December 27, 2006

Renovation begins at former health spa








Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
SBSun.com


ZZYZX - More than three decades have passed since radio evangelist Curtis Howe Springer left this desert oasis and spa, which he called "the last word in health care."

Its cluster of buildings, which Springer opened as a resort with indoor mineral springs and a cross-shaped pool, have weathered the desert wind and heat since the Bureau of Land Management evicted him in 1974, saying he didn't have a valid claim for the property.


Deteriorated by time and the elements, the structures are now being shored up.

"We're reroofing all the historic buildings from the Springer era, and stabilizing others," said Rob Fulton, who manages the 30-year-old Desert Studies Center at the site, five miles off Interstate 15 near Baker.

The $500,000 project is being carried out by the National Park Service and the California State University system, which operates the center under a cooperative agreement.

"Buildings used for classrooms, office, and dining room are getting new roofs," Fulton said. "The Sunrise Building, which contained 10 guest rooms, is being stabilized along with the old pool and spa."

The site, known as Soda Springs before Springer opened his 12,000-acre Zzyzx mineral-springs resort, was used for hundreds of years by Indian tribes and as a stagecoach and then rail stop on the old Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad, according to the Park Service.

Learning of springs in the area, Springer decided in 1944 to open a health spa at the site, recruiting laborers from Skid Row in Los Angeles to construct the resort's buildings.

"Springer broadcast his daily religious programs from his powerful radio station," said authors Cheri Rae and John McKinney in their book, "Mojave National Preserve: A Visitor's Guide."

Widespread response to the broadcasts turned Baker into California's busiest post office. Springer stayed 30 years at Zzyzx, catering to thousands of visitors.

A lake at the site is home of the endangered Mohave tui chub fish.

In 1995, passage of the California Desert Protection Act created the Mojave National Preserve, which incorporated Zzyzx and its cluster of 12 buildings into the park.

The historic buildings have been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, the Park Service reports in its management plan for the preserve.

About 6,000 students and researchers, half of whom are from other states and foreign countries, use the Desert Studies Center annually, Fulton said.

It accommodates about 80 students or researchers at a time. They focus on subjects as diverse as archaeology and wildlife biology.

The consortium of California State University campuses running the center are in San Bernardino, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge and Pomona.

December 24, 2006

The Last Burros of the Mojave Desert

The Huffington Post
by Deanne Stillman


The time has come to speak of the animals in attendance at the nativity, especially the burro, the stubborn, steadfast, and hardy little four-legged who has served us well through the ages, with barely a tip of the hat in the annals.

It was a burro that carried Mary and Joseph to the stable where Christ was born, a burro that carried Christ into Jerusalem for one of his last acts, a burro that accompanied his followers into other empires and across time, finally helping trappers, prospectors, and soldiers make their way into the Old Testament scenery of the American West.

Since then his descendants have lived in the desert, fending off predators, joy riders with guns, and government round-ups. But now the burros' time in the Mojave may be coming to an end, because of a federal policy of "zeroing out" the herds in areas where other critters and half-baked attempts to manage water that has already been mismanaged have taken precedence.

And who are these burros exactly? Well, let's meet Brighty, one of our western pioneers. There's a statue of Brighty the burro in the Grand Canyon Lodge. Brighty lived at the Grand Canyon from 1892 to 1922, along with countless other burros whose ancestors had come with the Spanish and carried the ensuing parade.

Named after the Bright Angel Creek in the canyon, Brighty originally belonged to a gold prospector. When the prospector was killed, Brighty was adopted by the park service. He helped build the canyon's first suspension bridge across the Colorado River and carried Teddy Roosevelt's packs on a hunt for mountain lions. He was an icon of the West when he died, and it would seem only fitting that the government honor his life by making sure that others of his kind could flourish in their desert home.

As I've written on this site, passage of the federal Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971 spearheaded by Wild Horse Annie did exactly that - but in spirit only. It gave authority for mustangs and burros to the Bureau of Land Management, which meant that other agencies such as the National Park Service could make their own policy towards these animals if they lived on NPS land. To the park service, burros were not free-roaming but non-native, which meant that they had to go (see article on wild horses).

In 1979, the extirpation began - with Brighty's enduring family.

Because getting them out of the Grand Canyon would be difficult, all 577 of them were to be shot.

The late writer and animal defender Cleveland Amory intervened, along with his organization, the Fund for Animals, putting together a daring and complicated rescue in which the burros were airlifted from the canyon and taken to his Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which he founded for this occasion. But that was the beginning of the end for the burro in national parks and preserves.

Since then, NPS has continued its policy of "direct reduction," and thousands of burros have either been shot by contract hunters or harried to their doom or into overcrowded government adoption pipelines in cruel airborne round-ups. From 1987 to 1994, the park service shot 400 burros in Death Valley alone - just one of various burro sites all over the desert West. When Death Valley went from monument to park status in 94, the park service amped up its plans to remove burros - and Death Valley's remaining wild horses. But another friend of the burro stepped up, just in time.

This was Diana Chontos, In 1990, the long-time rescuer of burros had taken six of them and made a two-year cross country wilderness trek through California to draw attention to their plight. When she heard about what was about to happen to the Death Valley burros in 94, she approached NPS with a plan.

After lengthy and difficult talks, she and NPS came to an agreement: the agency would not shoot burros if her organization, Wild Burro Rescue in Olancha, California just to the west of Death Valley, would organize, pay for, and remove the burros themselves. And that's what she's been doing since then.

"These annual live captures are conducted in hazardous conditions in rugged and remote mountain wilderness," she says. She almost died of renal failure at a recent capture because she just couldn't get enough water over a six-day period. And there were only two people doing the capture - she and her late partner, Tom Allewelt, who trimmed the hooves of the rescued burros and horses and helped to gentle them at their sanctuary in the Owens Valley.

There are still a few burros in Death Valley and soon, perhaps sometime next year, another capture will be planned - if she can raise the funds and head off a park service hunt. And that's the only reason she takes the burros out of the park - not for adoption, which is BLM policy.

On January 19th, 2007, the burros that live in the Clark Mountains of the Mojave Desert - the last in that region - will be gone, taken in a federal round-up (in this case by the BLM, which manages the area in question), perhaps memorialized like Brighty in a statue at the Mojave National Preserve, which has now turned its sights on that particular herd, whose home turf is the highest peak in that part of the desert at 7929 feet. This is on the north side of the preserve and sometimes if you're driving east on I-15, you can see them hanging out at Excelsior Mine Road.

As with wild horses, there's a dispute about exactly how many burros are left. Locals say maybe 30; the feds say 2-300. There's also a dispute over access to water, which was closed off when the park service took over part of the burros' range. NPS originally agreed to have water piped back into the BLM part of the burros' range, but then reversed course.

"Concerned citizens have volunteered labor and materials to complete the simple project at no cost to taxpayers," says Virginie Parant, of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. But so far, plans for the round-up are still in place. In 2005, another herd was taken off the preserve, and - according to the desert grapevine - two may have been shot in the process; there are photos of one burro with a bullet to the head circulating the ethers (although it's not clear which round-up that came from) and another was allegedly run to the point of exhaustion and death - the rumor is that he died a very slow and painful death as the contractors may have stood by. Not surprising if true; I have heard of and been an eyewitness to a staggering amount of tax-subsidized government abuse before, during, and after round-ups of wild horses and burros.

"They are destroying our Western heritage," says Jennifer Foster, a 23-year resident of Hesperia near the preserve. Jennifer and her husband Ken are two of a small group of high-desert locals who are planning a legal action to stop this impending and most final act.
At a recent BLM public comments meeting in Barstow, Mojave native Bobby Parker asked preserve officials if they knew of any studies that showed how the desert tortoise was faring since burro removal had been amped up in the region, given the fact that the burro is said to have a negative impact on the endangered species and that's one of the reasons it's being removed. No one could answer the question. (And by the way, the tortoise is one of my totems and I'm all in favor if its protection. But the Mojave is one vast creche indeed, with plenty of room at the inn for all manner of creatures, especially when water sources aren't blocked off).

A few months ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the Interior Department, suggesting that when she lobbied for the Desert Protection Act which passed in 1994, she didn't intend for all burros to be eliminiated from the Mojave. The letter is posted here, along with information about other actions that can be taken. Asked about the letter at the hearing, officials said it had no bearing on their mandate.

Burros have much to tell us, as Diana Chontos says. In 2000, she rescued a burro from Death Valley and called him Yaqui. "He was respected by all of the younger jacks- the male burros - and they didn't chase him from food or water. He loved to be brushed and hugged. But one day he began to grow weak and could no longer get up from his naps without being helped and towards the end we rigged a blanket for shade and called a vet to ease his passing. One by one all 32 jacks came by and touched him some place on his body, then went back to their hay. Shortly after the last jack paid his respects, Yaqui took a deep breath and died." He was 50 years old, the vet said, the oldest equine he had ever seen. Had he helped a miner named Pegleg Pete find water? Maybe he had once led a lost pilgrim back to the trail. Or maybe he just lived in the Mojave Desert - for a long time, until he had to go.

THIS IS DEDICATED TO BARRY BRESLOW, TIRELESS ADVOCATE FOR WILD BURROS, WHO PASSED AWAY IN 2006, AND THE 49 BURROS WHO WERE GUNNED DOWN BY CULPRITS UNKNOWN ON GOOD FRIDAY, 1990, OUTSIDE OATMAN, ARIZONA.

December 17, 2006

Off-Roaders Fight Ecos for Calif. Canyon

Off-roaders fight environmentalists over surprising canyon near California's Death Valley

By GILLIAN FLACCUS Associated Press Writer
CBS News [New York City, NY]


BALLARAT, Calif., Dec. 17, 2006 (AP) Whoever named Surprise Canyon got it right. Mere miles from bone-dry Death Valley, the canyon cradles two unexpected jewels: a gushing mountain stream and what's left of a once-bustling silver mining town.

These treasures have attracted visitors for decades _ and now they're at the heart of a legal battle between off-road drivers and environmentalists.

Five years ago environmentalists successfully sued to get the narrow canyon and its spring-fed waterfalls closed to vehicles, arguing that the federal Bureau of Land Management was not carrying out its duty to protect the land.

In response, more than 80 off-roaders purchased tiny pockets of private land at the top of the canyon, and now they're suing the federal government for access to their property, arguing that the canyon is a public right of way.

It is one of several recent cases that could unlock thousands of miles of roads in federally protected parks around the West.

The fight over Surprise Canyon boils down to whether the rights of private property owners trump the protection of a fragile oasis on public land. The off-roaders have dusted off a Civil War-era mining law that places the public access rights of local governments and private individuals above the rights of the federal government.

Environmental groups allege that, before they won protection for the area in 2001, off-roaders destroyed the canyon by cutting trees, dumping boulders in the water and using winches to drag their Jeeps up the waterfalls. They are seeking to intervene in the off-roaders' lawsuit.

Since 2001, the canyon has regenerated, with new vegetation attracting wildlife.

"It's almost unbelievable what's up there. It's precious, it's pristine," said Tom Budlong, an activist who regularly hikes the canyon about 200 miles northeast of his Los Angeles home. "I shudder to think of the extreme four-wheelers getting back into the canyon and making a road where there is now no road.

"Once there was a road _ a 130-year-old gravel route that flash floods washed away nearly two decades ago. Off-roaders continued driving up the rugged canyon stream bed to reach the ghost town of Panamint City, which has easily explorable mine shafts, the remains of a smelter, some mine carts and a few cabins.

The canyon grows from an arid plain just north of the one-house desert outpost of Ballarat and climbs 3,700 feet over five miles to Panamint City, inside Death Valley National Park. Most of Surprise Canyon is outside the park boundary.

Flycatchers flit among thick stands of willows and cottonwood trees that crowd along the stream. Less common birds have been spotted since the area was closed to vehicles, notably the endangered Inyo California towhee, said Chris Kassar, an Arizona-based biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. Other sensitive species such as the Panamint daisy and the Panamint alligator lizard also are flourishing, she said.

Kassar and others believe the canyon's ecosystem could crumble if the off-roaders prevail in their lawsuit, filed in August.

The off-roaders argue that, under an 1866 mining law, the canyon still is a public right of way even though the road is long gone.

"The issue is not off-roading and environmental issues. The legal issue is access," said plaintiffs' attorney Karen Budd-Falen. "If the road was once there and it's eroded out it's still a public access. The fact that it has been flooded out doesn't make the legal issue go away.

"Similar arguments are being used in right-of-way lawsuits elsewhere in the West.In 2004, San Juan County in Utah sued the National Park Service, claiming a creek in Canyonlands National Park was once a county road. Environmental groups have sought to intervene in that case, which is before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Inyo County recently sued the same agency over four dirt roads in Death Valley National Park, and San Bernardino County sued over 14 roads in the Mojave National Preserve. Both suits allege the roads were county property before the federal government closed them.

Off-roaders say they just want to visit their property and explore the ghost town."I respect what was there and I want it to be there for my kids to see," said Dale Walton, a member of the Bakersfield Trailblazers off-roading club and a property owner.

"I resent people who go in and destroy things, but I resent more people that say 'You just can't go in there because we don't want you to go in there,'" he said.

December 12, 2006

Roundup opposed

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]


Ken and Jennifer Foster of Hesperia are battling to save a herd of wild burros that roam freely on the lower slopes of Clark Mountain in the eastern Mojave Desert.

They are among a group of animal-rights advocates opposing a plan by a federal agency to capture as many as 150 burros in a proposed helicopter-assisted roundup Jan. 19.

The plan is to put the burros up for adoption as pets.

Three federal agencies are involved in the decision to remove the burros from land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM.

Neither the Park Service nor Fish and Wildlife want the burros. They are banned from the national parks because they are not native and compete with native creatures for survival. Fish and Wildlife says they compete with the endangered desert tortoise.

The Fosters paint a colorful picture of the burros from Western lore. "These animals are a living heritage of the Old West," Jennifer Foster said. "It would be a complete travesty to remove them from their native range."

Her husband says: "They're as much a part of the West as the horse and wagon and should be left to graze where they've been over 100 years."

The Bureau of Land Management, which administers rangeland at Clark Mountain, sees burro removal as a necessity.

"Part of the herd area contains critical habitat of the endangered desert tortoise," said BLM's John Dearing. "And creation of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994 transferred the only springs (at Clark Mountain) with yearlong surface water to the National Park Service."

Also in 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that wild burros be banned from grazing in desert wildlife management areas, including the herd area at Clark Mountain, to help restore tortoise populations.

Meanwhile, the park service management plan for the Clark Mountain area called for removing burros from the new national preserve and fencing off burros from the water sources.

A public meeting on the proposed burro roundup will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the BLM's Barstow field office, 2601 Barstow Road. Public comments on an environmental assessment for the proposal will be accepted until Dec. 29 at the bureau's Needles field office, 1303 South Highway 95.

The bureau estimates there are 100 to 150 wild burros within or adjacent to the 233,000-acre Clark Mountain herd area. An adjacent 37,000 acres on the mountain is in the national preserve.


The bureau's burro capture plan calls for rounding up the animals and placing them in BLM's national wild horse and burro adoption program, administered at Ridgecrest.

"Under the proposal, the capture and removal of wild burros would be aided by a helicopter at gathering sites," Dearing said. "The helicopter would be used to locate and herd targeted animals to capture sites."

Wranglers on the ground would corral the burros.

Two other roundup methods are also proposed: trapping animals by enticing them with hay or luring them to water sites. Attracted by hay or water, the burros would be captured in portable pens with gates triggered after the animals were inside.

The environmental assessment of the capture plan said wranglers would ensure the burros are treated humanely.

But Jennifer Foster calls helicopter captures dangerous for the animals.

"During a roundup last September, a beautiful jack ran until it collapsed, and then was dragged by ropes by two mounted wranglers," she said.

The animals were abused by one of the wranglers, Foster said, and "one was left to die a very agonizing death over 14 to 16 hours."

The Fosters, 25-year residents of Hesperia who founded a lobbying group called Public Lands for Public Use, have owned horses and burros for three decades. They recently acquired 10 Clark Mountain burros from the bureau's wild horse and burro adoption program and plan to take them to animal sanctuaries, they said.

"We both love animals," Ken Foster said. "A big share of our lives has been devoted to riding and caring for horses and burros."

"We absolutely must stop this roundup," said Jennifer Foster. "If we don't, these living symbols of the Old West will be gone forever."


December 2, 2006

Study: Airport can't deliver on tourism demands


An American Airlines plane takes off from McCarran International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the United States.

By BENJAMIN SPILLMAN
Las Vegas REVIEW-JOURNAL

Shorter buffet lines and desolate casino floors could be in the cards at many Strip hotels as early as 2010 unless something is done to bypass heavy congestion at Southern Nevada's largest airport.

Researchers at the investment firm Deutsche Bank say that if hotel development continues at its current pace, Las Vegas resorts could face a shortfall of up to 7 million visitors annually by 2017, the soonest a new airport could be up and running.

That would leave operators of the latest and greatest megaresorts to cannibalize the customer base of existing casinos to make ends meet, said authors of a Nov. 30 report on the issue distributed to investors.

It's a scenario that would hit everyone from board room executives to parking garage valets squarely in the wallet.

"It is going to be extremely tight, and someone might lose," said Deutsche Bank research analyst Bill Lerner. "There are just all kinds of implications."

Lerner and Grant Govertsen, another researcher, said the report is the most detailed look to date at the airport crunch from the perspective of gaming company investors.

They urged developers to be cautious when planning new rooms and suggested that tourism boosters do more to increase the number of people who come to Las Vegas by car.

Airport officials said Friday that the authors painted an overly pessimistic picture of the future. "You could do anything with numbers depending on the assumptions you project," said Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County deputy director of aviation.

The report's authors project a short-term annual shortfall of about 600,000 visitor arrivals by 2010. But that will be alleviated by the addition of a new terminal in 2011.

Once the new terminal is in place, Vassiliadis said, technology improvements in tracking planes, airspace expansions and airport streamlining will keep pace with growth until 2017. That's the earliest a $7 billion airport could be operating in the Ivanpah Valley between Jean and Primm.

"There is no reason for me to believe we will not keep rolling along," Vassiliadis said.
Currently more than 44 million people arrive and depart annually from McCarran, the fifth busiest airport in the United States.

Air passengers represent 47 percent of the visitors who occupy the city's approximately 136,000 hotel rooms.

McCarran officials say the airport can handle 53 million arrivals and departures annually, a figure it could reach by 2011 or sooner.

But hotel operators plan to add another 41,746 hotel rooms by the end of 2012, according to the report.

To maintain occupancy in existing hotels and fill the new rooms would take about 23.3 million visitor arrivals at McCarran in 2012, Lerner and Govertsen estimated. The airport, however, will reach capacity at about 21.2 million visitor arrivals, leaving hotel operators to look elsewhere for about 2.1 million customers, they said.

The discrepancy between the number of people needed to maintain existing growth rates and the capacity at the airport would grow until 2017.

As that happens, competition would intensify as casino operators looked at each other's customers as a source of new income.

The capacity crunch at McCarran also could increase the cost of tickets to Las Vegas. That, combined with intensifying competition, would hit older, value-oriented properties hardest.

"It is pretty far off. But it is something we continue to evaluate," said Mark Lefever, chief financial officer of the Riviera, which has more than 2,000 rooms and more than 2,500 Las Vegas employees to support.

Lefever said he was confident the property would continue to find customers. "There are still a whole bunch of people coming by car," he said. "This town will be fine."

Others said that counting on a new airport operating in the Ivanpah Valley by 2017 was an optimistic assumption.

The proposed location is close to the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre refuge in California. Environmental groups question whether an airport ferrying up to 35 million people annually should be placed next to a national park known for desert solitude.

"It does seem like it is a fairly fast turnaround when you are looking at the significant environmental issues involved here," said Ron Sundergill, Pacific region director of the National Park Conservation Association. "You have this major asset which needs to be protected."

Lerner said projecting airline traffic and hotel development more than 10 years into the future is difficult and resulted in numbers that could change depending on countless factors.

But that didn't change the core point of the report. "I know we are splitting hairs on specific numbers" he said. "But the over-arching point is it is going to be real tight."

TOURISM GAP PREDICTED TO WIDEN
Las Vegas will be unable to maintain annual 4 percent increases in hospitality growth and visitor traffic without a solution to the upcoming air passenger capacity crunch at McCarran International Airport.

November 29, 2006

Depot plans on right track

Renovations will begin after railroads sign off on project

The Kingman depot once housed a Harvey House Restaurant. [Kathy Weiser, April 2008]

Suzanne Adams, Staff Reporter
Kingman Daily Miner


KINGMAN, Arizona - Train watchers and fans from near and far are eagerly awaiting the start of renovations on the old Santa Fe Depot in downtown Kingman.

"There's so many people interested in trains it's incredible! I've got tons of people with railroad artifacts interested in the project," said Shannon Rossiter of the Mohave Museum of History and Arts.

Plans for the renovation of the old train depot are about 95 percent complete, said Rob Owen, special projects coordinator for the city of Kingman. All that needs to be done is to have BNSF Railway and Amtrak give their final approval for the project.

Owen hopes to have that approval by January so the project can go out for bid at the end of February. The restoration work can then start in March.

The city will be reimbursed for 94.3 percent of the restoration work by a Federal Transportation Enhancement Grant. The city applied for the $500,000 grant in 2001 and received approval in 2002.

The grant is administered by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Kingman will have to match 5.7 percent of the cost of the project.

Despite its age, the depot is still structurally sound, Owen said. The old station will be receiving new doors, windows, paint, plumbing and electrical work, heating and air conditioning, stucco and new landscaping as part of the renovation work.

Ever since 2002, Kingman residents have been asking when work was going to begin.

A lot of people don't understand the grant process, said Bill Shilling, a city grant administrator. It can take many years to apply, receive approval and get funds from a grant for a project.

One extra step that has slowed the process is that the city has to seek approval of the plans from not only ADOT but also Amtrak and BNSF. Amtrak owns the building and BNSF owns the railroad tracks and the right of way next to the depot. Plans for the project have been shuttled back and forth between all three organizations.

The only major request has come from BNSF Railway. The railway has requested a wrought iron fence to be put up between the building and the BNSF railroad tracks.

The fence is designed to keep visitors away from the tracks, which are in constant use.

Once the work is complete, the station will once again see customers lining up for train tickets. Amtrak will be moving its current ticket office from its tiny space on Fourth Street back into the western half of the depot. The eastern half of the building will become a railroad museum with exhibits and artifacts from railroad enthusiasts and the Mohave Museum of History and Arts.

The building is nearly 100 years old. It was built in the early 1900s by the Santa Fe Railway of reinforced concrete and may be one of the oldest concrete buildings in the state.

It's also one of many historic buildings in downtown Kingman on the National Registry of Historic Places.

November 28, 2006

Will Surprise Canyon remain off limits to off-road drivers?


Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts want to reopen the wild road, but environmentalists say no. The fight over the state road is in federal court.


By Lee Romney, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times


Five years after it was temporarily closed to off-road enthusiasts who winched their vehicles up its limestone waterfalls, a coveted canyon on Death Valley National Park's western edge has been reclaimed by nature's hand.

Thick willow groves have erased nearly all traces of the washed-out road that once pointed extreme sportsmen to the ruins of a onetime silver boom town. Bighorn sheep appear with greater frequency, conservationists note, and the endangered Inyo California towhee has returned.

But the battle for Surprise Canyon, home of the longest year-round stream in the Panamint Range, has revved up a notch: More than 100 four-wheel-drive aficionados determined to see their prized run reopened have filed a lawsuit in federal court that is being closely watched throughout the West.

The claim relies on a Civil War-era mining law that allowed counties and states to lay routes over federal land. Although the statute, known as RS 2477, was repealed three decades ago, routes established before then were allowed under a grandfather clause. A gravel toll road in Surprise Canyon that fell into public hands before succumbing to flooding is such a route, the lawsuit contends.

Battles over what routes qualify have intensified in recent years across Utah and other Western states, as emboldened counties, off-road enthusiasts and private landholders seek to wrest from federal hands thousands of old rights-of-way, rutted vehicle trails and even cattle paths.

But the Surprise Canyon claim — which demands that the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service immediately reopen the canyon to vehicles — appears to be the first federal court fight over a California route.

Since the Surprise Canyon suit was filed in late August, Inyo and San Bernardino counties have filed separate RS 2477 federal court claims that assert local control over 18 other routes.

Six environmental groups are seeking to intervene in the Surprise Canyon case, hoping to see the canyon permanently closed and to weigh in on the antiquated statute.

"This is a law that was passed a year after Lincoln was assassinated and repealed 30 years ago, and its dead hand is still haunting the protection of our national parks," said Ted Zukoski, a Denver staff attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups. "What they are attempting to do is to undermine protection for these beautiful wild areas."

Although Utah "has really been the epicenter of this debate," Zukoski added, "it certainly seems like the California desert is becoming another area where there's a tremendous amount of pressure on this issue."

Brian Hawthorne of the Idaho-based Blue Ribbon Coalition, which represents off-road enthusiasts, said the disputes are real and must be resolved to clarify where vehicles are permitted.

Hawthorne said he'd prefer to see the conflicts settled outside court: A New Mexico congressman last month proposed legislation that would allow states or counties to gain title by producing any official map or survey made before 1976. But Hawthorne conceded that passage was unlikely.

"We are looking at a monumental battle over each and every one of these roads," said Hawthorne, whose group has not taken a stance on Surprise Canyon.

Built in 1874, Surprise Canyon Road carried miners to Panamint City. Constant washouts prompted regular rebuilding. But a 1984 flash flood wreaked havoc that no one chose to counter.

Then, in 1989, hard-core off-road enthusiasts stacked boulders and pruned back willows to clear a path for their tricked-out machines, forging a route that at times took them directly through the stream bed and — with the help of steel winch cables — up its seven slick waterfalls. (The road had previously covered the stream, pushing it underground in places, before flooding stripped the canyon to bedrock.)

The California Desert Protection Act in 1994 placed the upper portion of Surprise in Death Valley National Park and designated the Bureau of Land Management portion below as wilderness. But Congress excluded a narrow strip of land around the washed-out road. That made it legally open to off-roaders, and the canyon's cachet grew.

Critics of the riders say they destroyed sensitive riparian habitat of the Panamint daisy and Panamint alligator lizard and spilled oil, gas and antifreeze in the water. The riders counter that they maintained the ghost town buildings and regularly hauled out trash. They also point out that the road had been host to a steady stream of cars for decades.

Off-road use came to a halt in 2001 when, as the result of a settlement in a broader lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the canyon was temporarily closed pending a detailed joint environmental review by both federal agencies. (The current lawsuit demands that the canyon be reopened regardless of the review.)

The 2001 settlement noted that the smattering of property owners up the canyon would be exempted and could request a key to the gate barring access to the road. To the off-road winchers, that smelled like an opportunity.

"What would you do if you wanted to get up there?" asked Joe Stocker, 70, a retired millwright who made dozens of canyon winch runs and is a plaintiff in the new case. "You'd buy land up there."

One property owner sold — to off-road enthusiasts who formed two land partnerships at the heart of the current case. But the Ridgecrest field manager of the Bureau of Land Management denied keys to the new property owners, saying that their access "would result in appreciable disturbance or damage to federal lands and resources." Each was invited instead to apply for a permit. One owner did, to no avail.

The suit demands that the agencies process that application if the RS 2477 claim is not upheld.

With the gate still locked, the new owners turned to RS 2477. The lawsuit was filed in the District of Columbia on Aug. 31. Environmental groups filed a motion to intervene earlier this month.

"The canyon's dramatic recovery," they wrote, "could be short-lived if it is again opened to motorized use."

Consequences could be broader: Counties across California and elsewhere have for years passed resolutions claiming control of roadways under RS 2477. They have also filed claims with federal agencies that control the underlying land. But an appellate court ruled last year in a Utah case that only courts could determine the validity of such claims.

The ruling also said courts should look to state law to determine what qualifies as a road under the statute. Utah requires continuous use for a decade. Colorado and other states have much weaker definitions. The Surprise lawsuit may shed some light on the law here.

"It may answer a question in California: What is a road?" said Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming lawyer retained by the off-roaders.

Zukoski, of Earthjustice, said he believes only states and counties have the right to bring RS 2477 claims. But Budd-Falen argues that under California law, public use alone can create a road, without a formal county designation. That means, she says, that the public can also file the claim. A court determination that her clients are entitled to sue could set a precedent, she said.

A Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman in Sacramento said the agency could not comment on the lawsuit but confirmed it is the first RS 2477 court action against the bureau in California.

Alan Stein, deputy district manger for resources at the bureau's California Desert district office, said the designation of a right-of-way would leave open many questions about its scope, how it should be maintained and who gets to decide. "None of it is simple," Stein said.

The National Park Service, meanwhile, finds itself facing three such federal court challenges, two filed by counties last month in California. San Bernardino County's suit asserts a claim to 14 roads in the Mojave National Preserve, placed under federal control 12 years ago by the California Desert Protection Act.

The county maintained the roads, some of which are paved, and relies on them to provide services to residents, said San Bernardino deputy county counsel Charles Scolastico.

Inyo County's suit claims four longtime "county highways" that are now un-maintained dirt roads in Death Valley National Park. Two have been closed — illegally, Inyo County claims.

All roads are in wilderness protected under the 12-year-old desert act.

What the county wants to do with the roads is beside the point, said Ralph "Randy" Keller, Inyo County assistant counsel.

"State law says only the supervisors can close a county highway," he said. "They are county roads under county control and, without even consulting the county, they've been taken. It comes down to an issue of local control."

National Park Service West Coast spokeswoman Holly Bundock said she could not comment on specific litigation, but she added: "We don't invite vehicle access in wilderness areas because that's fundamentally in conflict with the Wilderness Act and our policies on managing the Wilderness Act."

November 25, 2006

Suit filed to open remote road


Homeowners, off-roaders claim access right

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun


A long-simmering issue involving an obscure 19th-century law that grants rights of way on federal land is heading for court.

A major legal battle looms over the public's right to use a closed Inyo County road through remote Surprise Canyon to the ghost town of Panamint City in Death Valley National Park.

"Under law, the federal government must give private landowners access to their property," said Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen, counsel to three groups of landholders who own property near the old mining camp. Their land is surrounded by federal land and can be reached by road only by a 132-year-old route through Surprise Canyon.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management installed a gate to close the road in mid-2001, sparking the court challenge by the landowners and off-road- vehicle groups that frequented the canyon.

Budd-Falen said the plaintiffs - the nonprofit Friends of the Panamint Valley, the Little Chief Millsite partnership, and landowner Bryan Lollich - contend the Civil War-era law granting right of way on public land must be upheld.

"Through the Mining Act of 1866, which later became Revised Statute 2477, Congress granted rights of way over unreserved public lands for the construction of highways," the Budd-Falen said.

"Passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 repealed RS 2477, but rights of way existing before its adoption on Oct. 21, 1976, were grandfathered in. This included the road through Surprise Canyon."

Lollich, vice president of Friends of Panamint Valley, noted that the Surprise Canyon Road was opened in 1874 as Panamint City became a silver-mining boomtown. As a valid right of way when the 1976 land policy act was adopted, "it remains a valid right of way," he said.

Plaintiffs in the civil suit filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Their property is surrounded by government land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

The two agencies, part of the U.S. Department of Interior, are defendants in the case. They have until Dec. 11 to respond to the allegations before District Judge John Bates.

The 10,000-member California Off Road Vehicle Association is backing the plaintiffs' arguments. "We're totally behind them," said association President Ed Waldheim. "It's a travesty that the road through Surprise Canyon was closed. We worked hard with Congress to get a `cherry-stem' designation (to exclude the road from the wilderness area), and they're still trying to close us out."

Meanwhile, using the same mining law as its basis, San Bernardino County has filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior in U.S. District Court in Riverside in a move to protect public right of way on county-maintained roads in the Mojave National Preserve.

Under provisions of the Desert Protection Act, which created the national preserve in 1994, the Interior Department closed roads that are part of the county's highway system across federal lands, First District Supervisor Bill Postmus said.

The Interior Department has until Jan. 15 to respond to the suit.

Six environmental groups have asked the court to allow them to intervene in the case involving Surprise Canyon. They contend that previous off-road-vehicle activity has caused significant damage to wildlife habitat and riparian areas in Surprise Canyon.

Although the canyon has undergone "a remarkable transformation" since the road was closed in 2001, the environmentalists said, that "dramatic recovery could be short-lived if it is opened again to motorized use."

The environmental groups - the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Center for Biological Diversity, California Wilderness Coalition, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - claim an interest in the case as each has had a long history of involvement in protecting Surprise Canyon.

Three of the groups, they pointed out, filed a lawsuit in 2000 that brought about the closing of the Surprise Canyon Road. Three others worked to pass the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, which added the upper portion of Surprise Canyon to Death Valley National Park and created the 29,180-acre Surprise Canyon Wilderness.

Geary Hund, of the Wilderness Society's Idyllwild office, said the canyon was designated an area of critical environmental concern in 1980. "Its biological diversity is high due the presence of spring-fed streams," he noted."

Among creatures inhabiting the area are the desert bighorn sheep, more than 70 birds such as the prairie falcon and endangered Inyo towee, and the Panamint alligator lizard, isolated in the canyon since the Pleistocene epoch.

Chris Kassar, wildlife biologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, said allowing off-roaders back into Surprise Canyon would set back efforts toward survival of endangered species for decades. "Since the canyon stream is narrow, substantial adverse impacts, including pollution of the water, would result," she said.

According to Kassar, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts created their own route through the scenic canyon, filled parts of the streambed with rocks and winched their vehicles over near-vertical waterfalls. "The BLM should never have allowed this kind of extreme off-road-vehicle use in Surprise Canyon to occur," Hund said. "It pollutes the five-mile-long perennial stream through the canyon, damages habitat and degrades the wilderness."

But Larry Robertson, vice president for land use for the California Off Road Vehicle Association, said the allegations are exaggerated.

"Off-road vehicle groups have protected Surprise Canyon, but with the closure of the road a lot of vandalism is occurring," he said. "Without adequate protection, a lot of old mining cabins are being destroyed. "Only a handful of off-roaders are winching their vehicles up the cliffs. The winching process, which uses steel anchors placed there by miners who lifted wagons up in the 1930s, are used only in a small corner of the canyon."

The association is assisting the plaintiffs with legal help and funds, Robertson said. "Off-roading activity was shut down two years ago after the gate to the road was closed, and now we're trying to assert our rights under RS2477.

"The intent of the statute is to prevent the government from arbitrarily and capriciously closing dedicated roads on public lands."

November 20, 2006

Vegas factor plagues small town's traffic


Yermo residents know when heading out for an errand is useless.

By Jonathan Abrams, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times


YERMO, CALIF. — For the millions of gamblers motoring toward Vegas on Interstate 15, this tiny town dotted by billboards and gas stations hardly registers.

But for residents in the desert hamlet of 4,200, plunked midway between Los Angeles and Nevada, the conga line of Sin City revelers makes even the simple task of driving to the grocery store a major headache.

"It's been this way forever," said Geoff Berner, 57, who has lived in Yermo for nearly a quarter-century. "As a local, you just accept that it is what it is and either plan the extra time or don't go out at all."

The usual weekend traffic jam has mushroomed because of a repaving project on Interstate 15 near town, where as many as 75,000 vehicles speed by on weekends. The construction is part of a major Caltrans project that will resurface 50 miles of interstate and build a 4.6-mile truck-climbing grade north of town.

"They haven't seen any work up there for a while," Caltrans spokeswoman Terri Kasinga said. "Due to deterioration from weather and truck traffic, this repaving was necessary."

The project could add an hour to a Vegas trip, but work halts Saturdays and Sundays, Kasinga added.

Berner compared the weekend gridlock to a weekday in downtown Los Angeles, when commuters crawl to the Westside in the afternoon.

Because Yermo is devoid of major supermarkets, department stores and hospitals, residents must drive to Barstow or Victorville for major necessities.

"I would be crazy to try and go to Barstow, Victorville or Los Angeles on a Friday or Sunday," said Berner, who first gauges traffic on the 15 before going on errands.

So Yermo residents often resort to alternate routes, such as Interstate 40 or surface roads, to circumvent the Vegas crunch.

"We use those other roads when you can literally go out on the 15 and sell lemonade from car to car because traffic is so bad," said Mike Henderson, 55, a 16-year resident and chairman of the Yermo Community Service District.

Yermo, the last town on the highway before the Mojave National Preserve, can boast of a little more history than the average highway pit stop.

It was a major filming site for the 2003 film "Hulk" and has a nifty 1950s-themed diner named Peggy Sue's. And Calico, a tourist ghost town restored by Walter Knott, the founder of Knott's Berry Farm, is just north of the town.

Yermo — Spanish for "desert" or "barren" — was once named Otis after Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, who founded the Los Angeles Times and owned several mines in the area, said Steve Smith, vice president of the Mojave River Valley Museum in Barstow.

In 1905, the Postal Service changed the name to Yermo — possibly because of a clash between Otis and the local miners union, although that is just local lore, Smith said.

The town became a well-traveled train stop and still is home to a Union Pacific terminal.

As crowded as the area gets, motorists do not contribute heavily to the town's economy, Henderson said.

Drivers usually exit the freeway only to bypass backups on it. Most refuel in Barstow and, as a result, Yermo has turned from a thriving area to a bedroom community. The town has lost about six motels and 25 gas stations in the last 35 years, he said.

"The traffic doesn't generate a great amount of revenue at all," Henderson said. "People blow through this town at 65 miles an hour when the speed limit is 45. They leave before we get a chance to catch them."

Fred Sandridge, 78, a 35-year resident, said careless drivers eager to get to or from Las Vegas only multiply the problem.

"There's no way you get out there in the Vegas traffic when it is busy," Sandridge said. "There's a lot of reckless driving. People speed, they push and drive like maniacs. That's why there are accidents here, and then things really slow down."

Caltrans is repaving the freeway from Main Street in Barstow to Rasor Road, a little past Yermo. Work began in April and is scheduled to run through next summer at a cost of $54 million, Kasinga said.

Because of that project and another to the south, construction on the interchange between Interstate 15 and 215, Caltrans is advising motorists to add plenty of time for Las Vegas trips.

Yermo residents have reluctantly become accustomed to the construction and its delays, an outlook that isn't as prevalent in the Wrightwood area and Phelan. There, motorists have made death threats against construction workers and sabotaged equipment over delays caused by safety improvements to Highway 138 over the summer.

"We'll never to get to that point," Berner said, chuckling. "Most people living here have been here awhile and know what the traffic deal is."

Man Killed In ATV Accident

National Park News
Mojave National Preserve

The park received a report of an ATV accident and an unresponsive victim before noon on Saturday, November 11th.

Responding rangers were directed by park visitors to an area about four miles east of Kelbaker Road on a natural gas pipeline road. The road proved impassable, so the rangers walked to the scene and were met by a park visitor who was transporting the victim – Randy Perkins, 56, of San Marcos, California – in his pickup.

Perkins’ son and riding companions had performed CPR on him, but without success.

Once the party reached a paved roadway, Perkins was transferred to an ambulance from Baker, California. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Investigation revealed that the four men were riding non-street legal ATV’s across the park on the gas line road. Perkins was fourth in line. When he failed to catch up with the first three riders, they backtracked until they found him underneath his overturned ATV on a rough section of the road.

The California Highway Patrol is investigating.

November 14, 2006

Kelso jail back in old home next to depot



Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun





KELSO - The old jail has arrived back home after a 12-year stay in a backyard in Hinkley.

It now sits near the 82-year-old Kelso Depot, where a half-century ago it held a variety of miscreants during the heyday of the mid-Mojave rail stop.

"We're glad to get it back, as it adds to the authenticity of the historic landscape," said Linda Slater, a ranger with the Mojave National Preserve, which operates the depot as a museum and visitors' center.

The Union Pacific Railroad opened the stately depot in 1924. It was closed in 1985 and was destined for demolition until a group of citizens rallied to save it.

"The building has been renovated virtually as it was when the Union Pacific closed it," said Slater, who along with other park officials searched far afield for authentic artifacts, century-old photographs and original furnishings to restore its original character.

"We talked to desert old-timers and went to eBay, other railroad museums, and the Union Pacific," said James Woolsey, the preserve's former interpretative officer, in a recent interview. He has since taken another position with the National Park Service.

The old jail, which was used to hold unruly individuals from the mid-1940s to 1985, had disappeared.

Corona resident Richard Klepper, who lived in Kelso in the 1940s, washed dishes as a youngster at the depot's lunch counter, The Beanery. His father and several siblings worked for the Union Pacific.

"Before (the jail) was brought in, people who got into trouble were kept overnight in closed reefer cars on a siding," he said.

The family left Kelso in 1947 when the railroad switched from steam engines to diesel, and Klepper later advanced with Union Pacific, retiring in 1987 after serving as a terminal superintendent in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

In the mid-1970s, San Bernardino County sheriff's Deputy Ron Mahoney was on duty in Kelso when he first saw the jail.

"He and I picnicked near Kelso in 1984, and it was still there," said his wife, Kay Mahoney of Hinkley. "We learned that it had been moved to Barstow in 1987."

The Mahoneys later learned that the jail was behind the county health department in Barstow. "Ron spoke to a county official about buying it but was told it was not for sale," his wife said. "But the official said we could store it at our home as long as we liked."

So the 7-foot-by-10-foot structure ended up in Hinkley in 1994. "Our grandkids used it as a playhouse," Kay Mahoney said. "If that got out of hand, we would threaten to lock them them up in the jail. Of course, we never did.

"When we had visitors, it was always a conversation piece, and people wanted to buy it as an antique. But we didn't want to part with it."

Ron Mahoney died three years ago, but his wife remained as a guardian of sorts for the old jail, which stood next to a wood pile.

"I heard about plans to renovate the Kelso Depot and went there for a visit last year," she said. "I asked a ranger about the jail, and she said it was rumored to be in San Bernardino."

She said, "No, it's in my backyard."

That sparked interest at the national preserve. "James Woolsey called me and asked if I would be willing to return it to Kelso, and I said yes," Mahoney said.

"It belongs in Kelso, not in my backyard."

November 5, 2006

COUNTY SUES FEDS TO PRESERVE ACCESS TO PUBLIC ROADS

Death-Valley.net

San Bernardino County is suing the United States Department of Interior in an effort to preserve the public’s access to roads in the Mojave National Preserve. The County, at the request of Chairman Postmus, filed suit October 26 in Riverside Federal Court against the National Park Service for quiet title claim to the primary County Maintained Road System in the Mojave National Preserve.

Under the auspices of the Desert Protection Act of 1994, which established the Preserve, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service and other federal agencies under the Department of the Interior have closed roads that are part of the County's Highway System across federal lands and have otherwise interfered with the actions of the County in conjunction with the regulation, operation and management of these highways.

Several attempts by the County to resolve issues of rights of way and jurisdiction with federal officials and agencies have failed. The resulting suit seeks to ensure the County’s right to conduct maintenance activities within rights of way, including making improvements and accommodating drainage ditches, shoulders, culverts and road signs.

The Park Service had suggested that the County turn over its maintained road system in the Preserve to the Park Service and waive its responsibility for the roads. The suggestion was made with the idea that federal money would be available to give the Service an ability to maintain the roads. However, Chairman Postmus felt it was more important to preserve the public’s right to use these roads by insisting that the County own the roads. “The County is accountable to the residents of the Preserve and is in a better position to be responsive to their concerns, including concerns over the possibility of arbitrary road closures,” Postmus said.

This effort is separate from another ongoing effort by San Bernardino County to ensure public access to a public road through federal lands. The county has a pending application with the BLM seeking title to Camp Rock Road from Lucerne Valley to Barstow through issuance of “recordable disclaimers” under regulations currently not enforceable in Park Service jurisdiction.

Both efforts rely on Revised Statue 2477, a federal mining law that preserves public rights of way for states, counties and private entities who can prove that their routes existed prior to the year 1976.

The Interior Department and National Park Service have not yet responded to the County’s legal action.

November 4, 2006

Ivanpah Valley project causing concerns



By BENJAMIN SPILLMAN
REVIEW-JOURNAL [Las Vegas, NV]


A proposal to build a Southern Nevada airport that could handle as many as 35 million passengers a year could be facing delays before it even gets off the ground.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group dedicated to protecting national parks, wants to extend a Monday deadline for public comments on the proposed Ivanpah Valley airport another 45 days to give people in California a chance to weigh in on the project.

Environmentalists and operators of the Mojave National Preserve fear noise, light and pollution from a major airport near Primm would threaten the sanctity of the 1.6 million acre preserve.

"Natural quiet is a delicate and important feature," said Dick Hingson of Flagstaff, Ariz., who has researched the impact of aircraft noise on national parks for the Sierra Club. "People go out there ... to get away from airports, traffic noise, interruptions."

But there's pressure to get the new airport built fast. McCarran International Airport, already the fifth-busiest in the nation, serving more than 44 million passengers annually, could be at capacity of 53 million by 2011.

Officials in Clark County, which operates McCarran and supports the Ivanpah Valley site, say the soonest a new airport could be built is 2017.

Even without delays, the visitor-dependent Las Vegas economy could face six years with a discrepancy between the amount of new hotel rooms it could add and the number of people who could be shuttled in to fill the beds.

"At that point, we have to be very, very creative about how we are going to get people in here," said Chris Jones, spokesman for McCarran. "If we want to continue to bring people in to fill the resorts, there has to be a new airport."

The federal government seems inclined to stay the course and deny the conservationists' request for a deadline extension.

"We are going to elect to keep the comment period closed on Nov. 6. That was the close of the comment period, and we are sticking to that at this time," said Andy Richards, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's San Francisco district office.

Officials will use the comments in part to determine what issues to study when they draft an environmental impact statement. The goal is to have a draft environmental impact statement by January 2009, Richards said.

"If we would like to stay with January of 2009, we must remain on schedule," he said, adding there will be more opportunities for public comment.

"This is just the start," he said.

Richards defended the process and said there was no need to hold public forums, called scoping sessions, outside Nevada.

"The project is in Nevada. It was our feeling we well publicized it among the California agencies of concern," he said.

During a series of scoping meetings in October in Las Vegas and Jean just 10 people spoke out on the proposal.

Their concerns centered on whether the airport would disrupt off-road vehicle recreation in the Ivanpah Valley, possible impacts on the desert tortoise and worries about the region's water supply.

The highest number of concerns came from the off-road riders who hold races in the open desert area.

The distribution list for information on the scoping process included more than 100 agencies, American Indian tribal governments and elected officials at all levels of government, including federal agencies and some Indian tribes in California.

No local governments or elected officials from California were on the list.

Also, no scoping meetings were held in California, even though aircraft from the airport would fly over both states.

"The fact that a scoping meeting was not scheduled in California suggests that (consultants coordinating the process) have avoided developing awareness of this project in Southern California, even though portions of the desert region may be significantly affected by it," wrote Ron Sundergill, director of the Pacific region of the National Parks Conservation Association in an Oct. 31 letter to the FAA and the Bureau of Land Management.

Sundergill cited several Mojave ranches and the town of Nipton, Calif., as well as remote desert roads as examples of places that could be affected by the proposed airport.

Linda Slater, a ranger at the Mojave National Preserve, said aircraft could disrupt the serenity of the preserve. Serenity is a major draw for park visitors, she said.

"They would be banking right along the boundary of the park," Slater said. "It would really change the experience for some of the people camping in that corner of the park."

November 1, 2006

A dozen years of desert protection

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer

Speeding motorists bent on reaching Las Vegas or Laughlin Nev., as rapidly as possible view the eastern Mojave Desert as a vast wasteland as they zip along Interstate 15 or Interstate 40.

Along the way, they pass endless clusters of creosote bushes, some of nature's oldest plants, growing in the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve.

"A lot of people don't know what's out here," said Dennis Schramm, superintendent of the vast desert preserve, which marked its 12th anniversary Tuesday. "It contains over 900 species of plants, 206 species of birds, 47 species of animals and 36 species of reptiles."

And it also is resplendent with massive sand dunes, desolate mountain peaks, stands of Joshua trees, Indian wall paintings called petrogylphs, herds of bighorn sheep and the historic Mojave wagon road.

Alarmed by the relentless expansion of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, environmental visionaries mapped out strategy in the 1970s to counter the threat that urban growth posed for the Southern California desert.

In the 1980s, skirmishes between environmentalists and mining, ranching and off-road vehicle interests foreshadowed legislative battles. In a move to placate both sides, a huge expanse of the eastern desert was set aside in 1980 as the East Mojave National Scenic Area, the first designation of its kind.

By the early 1990s, a proposal to protect the desert slowly began to move through congressional committees, culminating in the passage of the California Desert Protection Act on Oct. 31, 1994.

The act, which preserved 7.7 million acres of scenic wildlands, established the Mojave National Preserve, elevated the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments to national- park status and created 69 new wilderness areas.

"The preserve protects the largest piece of the Mojave Desert for posterity," Schramm said. "Whatever happens in Southern California in 100 years, the preserve will still be here."

Among the preserve's most-prized historic structures, the Kelso depot was restored and opened as a visitors' center. The vintage train station, opened by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1924 and closed in 1985, serves as a window into an era when the railroad opened the West.

There was talk of demolishing the structure after it was shut down, but concerned citizens rallied to save it and Congress allocated $5.5 million to restore it, Schramm said.

The National Park Service also has restored historic Fort Piute, which served as a military outpost in the 1860s along the old Mojave Road to protect the U.S. mail and wagon trains.

"Its walls were crumbling, but now we've stabilized the remaining walls," said Park Ranger Linda Slater.

The Park Service also is working with a consortium of California state universities to stabilize older buildings at Zzyzx, near Baker, which is run by universities as a desert studies center. It celebrated its 30th anniversary last month.

Since the preserve was created a decade ago, the National Park Service has reduced mining claims from 9,000 to a few hundred.

"And no active mining is going on," Schramm said.

Cattle grazing also has been trimmed by about two-thirds, and only one cattle ranch is left.

Meanwhile, the preserve's annual budget rose from $600,000 in 1995 to this year's $4.1 million, and the park staff increased from seven in 1995 to the current 41.

The number of park visitors jumped from 280,000 in 1997 to 632,000 last year.

"They're attracted by the region's solitude and isolation," said Slater.

Over the past few years, the Park Service replaced the former fire center at its Hole-in-the-Wall camp site and rebuilt the water system and roads serving campgrounds at Mid Hills and Hole-in-the-Wall.

High school students affiliated with the Youth Conservation Corps rehabilitated a fire-ravaged, eight-mile hiking trail last year between the two campgrounds.

And volunteers surveyed 114 springs in the preserve to determine their water levels, finding that 80 percent had surface water last fall, Slater said.

In addition, a dozen big horn ewes were transferred earlier this year from the preserve to help replenish a dwindling herd at the China Lake Naval Weapons Station near Ridgecrest.

"We've had an active 12 years," Schramm said.

October 30, 2006

County Update on Mojave Preserve Fire and Access


Letter from Bill Postmus, Chairman Board of Supervisors
San Bernardino County First District


October 30, 2006

I am writing this letter to my constituents in the Mojave National Preserve to provide an update on two issues of importance to Preserve residents.

First, I want to update you on our efforts to obtain an independent investigation into the National Park Service’s response to the Hackberry Complex fires of 2005. Second, I wanted to update you on the County of San Bernardino’s legal efforts to ensure public access and the County’s right to control and maintain the primary road system within the Preserve.

Regarding last year’s fire, I am very saddened and upset by the private property losses that resulted from the Hackberry fires. I brought this concern to the attention of Congressman Jerry Lewis, who on March 22nd formally requested an internal investigation by the National Park Service regarding its actions pertaining to the fires. I believe the results of that investigation as related back to Mr. Lewis in a May 16 letter lacked sufficient review of some issues and concerns.

On September 5th, I wrote a letter to Congressman Lewis asking him to request an external review of the suppression actions taken during the fire, particularly during its early phase, and with regard to direction that the Incident Commander was given by the Superintendent at that time. I suggested that the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) would be [the] most appropriate agency to conduct such a review.

I have been concerned about the level of cooperation and consultation between the Service and our own fire management operations regarding protection of private property within the Preserve. My office and the County Fire Department have had discussions with the Superintendent with our purpose being to ensure that incidents like last year’s fire do not happen again.

Regarding our efforts to preserve the public rights of way in the Preserve, the County at my direction filed suit earlier this week in Federal District Court against the National Park Service for quiet title claim to the primary county maintained road system in the Mojave National Preserve.

Under the auspices of the Desert Protection Act of 1994, which established the Preserve, BLM, the National Park Service (NPS) and other federal agencies under the Department of the Interior have closed roads that are part of the County’s Highway System across federal lands and have otherwise interfered with the actions of the County in conjunction with the regulation, operation and management of these highways.

Various actions on behalf of the County with various federal officials and agencies have failed to resolve this dispute. Our suit seeks to ensure the county’s right to conduct maintenance activities within our rights-of-way, including making improvements and accommodating drainage ditches, shoulders, culverts and road signs.

The Park Service has suggested that the County turn over its maintained road system in the Preserve to the Park Service and divest ourselves of ownership and responsibility for these roads. Even though this suggestion was made with the idea that federal money would be available to give the Service an ability to maintain the roads, I felt it was more important to preserve the public’s right to use these roads by insisting that the County own the roads. The County is accountable to the residents of the Preserve and is in a better position to be responsive to their concerns, including concerns over the possibility of arbitrary road closures.

My commitment to you is that the County will continue to fight to ensure the public’s rights to access throughout the Preserve by maintaining and defending our rights of ownership over the public’s roads.

Should you have any questions regarding these or other County matters, please don’t hesitate to contact my office at (800) 472-8597. Or you may contact my office through my website at www.sbcounty.gov/postmus.

Sincerely,

BILL POSTMUS
Chairman, Board of Supervisors
County of San Bernardino

October 18, 2006

Move on desert land plan contested

Jeff Horwitz, Staff writer
San Bernardino Sun


San Bernardino County supervisors announced Tuesday that they voted in closed session to join in defending a desert wildlife habitat conservation plan from an environmental lawsuit.

Should the U.S. District Court in San Francisco allow the county to participate in the suit, San Bernardino County would have the right to argue in front of the court and participate in any future settlement talks on the West Mojave Plan.

Stopping the suit is critical to allowing road maintenance, public safety access, and waste disposal in areas covered by the plan, said Robin Cochran, a deputy county counsel.

"There's a lot at stake to see that the right thing happens here," she said.

The West Mojave Plan is the largest habitat conservation plan nationwide, regulating activities on 3.3 million square acres of land. In return for some parts of the desert being reserved as critical wildlife habitat, the plan reduces environmental restrictions in less sensitive areas. San Bernardino County was a lead agency in the plan's design.

Approved in March of this year, the plan failed to protect the desert tortoise and several plant species, several environmental organizations have argued. In a suit filed in August, The Center for Biological Diversity alleged the plan illegally permitted disastrous amounts of off-highway vehicle use and asked for an injunction barring the federal Bureau of Land Management from "issuing any permit, approval, or other action" for any activity that would adversely affect the desert tortoise or three plant species.

"This (the injunction) would theoretically shut down the use of the desert," said Randy Scott, the county's Land Use Services director. "Various environmental groups just aren't happy unless the only use of the desert is to keep the desert tortoise alive. It's a worthy goal, but the BLM has other responsibilities."

The Center for Biological Diversity could not be reached for comment. The group has won significant concessions in the Western Mojave from the BLM in the past, such as a 2001 settlement that heavily restricted cattle grazing.

In the grazing case, the county sought to intervene as well, said Brad Mitzelfelt, chief of staff for Supervisor Bill Postmus, whose 1st District includes a large swath of the BLM desert land.

But the county was denied entry to the suit then, Mitzelfelt said, barring it from having a stake in the settlement negotiations. When the BLM agreed to the grazing restrictions, Postmus accused the agency of trampling property rights.

Because of the county's role in designing the West Mojave Plan, Mitzelfelt said he was optimistic this time that the court would grant the county legal standing.

October 15, 2006

Mary Martin: new face at Lassen




Chico Enterprise-Record

Lassen Volcanic National Park Superintendent Mary Martin has a 36-year history with the National Park Service, and is celebrating her first year at Lassen this month.

Born in Ireland and coming to the United States when she was 2, she grew up in San Francisco and used to vacation with her family in Northern California.

Describing herself as a black-diamond skier, a summer and snow camper, equestrian and traveler, Martin worked in human resources for the National Parks Service in Vermont, Yosemite National Park, Anchorage, and Washington, D.C.

In 1994, she was named deputy superintendent to Mojave National Preserve, near Barstow on the Mojave Desert and south of Death Valley. She was named park superintendent there within a year.

Former Lassen Park Director Marilyn Parris is now enjoying life surrounded by other volcanoes, as superintendent at Haleakala National Park on Maui, Hawaii.

October 14, 2006

'Don't zone me in:'

Property-rights measures on ballot in West

By JOHN MILLER
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
Seattle Post-intelligencer


BOISE, Idaho -- The West was won a century ago, but the battle over how it will look a century from now continues, with property-rights initiatives on the ballot in at least four states.

Measures in Idaho, Arizona, California and Washington ask voters to follow Oregon, where residents in 2004 forced local governments to pay private property owners when new regulations reduce their land's value.

Aiming to capitalize on anti-government sentiment kicked up by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case in Connecticut, proponents say these "regulatory takings" measures protect people's freedom to profit from their land.

Opponents point to Oregon, where "Measure 37" has resulted in more than $4 billion in claims. They say these initiatives are financed by wealthy ideologues bent on preventing local governments from deciding where subdivisions, gravel pits, even rendering plants can be built.

It's the latest collision of the "Don't fence me in" ethos of the old West, where property rights border on the sacred, with the new West's vision of a landscape that only seems infinite - and requires laws to shape it appropriately. And it has attracted deep-pocketed backers on both sides: Millions from conservative activist and New York real-estate Howard Rich are propping up the ballot measures, while Paul Brainerd, Seattle-based founder of Aldus software, has injected at least $120,000 into the fight to shoot them down.

"I don't believe that developers should profit from dodging local land-use regulations," said Brainerd, who also owns a home near Ketchum, Idaho. "Each community should be able decide how to best balance the rights and responsibilities of land owners to the greater community good - not just the rights of an individual who wants to develop a subdivision with 250 homes on 20 acres."

Conservative activists including Boise's Laird Maxwell are pushing their initiatives almost solely with money from organizations linked to Rich and say foes have employed "esoteric, pie-in-the-sky scare tactics" to frighten voters on Nov. 7. They say their proposals are simple: If government changes laws to limit how people can use their land, it should pay for the damage.

"It is a battle over whether or not individual liberty will continue in the United States or not," Rich, also on the boards of the conservative Cato Institute and the Club for Growth, told The Associated Press. "The opposition are government bureaucrats, those that profit from taking other people's property without paying for it, and those that have radical agendas hidden under soft facades."

There could have been more measures: A Montana effort appears dead after a judge found signature-gathering fraud got it on the ballot. And the Nevada Supreme Court trimmed regulatory-takings provisions from a measure there.

As the West changes from a region where agriculture is replaced by subdivisions that seem to stretch from horizon to horizon, these battles are emerging in part because some fear they'll be left behind.

"Landowners see zoning laws as an obstacle to them transitioning out of resource use and into urban development," said Sy Adler, an urban studies professor at Portland State University and co-author of "Planning a New West." It would be nice to do this in a more planful way rather than a ballot-measure approach."

Proponents say that's the only way to get government to listen.

Ed Terrazas, an architect near Sun Valley, Idaho, signed onto Proposition 2 after the local government rejected his plan to build four homes on 115 acres of sage and grass he owns above the Big Wood River, near where it flows out of the Rocky Mountains.

"Largely from my years of planning experience, I've seen other people harmed by overzealous regulation that doesn't account for property rights," said Terrazas, who is suing Blaine County. "You're fighting your own government, and they have unlimited resources."

Some of the ballot measures are married to provisions meant to address eminent-domain abuse fears that arose after the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo vs. New London case. The Connecticut city was allowed to condemn residential property to clear the way for a private economic development.

Still, foes in Idaho, including business groups, cities and counties, and Republican Gov. Jim Risch, say eminent domain is no longer a concern, since state lawmakers this year passed new laws greatly restricting when governments can seize private property.

Others argue the regulatory-takings measures would produce a system where land-use disagreements will wind up in courts, costing taxpayers millions. In Oregon, for instance, where Measure 37 allows landowners to claim compensation or a waiver of land-use rules, a man has demanded either $203 million - or the right to drill geothermal wells, expand a pumice mine and erect vacation homes inside a national volcanic monument.

"What we've got is this out-of-state sugar daddy who is supporting this far-out proposition that will put Idaho communities at risk," Dan Chadwick, Idaho Association of Counties director, said of Rich.

It's no surprise private-property measures have emerged in the Rocky Mountain West, home to some of America's fastest-growing states.

Arizona was No. 2 in 2005, behind Nevada, while Idaho and Oregon came in third and 10th, respectively.

"I would be interested to see whether there's an effective resistance that can be mounted to this kind of initiative," said Dan Kemmis, a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. "There's a growing perception in many of these places that if the West is going to prosper in the long run, and not just make a quick buck out of rapid growth for a short time, that we've got to be as smart as we can be in controlling our own destiny."

October 4, 2006

Bill Gives Western States More Access to Federal Land

A House measure would allow a right of way to be claimed on any mapped route in parks or other national areas. Critics fear a motorized influx.

By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times


A bill introduced by Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, would give Western states and counties broad authority over rights of way across federal land, allowing them to convert footpaths, wagon tracks and cattle trails into roads.

Echoing a long-repealed 19th century statute, Pearce's bill would permit local governments to claim rights of way through national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and military bases, provided the routes appear on any official map or survey made before 1976. According to his bill, such documents can include land office plats and "tourist maps."

Critics say the bill, which was introduced Friday, is a giveaway of public land that would open up more of the nation's parks and wilderness areas to motorized travel.

Pearce's staff said Tuesday that the congressman intends the bill to clarify for Western counties and states what constitutes a valid right of way across federal land.

Rights-of-way conflicts have been simmering for more than a decade in counties where the federal government owns the bulk of the land.

In recent years, a handful of counties in southern Utah have asserted claims to rights of way across Arches National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Canyonlands National Park.

"The problem is that currently it's a patchwork, case-by-case legal review," said David Host, Pearce's communications director. "In his view you had an untenable situation. This will establish rights and increase predictability."

But critics say the broad language of the bill, which allows rights of way on "any public lands ever owned by the United States," could open land Congress has already protected from roads and other intrusions.

"It's so sweeping that it's almost impossible to believe," said Kristen Brengel of the Wilderness Society.

In recent years, counties have made rights-of-way claims under an 1866 law, RS 2477, which was designed to encourage the development of the West. The law was repealed in 1976, but grandfathered in previously granted rights of way. But controversy lingered over what constituted a legal right of way.

In California, San Bernardino County claimed authority over nearly 5,000 miles of rights of way — more than twice the total mileage of maintained roads in the county. The claims included 2,567 miles within the Mojave National Preserve.

Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton sought to resolve the matter in 2003 in an agreement with Mike Leavitt, then the governor of Utah.

The agreement would have opened millions of acres in national parks and wilderness areas to motorized transportation. Shortly after the deal was reached, southern Utah counties began upgrading primitive roads, and some officials tore down federal signs forbidding recreational vehicles.

Environmental groups challenged the agreement, and a federal appeals court ruled last year that the burden of proof was on counties to prove their case, in part, by showing 10 years of continual use of the rights of ways.

Pearce's proposal expands on the court's ruling, Brengel said. "It goes further than the court or Norton. It says that just a line on a map is good enough to establish a claim," she said.

But Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw, who has sued to control roads on federal land in southern Utah, said, "There's no intention to make claims on trails or roads in obscure areas."

Under Pearce's bill, Kane County could claim a right to every hiking trail in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, Habbeshaw said, but the county has no intention of doing so.

"We could argue that our rights of way across the national parks are valid, and we want them opened up as road today," he said. "We've made no effort and will not make an effort to do so."

Habbeshaw said that the Utah-based Western Counties Alliance wrote the bill and brought it to Pearce in an effort to broaden the issue beyond Utah. Pearce agreed to sponsor it, he said, knowing that it would generate opposition from environmental groups.

If nothing else, he said, the bill will start a discussion.

"We have to sit down and deal with RS 2477 as professional and practical people," Habbeshaw said.

"I'm not saying the current language is a lock and that we are not open to changes."

Stark Beauty, Solitude, Squalor and Sulfur -- Trona Has It All

Once a prosperous and tidy company town with desert vistas, Trona is in decline, cherishing its memories but living with crime and blight.

David Kelly
Los Angeles Times


TRONA, Calif. — Fed up with the crime, congestion and cost of Orange County, Fred Hermon went looking for a place where he could be alone, a place so remote, so unappealing that few would ever want to live there.

His strategy was simple: Locate the popular, pricey towns on a map and move steadily outward. That's where he found Trona.

When he searched the Internet for information, the word "hell" kept popping up — 'Is Trona Anywhere Near Hell?," "Where the Hell Is Trona?," "Long, Lonely Ride Through Hell."

Hermon didn't actually expect to find perdition as he descended through Poison Canyon into Trona three years ago, but the smell of sulfur, the blast-furnace heat and barren landscape made it feel uncomfortably close.

A real estate agent showed him a neighborhood with block after block of burned-out homes.

"I said, 'Oh my God, no,' " he recalled. "Another area looked like Los Angeles after the riots. I love the desert, but this was pushing it."

Nevertheless, he found a house for $24,000, installed an enormous swamp cooler and now spends his days digging for old artifacts while caring for nine cats, an inquisitive packrat and two desert tortoises, Speedy and Kid.

Hermon, 60, has already spent $2,600 on a chain-link fence and rarely leaves home for fear of being burglarized. On his first night in town, someone swiped his $15 garden hose. He stays for the solitude but wonders how Trona came to this.

"Something must have been going on for a long time to bring the town to this level of devastation," he said.

Over the years, Trona, once a thriving community of 6,000 on the ragged edge of Death Valley, has shriveled to just 1,800. Drug dealers looking for cheap housing have moved in. Parolees abound. Arsonists have torched dozens of vacant homes, leaving charred skeletons behind. Business owners, unable to make a profit, have simply locked up and walked away.

The result is blight on an industrial scale. San Bernardino County has torn down a handful of houses, but officials say it's too costly to demolish entire blocks of dilapidated, asbestos-riddled buildings.

Meanwhile, many Tronans are fleeing to Ridgecrest, 25 miles away, leaving mostly senior citizens and a smattering of young professionals behind.

Whether Trona can survive as the population dwindles is an open question.

Most workers at Searles Valley Minerals, the major employer, now live elsewhere. The high school has just 160 students with a graduating class last year of 15. The football team, unable to field 11 players, now plays with eight.

"A lot of people are leaving town," said Ruth Soto, the high school guidance counselor. "Closing the school has been talked about."

Many who stay love Trona for the friendships they've made, memories of better times and the desert's stark beauty. Others are simply stuck, unable to afford a house elsewhere.

Homes here are among the cheapest in California, with a median price of $40,000, according to DataQuick, which tracks real estate sales.

Even die-hard Trona boosters agree that it has seen better days. They concede that streets lined with torched houses, combined with the pungent odor from the chemical plant, add up to a poor first impression.

Pastor Larry Cox of the First Baptist Church said his first words on entering Trona were "People live here?"

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has offered deputies willing to work in Trona free housing and less jail duty. Most prefer jail.

Hollywood comes calling when scouting places resembling alien planets or how they imagine the end of the world might look.

Parts of "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" were filmed at the Trona Pinnacles, towering mineral formations near town. Conspiracy buffs have long held that Trona was the site of NASA's "moon landings."

An old highway sign put it this way: "End of the World 10, Trona 15."

Yet this extreme environment has bred people as tough as the rock and desert around them. They endure months of 120-degree temperatures and winds that fling boulders down mountainsides.

Seniors hit the links at the bare bones Trona Golf Club, batting balls on a mostly sand and dirt course while skirting the occasional rattlesnake.

"The sand leaves the clubs a little dog-eared," noted 82-year-old Barbara Crowther.

The Trona Tornadoes, named after dust devils spinning off dry Searles Lake, may be the only high school football team outside Alaska to have an all-dirt field. Astroturf would blow away, they say.

The white lines contain eye-stinging sodium sulfate to better stick to the field.

"It gives us a psychological edge in home games," said Coach John Foster.

The town was a stopover for the homicidal Manson family, who loaded up on water before heading to Barker Ranch about 20 miles east, where they were eventually arrested in 1969.

"I got my picture taken with Manson — with the girls too," said Robert "Ballarat Bob" Dunlap, an 83-year-old gold miner living in a desert shack.

Dunlap is one of the last in a long line of miners who burrowed and dynamited their way through here hoping to find a fortune.

In 1862, John W. Searles came looking for gold and found borax instead. His mining business would lay the foundation for a new town.

Named after a kind of sodium carbonate, Trona was established in 1914 by American Trona Corp., which owned the community outright. It built the schools, homes and dance halls and issued its own money to be used in town. Even when the business changed hands, residents were well cared for.

Teachers earned among the highest salaries in the state, often $96,000 a year in pay and benefits, thanks to royalties the company paid in exchange for mining on federal land. Sometimes local schools got $5 million or $6 million a year.

Lately, that number has dropped to about $1.6 million, school officials said. "I came here from Cleveland in 1945," said Kathe Barry, 75. "I loved it here because so much was going on at the time. We had a dance every Saturday night. There wasn't an empty house in Trona. It was just wonderful."

Ralph Garner, 94, stumbled on Trona during the Depression.

"They told me it was darn hot but I said I could take it," he said. "I was a mechanic and earned about 49 cents an hour. I had a good life here."

But times changed. In 1954, the company, then American Potash & Chemical, sold its homes to employees.

Workers were no longer required to live in Trona. In 1982, more than 400 chemists and engineers were relocated to Oklahoma.

For many, this was the beginning of the end. Layoffs and bitter strikes followed. The workforce shrank. Houses that couldn't be sold were abandoned.

Touring Trona with Russell Rector, 75, is a jarring journey from what was to what is, a landscape of memories rudely interrupted by jagged reality.

He nosed his red pickup toward the empty tennis courts.

"Everyone used to play out here," he said. "We would have beer parties in the desert and everyone would come. It's not the same place anymore."

He passed the old dance hall, once alive with laughter, now closed. The bookie's house stands empty. Trona had 13 saloons; now there are two.

Down at the First Baptist Church, Pastor Cox typed a sermon in his small air-conditioned office. He came from Simi Valley three years ago and feels like a missionary in a remote land.

"You step into Trona and you are stepping into a Third World country," Cox said. "This is a place where a lot of people have been forgotten. When a house burns down, it stands for 10 or 15 years. I tell people if they are looking for the middle of nowhere, we are in the middle of that."

The pride of Trona is the Old Guest House Museum, a shrine to the town and the minerals that made it. There are old photos of John W. Searles. His violin sits behind glass. Small bottles of potash, borax and fly ash are displayed, along with maps, history books and assorted mining and railroad paraphernalia.

Margaret Brush, 79, is curator and the town's most energetic promoter. She recently won funding for a kiosk along the road to Death Valley offering information about Trona.

"We needed something to attract people to Trona and to our museum," she said.

The heart of the town is Searles Valley Minerals, a vast, twisting array of pipes snaking above mountains of chemicals.

Arzell Hale, 69, has lived in the community for 28 years and handles public relations for the company.

"I'm going to die here, no question," he said cheerfully.

Yet he concedes that Trona suffers an image problem. The mere sight of it, he said, can scare off potential hires.

"When I first came here it was 10 at night, so it wasn't as bad as the daytime," Hale said.

That was in 1978 when the company had 1,450 employees. Now it has 650.

Hale drove around Searles Lake, a 42-square-mile expanse of mud and brine producing a million tons of soda ash a year and nearly a million tons of boron. The former is used to make glass, the latter soap and detergent. So far only 10% of its reserves have been used, Hale said.

"People drive out here and say, 'I wouldn't live in that godforsaken place for anything,' " he said, scanning a landscape more lunar than earthly. "But you don't know a place until you know the people, and the quality of people here is unreal."

True, but some are higher quality than others.

On a recent afternoon San Bernardino County Sheriff's Cpl. Tim Lotspeich drove into the hardscrabble Argus neighborhood and quickly found trouble brewing.

A shirtless man apparently high on methamphetamine was screaming abuse at another man down the street.

Lotspeich warned him to calm down and not do anything he would regret later.

Eric Cartmell, 37, watched from behind his chain-link fence.

"Look around you," he said, pointing to the trashed houses along the road, "and see what meth can do to a town. The drug addicts have stripped these houses of toilets and whatever they can sell for drugs. If they cleaned this place up, there would be no better town."

Lotspeich, who has patrolled Trona for three years, must carefully decide when to make an arrest.

The nearest county jail is 100 miles away in Barstow, and he has only two other deputies.

"I could spend all day out here doing under-the-influence arrests, but by the time I drive them to Barstow that's half my day, and sometimes they are back before I am," he said.

Minutes later he rounded a corner and spotted a man wanted for a parole violation and arrested him.

He arrested another parolee shortly after. With two men handcuffed in his SUV, he stopped a teenager riding a motorbike on the street.

"Take it out to the desert," he said.

A woman flagged him down to point out a homeless man wandering her neighborhood.

The corporal had been on patrol just 20 minutes.

Methamphetamine abuse is a scourge in Trona, leading to other crimes, such as burglary. Arsonists also have helped destroy much of the town.

"That was the mentality — you had a problem with someone, you set their houses on fire or you set their car on fire," Lotspeich said. "That was just what you did up here. Once we made an arrest and they saw they would actually do time, it stopped. We haven't had arson in a year."

He credits aggressive policing for an upsurge in arrests. Trona went from 12 felony arrests in 2002 to 56 in 2005, according to sheriff's records.

"The good outweighs the bad here, but there is a lot of bad," the officer said.

Not far away, the Trona Tornados took to their dirt field for practice. "It's 115 degrees but it feels like 105 with the breeze," said Coach Foster, 41.

The team has won its league three times and has a reputation for hitting hard.

"No one else plays on dirt," said running back Emilio Horta, 16. "They all cry about it."

Asked if he will stay in Trona after graduation, he shook his head. "It's not where I want to be," Horta said. "I want a more civilized place."

A hot wind blew, carrying a bracing whiff of rotten egg.

Foster smiled.

"I said I wanted to leave as a kid," he said. "I went to the Navy for four years, then I came back. I like the small-town atmosphere and I love knowing where my kids are at night. I have no plans on going anywhere."