone who worked on the [original] bill, including myself, logically assumed that all pre-Columbian remains indigenous to the United States are 'native American' and would be covered by the act regardless of their age or whether they can be culturally affiliated," Walter Echo-Hawk, an attorney with Native American Rights Fund, told a Senate hearing last week.
But archeologists, anthropologists, and others argue against such a change.
"If the proposed amendment is accepted, NAGPRA will be expanded far beyond the boundaries of what is reasonable, and you will have removed from the national patrimony ancient cultures and heritages that should be a source of pride for all Americans," Paula Barran, an attorney representing the scientists, told the Senate hearing. "Such actions will impoverish future generations and seriously harm education in this country."
What lawmakers, judges, and government agencies continue to look for here are ways to balance the needs of science, cultural heritage, and the demands of the US Constitution regarding religion.
In any case, says Mr. Pendley, "This is an issue that's not going to go away."
22-27 June 2005
Between 22 and 27 June 2005 a fire that will change the crown of the East Mojave forever destroyed more than 70,000 acres. Before it was over, more than 1,100 fire fighters and associated equipment, aircraft, and support vehicles were involved. It is always difficult to estimate the cost of something like this, but the authorities involved are already admitting over $4,000,000 just to "fight" the fire ... and then there'll be rehabilitation and restoration costs.
Starting out with the good news (or "best" news I guess since none of it is good), I consider it remarkable they were able to contain the Hackberry Fire to the mountain range of that name. I was concerned the fire would get into Lanfair Valley. It didn't. Of course we have the rest of the fire season to be concerned about.
The fire destroyed at least 50% of the piñon & juniper habitat in the East Mojave. Included were historic piñons that were hundreds of years old that were used by Indians in prehistoric times as a source of pine nuts. In that sense these trees were more than simply part of the botanical landscape. And it must be understood that these trees will not be back in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of my children, or my children's children's lifetime. It might be noted that the fire burned only 70,000 acres out of the 1,600,000 acre preserve. But that 70,000 acres likely included half or more of the piñon/juniper habitat. It was part of the crown that gave the high country of the East Mojave such great natural charm. For many of us, the East Mojave will never be the same. We are left with our memories and the photos on file in Goffs.
The fire also consumed innumerable priceless historical sites. And when I say "consumed" I mean they are gone - not even much in the way of ashes. These include Bob Hollimon's home site, Pettit's Well, the Stotts Stamp Mill site, part of the Government Holes Corrals, Barnett Mine, up to a hundred other mine sites, and much more. These things are gone. They will never come back. When you combine these losses with the losses of cultural resources deliberately destroyed through the action of the National Park Service, it can be seen the preserve that started out so rich in that regard will soon be destitute of historical sites. I used to think the information and photographs we are collecting here at Goffs would serve as an interpretive adjunct to the historical sites themselves. Instead, our information and photographs will, in many cases, be all there is.
Residences were consumed by the fire in Round Valley. The fire entered the valley from the S and SW. I have no way of knowing whether that phase of the fire could have been prevented. The destruction is too complete and of course MNP NPS filters and spins any facts that come out. Anyway, a number of residences were completely and utterly destroyed. The landscape was completely changed from one of a lush piñon/juniper region to something that looks like it is on the moon. Many use the word "moonscape."
Mid Hills Campground was mostly destroyed. As I understand it (the way in is blocked by MNP NPS so I haven't actually seen it), only one tier of camp sites remains. Mid Hills represents 50% of the camp grounds in the MNP and the most popular one, especially by experienced desert campers. I imagine some grand new plan will be needed to make up the difference.
Hardly a thing can be found in the more intensely burned areas. Jo Ann and I noted three weeks after the burn a complete absence of lizards and even insects while walking across a badly burned area in Round Valley. The charred remains of rabbits and smaller rodents that couldn't get out of the way are encountered here and there. More agile critters likely fared better.
To exacerbate the situation, on Friday 22 July and again on Sunday 24 July heavy rains fell in the Round Valley/Gold Valley region. The rain served to soften the bleak black coloration of the countryside, but the black slurry rushed down the hill sides forming raging torrents that washed the road out through the narrows in Black Canyon and did other damage. We can expect that to continue. The rain extended out some into Lanfair Valley which might help with the dryness there. (Later note: rains have continued in this area up to the time of writing - 3 August 2005.)
As we leave this fire behind us, we must worry about what lies ahead. We are maybe a month into the fire season with two or more months ahead. There's much yet to burn in the East Mojave. My most urgent worries would be Lanfair Valley and Cima Dome. Keep your fingers crossed on these. It has already been demonstrated that the force and will available to confront fires in the East Mojave is not sufficient to stop them.
As to the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association and its properties in the East Mojave, none were burned. President Chris Ervin and Executive Director Dennis Casebier each have personal property in Round Valley that was very badly burned - or, the phrase is, "the land is toast." Several of our long-time members and close friends lost their residences in this fire.
Mojave National Preserve is attempting to come out of this looking like it was not a failure and making it appear they have a grip on things. On Saturday 23 July 2005 they hosted a get-together amongst their "neighbors" to "share information about the recent fire, discuss concerns, and learn how to prepare for future fires and other emergencies." Although I do not commonly attend affairs like this, considering them to be mainly a waste of time, I decided to go to this one for two reasons: (1) Because I wasn't invited and yet I own four pieces of land in the preserve and the Goffs Cultural Center shares a border with the preserve, and, (2) I had a house guest who wanted to attend because he, too, owns land in the preserve.
Park Service is putting as good a face on this as they can. Comments like "we did all that was humanly possible," "it was an act of God," "it was the wettest winter on record and hence the undergrowth expanded to an unusual extent," "there was too much dead material on the ground and it needed to be burned." Every once in awhile MNP NPS tries the approach of "the fire was started naturally so it is OK" but that doesn't fly, especially with people who really care about the East Mojave and those who lost their homes or cabins. This meeting was definitely a propaganda and posturing affair.
As it turned out a large number of people were there and we all did get to visit with many of our acquaintances. You could get along OK at this meeting unless you made the slightest suggestion that the response to the fire was less than perfect. Yet there was an undercurrent from the "neighbors" pointing to poor management practices and other bungling that permitted the fire to become much larger than it might have been. For example the things I heard at this meeting included: (1) There were arguments among the various factions in the command center at various points as whether to fight the fire or to just let it burn - valuable time was lost in the discussions. (2) Fire fighting units were held back because of uncertainties about whether they were supposed to drive in wilderness. (3) At the onset it was thought water would be available in the big tank at the mouth of Carruthers Canyon, but it was dry - as were many other potential water reserves around Lanfair Valley (this because MNP NPS has cut off all the waters previously maintained by ranchers). They had to wait up to five hours for water to be hauled in. (4) Communications between various elements of the huge fire-fighting force were poor. (5) The formal fire plan drawn up last year by MNP NPS was a waste of time. (6) There were major errors in certain of the multi-colored maps MNP NPS had drawn up, but when "neighbors" attempted to comment on that (or anything else for that matter) the MNP NPS people became very defensive. (7) While the fire was raging there was government equipment including a front loader with a blade being used to tear out corrals and fence lines only a few miles from the fire but this equipment was not brought into play. (8) Someone had heard from a fire fighter that certain properties were to be protected at all costs, while others received little or no attention. (9) A critical group of fire fighters were not informed there were residences in 4th of July Canyon which placed the residents at risk. We'll likely never know the truth about these things because of the standard NPS practice of withholding data (just make a formal request for something sometime and you'll find out what stonewalling and the shell game really are).
However, the data provided by MNP NPS (just for show and tell, you couldn't take it home) made one scenario clear that might well have gone another way. I'll try to explain.
The fire came into Round Valley from the south. It went down both sides of the valley and was an inferno along Black Canyon Road. It was heading for Cedar Canyon Road which was a natural fire break to prevent it from going farther north into the southern end of the New York Mountains. As the fire approached the northern end of the valley and Cedar Canyon Road, it slacked off - that is, the inferno died down as the fire approached the natural barrier of Cedar Canyon Road. That was the place to make the stand. But that was not done. By the time the fire reached Cedar Canyon Road there were just two small relatively harmless fingers to stop, one just east of Black Canyon Road and the other over near Rock Spring. But the fire was permitted to go on.
Having been over that ground several times since then, it can be seen the fire might have been stopped there. There are places in that area where the fire was stopped naturally by a small two-tracker desert backroad. And most of that area didn't burn at all. It is still green. Anyone who wants to, can go out and see that. Or you can see it on the special multi-colored maps MNP NPS has prepared. Why a stand wasn't made here is a question for the people who have all the data (including command structures &c) and we all know MNP NPS are reluctant to share data with us lay people. My guess would be it was an error on the part of those in direct charge and that when the inferno that had been experienced in the southern part of the valley started to fade, just at that moment when a decision should have been made to make a stand, someone faltered.
As a comparison, we can take a look at the same Cedar Canyon Road a little to the west. The fire burned hard from the south right up to Cedar Canyon Road and was stopped there, thus clearly showing the Cedar Canyon Road had the potential as a fire break to stop the fire. Instead, a little to the east in Cedar Canyon, it was permitted to cross the road and continue around Pinto Valley and into the New York Mountains sacrificing additional tens of thousands of acres of piñon/juniper habitat. I asked one fire fighter why, if they felt Cedar Canyon Road itself wasn't enough of a fire break, they didn't use a blade (like bulldozers or front loaders) to widen the fire break and he said the use of such blades for this purpose was against "park" policy. He quickly reversed himself saying there weren't any available anyway, although we all have knowledge that there is a perfectly good front loader nearby being used to destroy fence lines and corrals.
There is no question on my part about the quality of these fire fighters. Likely they are the best that can be had. They worked hard, faced some danger, went without sleep, did a good job as they were told, and made a lot of money in five days. But as with a military engagement (and I wouldn't make this analogy except a MNP NPS person did at the open house) you can have the best soldiers in the world and lose the battle if they are not given the right orders at the right time. The ability to sense out what the right order is at the right moment is what leads to success and makes a brilliant field commander. Anyway, the two fingers of fire coming down the central part of Round Valley were permitted to cross Cedar Canyon Road with the loss of more piñon/juniper habitat and creating a major threat to 4th of July Canyon (which was mostly saved by the fire fighters).
On 21 April 2005, almost two months to the day before the MNP Fire started, MNP Superintendent Mary Martin was here for a meeting. I asked her a question: "What do you plan to do when the big fire starts?" With a great show of confidence, she replied: "We have a plan, we'll implement the plan - do you want a copy?" I said "yes" and she subsequently sent me one. Through the days of the great fire, I wondered how many people were sitting around thumbing through this tome - none I hope. To face up to a great challenge like this fire, you don't need a detailed plan. You need to know what to do and you need to have the courage to do it - truly great people win. Others fall by the wayside studying their plans. Following are just a couple of paragraphs from that plan:
MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE - FIRE MANAGEMENT PLAN
B. WILDLAND FIRE USE
Opportunities for Wildland Fire Use
Fire is not thought to play as significant a role historically in the Mojave Desert as it does in other western ecosystems, most notably the southern chaparral or Sierran mixed conifer zones. Within the true Mojave Desert vegetation types, small infrequent fires characteristic of the historic fire regime are a function of the low fuel loads and wide spacing that characterizes the Mojave Desert flora. Within the Mojave Preserve, however, a number of vegetative communities reflect a transition between Mojave and Sonoran or Great Basin desert types. These communities do support fire and their historic fire regimes and characteristic fire adaptations differ from true Mojave plant communities. Lightning ignitions do occur and resulting fires are a natural, albeit relatively infrequent, disturbance regime.
The objective for wildland fire use within the Mojave National Preserve is to allow the natural process of fire to occur with minimal interference, thus fostering landscape and biotic diversity. Acceptable results include the creation of vegetative mosaics and edges, removal of decadent shrubs and grasses to encourage growth of new and vigorous individuals, promotion of nutrient cycling, and creation of improved short and long-term foraging opportunities for certain species of animals.
Fires from natural ignitions will be allowed to burn within given areas and under specific circumstances where there are minimal values at risk. Approximately 342,927 acres are zoned for fire use, including portions of all Fire Management Units except the Cima Unit. In all cases, fire use zones are coincident with designated wilderness. In these areas, a timely suppression response would be unlikely or has the potential to result in adverse impact to wilderness values. Natural ignitions in these areas are expected to be infrequent and isolated with fire spread contained by natural barriers. Fire use will only be implemented where the current spot weather forecasts indicate no wind events that could cause spread of spotting that would pose a risk to life, property, or sensitive resources. A number of pre-determining factors would also be weighed, including natural preparedness levels, air quality restrictions, and current local resource availability. Maximum manageable area per wildland fire use incident will not exceed 200 acres. In all cases, wildland fire use incidents will be monitored by fire personnel. The fire management strategy will transition from fire use to suppression when a) conditions change, b) the fire threatens to exceed the maximum manageable area, c) or the fire poses a threat to other values.
It can be seen from these words that MNP NPS doesn't (or didn't) really understand the power of a wildfire. Their tremendously exaggerated opinion of themselves and their abilities, precludes them from seeing the truth. Then apparently the National Park Service heritage prevents them from speaking the truth when things go wrong. (I believe it is a bigger problem than just our local Mojave National Preserve.)
The two paragraphs quoted above raise many questions. One question that comes to my mind from my own experience that reflects a misguided policy on the part of MNP NPS has to do with the prohibition against burning "dead and down" in campfires. If you want a campfire in the MNP, you must bring in your own wood and fire pan. Maybe in other parks that makes some sense. I've been camping in the East Mojave for over forty years and frequently I have used the same camping spot many times. Just as a matter of course and concern about the possibility of fire, I would clean up around my camp site. I even got to bringing along a small rake so I could get the weeds from under larger bushes. This undergrowth facilitates the spread of a wildfire in the desert and it serves to ignite the larger bushes. Over a period of time my camping areas would be neat and tidy for some distance around. I always had open camp fires and never had a problem. Under NPS management (and we've had ten years of that now) that isn't permitted. In fact, if you even looked like you wanted to gather a piece of dead and down wood for a fire you'd be approached by Big Brother armed to the teeth and ready to haul you off to jail. So they would prefer to burn 70,000 acres at a time?
Early in the fire, I guess before MNP NPS people realized the wildfire was out of control, you'd hear words from NPS people like: "It is a natural event so we will let it burn." Or that no fire suppression efforts would take place until it was out of wilderness. In the early stages, it was not necessarily viewed as a bad thing. One MNP NPS person spoke in very defensive words about the naturalness of the fire and went on to swoon: "I am thrilled (not my word) to be part of such a dramatic event." The word "thrilled" stuck in my mind. How about being "appalled?" or how about feeling remorse or even guilt?
I don't especially mean to say that if MNP NPS had permitted burning of "dead and down" the outcome of this fire would have been any different. How could I know? But it does point up how inappropriate many of the regulations they bring with them from other parks have no application in the desert. And, from the very beginning, MNP NPS has steadfastly refused to listen to any desert expert or resident. They still seem not to understand that there are many people out here (permanent residents and visitors) that know a lot more about this place than they do.
Another inflammatory issue is to suggest in the presence of MNP NPS people that the removal of cattle and burros from the East Mojave made any difference. The point is that if cattle had been present they would have eaten much of the grass and other fuel making it more difficult for the fire to spread. This of course reflects on another disaster MNP NPS is responsible for, i.e., removal of cattle from the East Mojave. There are, however, cattle yet on the 7IL Ranch, so MNP NPS is quick to point out that fires burned in areas where cattle are yet grazing. And that is true. Yet you don't have to be a rocket scientist to deduce that if cattle have grazed an area, that area will be less susceptible to fire. But, with characteristic behavior, MNP NPS seems to be totally unable to be objective about any issue that reflects upon them in any way. If you carry that thinking another step, then it is safe to say there is no scientific basis for anything they say or do since objectivity is the essence of science. And I believe that to be the case. There is no person involved in this trained in science that is free to speak the truth.
Now that the fire is over, MNP NPS is busy making reports of all the damage. They are even compiling lists of cultural resources. This isn't because they care about those resources, it is because they can now apply for funds for restoration. Funds that would be outside their normal budget process. I'd be surprised if this doesn't amount to another four million. And what good will it do? You cannot replace things that are priceless.
Thus ends the first decade of National Park Service management of the East Mojave. And this fire is just one more in a long ten-year list of disasters out here. I don't know if we can stand another ten years. And yet NPS guardianship is touted as the highest level of protection the nation can provide.
Life could be so much nicer for MNP NPS, and everyone around them, if they could just kick back and accept the reality of their situation in the East Mojave. If they could accept that they are the Johnny-come-latelys here. That nothing is gained by their deceit ... their unwillingness to be honest and straightforward ... their difficulty with accepting and respecting the multitude of people who have vested interests here.
One bottom line that seems clear to many who understand the East Mojave is that this area should never have been put under the management of the National Park Service. The area was doing just fine under BLM management and it should be changed back. Senator Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues, the vast majority of the news media, and the multitude of Dark Ages People (Enviros) were all wrong. And to prove that point we are privileged to watch the destruction of the East Mojave before our very eyes with no way to stop it.
Final note. I've agonized over this report for more than a week. That has given me an opportunity to show it to others, including people who were involved in the fire in official capacities. There is general concurrence of the major points described here, including failures in coordination and management and especially in the confusion contributed by faltering leadership on the part of MNP NPS. An investigation by an unbiased third party is in order.
Dennis G. Casebier
37198 Lanfair Road G-15
Essex, California 92332