March 24, 2006

Norton leaving office with controversial rule

Interior secretary fuels debate over roads on public land in West

Associated Press

DENVER - A new federal policy addressing one of the toughest issues in the West — who owns thousands of miles of roads crisscrossing public land — is producing warnings of more conflicts, lawsuits, and trails in national parks and wilderness morphing into motorways.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who's leaving office in a week, has directed her agencies to apply a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling nationwide when deciding whether local governments or individuals have valid claims to roadways across federal land.

The policy announced Wednesday is intended to help agencies manage existing nonfederal roads on federal land, said Dan Domenico, special assistant to the Interior Department's solicitor.

Norton has said the decision by the Denver-based appeals court made clear that only courts can determine ownership, using laws in individual states as a guide. But federal agencies can develop an administrative process to analyze claims.

"It's still going to be contentious on roads where there's disagreement on historic and current use (of roads)," Domenico said.

Critics see that as an understatement.

"It's a prescription for more litigation. It will not result in a final solution," said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has offered legislation since 2003 to come up with a uniform process for settling disputes.

Udall also questioned whether the guidelines are an end-run around Congress. He said he is concerned about new roads being carved in federally protected lands.

National parks not exempted

One of the biggest problems with the policy is that it doesn't exempt national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, environmentalists say. Heidi McIntosh, a lawyer with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said there is fear that off-road-vehicle groups will push to turn paths and trails in protected areas into roadways.

Domenico said there's "no principled way under the law" to exempt those lands.
"But that doesn't mean we're opening up parks to a lot of roads that aren't there now," he said.

That's the catch, said Mary Wells, executive director of the California Wilderness Coalition. She wondered if the new policy will change the status of the hundreds of miles of roads and paths that San Bernardino County claims as county roads in the Mojave National Preserve.

"Many of the roads they call roads are old Jeep tracks and literally goat trails," Wells said.

At the core of the conflict is an 1866 mining law, known as Revised Statute 2477, that allowed local governments to claim rights of way across federal land. When the law was repealed in 1976, Congress allowed states and counties to keep using traditional highways.

Left unresolved were disagreements over whether thousands of miles of dirt paths and trails qualify as roads. In 1997, Congress, wrangling over changes to the law, imposed a moratorium on approval of claims.

Policy has backers, critics

That left places like Moffat County in northwestern Colorado with no recourse when federal agencies closed roads traveled since the 1880s by ranchers and others, said Jeff Comstock, the county's natural resources director.

"We've been accused of wanting to turn cow paths into super interstates across pristine national park land," Comstock said. "That's not true. We live, work and play on those lands."

Moffat and other counties in the region with pending claims were heartened when Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt signed an agreement in 2003 that settled thousands of road claims in that state. Environmentalists criticized it as a back-room deal that would allow dirt trails to be paved in pristine areas.

The new guidelines supersede that agreement. They apply to Interior Department agencies, which include the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and manage 507 million acres, or one out of every five acres nationwide.

Critics are again assailing Norton for a policy they feel was drafted behind closed doors.

"This is being done without the public input that we were promised we would have," said Dorothea Farris, a commissioner with Colorado's Pitkin County.

What happens on public land is important to the county, which includes Aspen, because it's in the middle of three federal wilderness areas and the White River National Forest, Farris said.

The same tenet applies to Moffat County, much of it federal land, Comstock said. Until now, he said, the federal government has refused to recognize roads that are crucial to ranchers moving cattle from summer to winter pasture or to hunters accessing public land.

"It finally opens the door so we can talk about these," Comstock said.

AJ Chamberlain, who lives in the mountains west of Boulder, said she feels the door has been slammed shut on resolving the problems of private property owners facing rights of way claims across their yards or driveways. She said the guidelines do nothing to help her and property owners across the West.

"From Wyoming to Alaska to California, it's happening," Chamberlain said. "If I had known this, I never would have bought mountain property."

March 23, 2006

Depot restored

Park service renovates historic station in Mojave National Preserve

The Press-Enterprise

Items from early ranching activities in the Mojave Desert are on display at Kelso Depot southeast of Baker. Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise

The National Park Service on Saturday will show off the $5.5 million renovation of the historic Kelso Depot as a museum and information center for the Mojave National Preserve.

Once a Union Pacific Railroad showpiece to rival Santa Fe's rail station and Harvey House in Needles, the two-story depot southeast of Baker houses 10 exhibit rooms filled with information about desert wildlife, plant life, American Indian artifacts and rooms restored to look as they did before the depot closed in 1985.

There is even a sound-enhanced exhibit describing the nearby Kelso Dunes, where the grains of sand are polished so smooth by nature that they make a booming sound as they cascade downward during avalanches.

As many as 400 people a day have been visiting the depot since its soft opening in November, says James Woolsey, chief of resource interpretation and outreach for the 1.6-million-acre desert preserve. He expects the flow of visitors to increase after Saturday's formal dedication and grand opening.

The depot, which had been open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. four days a week since the soft opening, has expanded to seven days a week, he said.

Saturday's event will include tours of the nearby dunes, reminiscences by former Kelso residents and performances by cowboy poets, an American Indian band and the Needles Select Choir. Among the invited guests are U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who helped secure federal funding for the renovation.

The depot was built by the Union Pacific in 1924, when extra steam locomotives were kept in Kelso to help pull trains up a 2,000-foot grade to Cima 20 miles away. The 23 upstairs rooms in the depot were railroad crew quarters. The downstairs served as everything from a ticket office and community center to laundry and restaurant.

At its peak during World War II, more than 2,000 people lived in the desert outpost of Kelso as passenger trains passed between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and freight trains carried iron ore to the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana. Today, the trains carry no passengers, Woolsey said. An average of one train an hour passes through on the three sets of tracks.

When the railroad closed the depot, vandals invaded.

"They broke all the windows, smashed the walls and painted graffiti everywhere," Woolsey said. "They took all the furniture, stripped out the fixtures and tore up the staircase."

They even stole the toilets.

"The railroad wanted to tear the place down, " Woolsey said. "They bulldozed all the old houses along here because they didn't want to take care of them.

"A lot of local folks got very upset when they proposed tearing this place down," he said. "It's a very stately building and an important piece of the history of the desert."

In the late 1980s, Union Pacific sold the depot building to the federal government for a nominal fee. The Bureau of Land Management boarded up the structure to prevent more damage until its future could be decided.

A big part of that decision was the passage in 1994 of the Desert Protection Act, which established the Mojave National Preserve.

"There was a lot of discussion about what to do" with the park, Woolsey said. "But the one thing everybody agreed on was what to do with the Kelso Depot. A visitor center was the obvious thing. It's a beautiful building. The paved roads (Kelbaker and Kelso Cima) come together here, so it's a perfect location."

The restoration of the building started in August 2002 and was completed in January 2004, said David Moore, a landscape architect for the National Park Service. He helped supervise the work.

"It was in such bad shape that they had to take the whole structure almost down to the frame," Moore said. "We had a specialist from our Denver service center do some research and he was able to come up with the original drawings of the building."

So much conduit had been run through the studs supporting the east wall of the building that the supports were weakened, he said.

"You could go up to the wall and push it and watch the whole wall wiggle," Moore said. "It was scary."

Restoration crews also discovered that the original contractor wrote his name at the top of the staircase and some workers had stuffed postcards in the walls.

Woolsey said the Park Service will install equipment in the kitchen and hopes to find a private vendor to reopen and run the restaurant. He said the Park Service will hire a third ranger to help staff the depot and is recruiting unpaid volunteers.

The depot sometimes gets a boost in visitors when traffic problems cause the California Highway Patrol to shut down Interstate 15 and reroute vehicles through Kelso, Woolsey said.

Synja Meyneken, 63, a tourist from the Netherlands, found her way to the depot recently. "We like nature and more or less go for nature parks," she said. "We were just driving around. We decided to travel for a year, so we bought a pickup truck and we're doing the states."

Meyneken's favorite part of the depot was the saddle mounted in one of the rooms surrounded by murals showing old-time cowboy life. She climbed into the saddle and her husband took her picture -- tipping the camera to just the right angle to show her and the saddle and the backdrop without revealing the absence of a horse.

Bob Carlisle, 59, and his wife, Rita, 60, pored over the exhibits, the maps and the décor. "The building is nice," he said. "I can't figure the depot yet. Why a train depot in the middle of the desert? I haven't figured it out yet."

U.S. Loosens Its Policy on Building Roads in Parkland

The action by the Interior Department, though not legally binding, makes it easier for counties to claim rights of way.

By Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart, Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times

Guidelines issued by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on Wednesday will make it easier for counties to lay claim to old trails and closed roads they would like to open across federal lands in the West, including national parks in Southern California.

In one of her final actions before leaving her post next week, Norton issued a policy dealing with right-of-way claims under a Civil War-era law that county officials in several Western states have tried to use to circumvent federal land-use restrictions on motorized access.

Norton's memo gives Interior officials nationwide latitude to grant rights of way to counties and other claimants and even approve road construction and improvements.

For a definitive legal ruling, claimants would still have to go to court. Though the policy does not bar claims in national parks and wilderness areas, Interior officials insisted that land managers would not allow destructive road building or improvements.

"Even if you have a right of way, that doesn't mean you can take a two-track and turn it into a two-lane road," said Dan Domenico, special assistant to Interior's solicitor.

"We still have the duty and obligation to protect federal lands surrounding and underlying the right of way."

But environmentalists said the secretary's guidelines amounted to an invitation to counties and other entities to claim everything from hiking trails to dry stream beds and start using them as roads.

"The barriers to [these] claims have been lowered to practically nothing," said Ted Zukoski, a Denver-based attorney with Earthjustice who was involved in a major court case on the matter. "The bar is so low that it has the effect of telling everyone: 'We're open for business. Make a claim.' "

The controversy is rooted in an 1866 law intended to give miners access to their stakes and cattlemen a way to move their herds by granting them rights of way over federal land. Congress repealed the law in 1976 but allowed claims for routes already in existence.

Claims in national parks and wilderness areas would have to be based on uses in existence before those areas were protected.

In 1997, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put all but the most pressing claims on hold. But that didn't quiet the controversy.

In Utah, three southern counties asserted their right to control roads and trails within national parks, monuments and other federal land. San Juan County claimed a 10-mile stretch of stream bed in Canyonlands National Park, contending that a rocky trail in Salt Creek Canyon — once open to four-wheel-drive traffic — was a "highway" the National Park Service had no right to close.

The route provides the only vehicular access to Angel Arch, one of the park's most famous geologic formations.

Another claim was made by officials in Kane County for rights of way in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Ruling in a lawsuit that stemmed from the Utah actions, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals last year said the BLM could recognize local rights-of-way claims but did not have the authority to make final legal determinations.

Citing that ruling, Norton said Wednesday that agencies under her purview — which include the BLM and U.S. Park Service — could recognize rights of way as long as they adhered to state laws.

In San Bernardino County, which has inventoried 5,000 miles of roads and tracks said to be in use on federal lands before 1976, officials said they hoped the new policy would settle at least some of the controversy.

"The county is asserting rights of way … to protect the access for county residents and agencies to be able to get where they need to go in the desert," said Brad Mitzelfelt, chief of staff for Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus, whose district includes large federal holdings in the Mojave Desert.

Mitzelfelt said the county would press claims only on the most heavily used routes, not all 5,000 miles. The old roads and trails cross BLM land as well as the Mojave National Preserve, where he said locals have lost access since its creation in the 1990s.

Larry Whalon, the preserve's chief of resources, said expanding the road system and upgrading certain roads would expose remote cultural and historical sites to increased human traffic and potential vandalism. He cited Ft. Paiute, a crumbled adobe Army post, as among the places that would be vulnerable.

"If that road were to be improved, you'd have a lot more easy access, and that could be a problem," Whalon said. "Even though it's been vandalized, it's not been completely ruined."

Utah officials hailed Norton's policy as a way to settle the claims in a more consistent manner.

"We think this memorandum is absolutely appropriate. We think the guidelines make life easy for everybody," said Lynn Stevens, chair of the San Juan County Commission and Utah's public lands policy director. "It creates consistency. That's not to say we don't have issues with aspects of it. But insofar as it embraces the 10th Circuit's decision, we are not opposed to it."

But Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the policy created a situation of "legal limbo" because federal agencies would be making right-of-way decisions that weren't binding.

"No one really knows if they will be meaningful," he said.

March 22, 2006

Before She Steps Down, Interior Sec. Norton Rushes Out Damaging Highway Policy Today

Road construction policy could impact National Parks and other premier public lands

The Wilderness Society and
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Press Release

WASHINGTON - March 22 - As outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton prepares to leave her post in less than two weeks, she has hastily finalized a policy that could result in destructive and unnecessary road development and off-road vehicle use in National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, Monuments, and other special public lands. The policy involves a new process for recognizing purported highway rights-of-way under a Civil War-era loophole known as R.S. 2477 and could allow states and counties to perform widespread highway maintenance and construction across even protected federal lands in the West.

Secretary Norton has not involved the public in developing the new policy, even though it will guide every agency under the Interior Department’s jurisdiction, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which manages National Wildlife Refuges). On the whole, the Interior Department manages 1 out of every 5 acres of land in the U.S.

The policy would make it easier for states or counties to perform landscape-changing highway maintenance and construction on public lands. In certain cases, that maintenance and construction could directly conflict with long-standing federal protections for national parks and other Western public lands, with devastating impacts for rivers, streams, and archeological and cultural resources. It could also disqualify deserving places from protection as Wilderness Areas. For example, nine million acres of proposed redrock canyon and desert wilderness in Utah is at risk.

The policy is also a rollback of the Department’s existing position on R.S. 2477 claims in National Parks, Wilderness Areas, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Study Areas. In a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding with then-Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, both Sec. Norton and the Governor touted the fact that R.S. 2477 claims would not be considered in these special places.

“The Interior Department has developed this new policy without seeking input from Congress or the public, even though it could cause damage to our nation’s premier public lands for years to come,” said. Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society. “This secretive scheme is typical of how Secretary Norton’s has made decisions over the last five years, even though these decisions have devastating impacts on the protection afforded to National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and other lands.”

Although some RS 2477 road claims are potentially legitimate, the Interior Department’s upcoming policy could also recognize unfounded highway claims, such as those on cattle paths, streambeds, and little-used or long-abandoned jeep tracks that have little connection to legitimate transportation needs. These sorts of claims abound in several Western states. The state of Utah, for example, submitted a map to the Interior Department in 2000, claiming that 100,000 miles of routes, including every hiking trail in Zion National Park and routes across every designated wilderness in the state, are highways under R.S. 2477. California’s San Bernardino County has claimed that more than 5,000 miles of highways crisscrossing the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, and Alaska has asserted 164 separate routes through 14 national parks, including Denali, totaling almost 3,000 miles.

“Units of the National Park System should not be on the table,” said Denny Huffman, former superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado. “Secretary Norton must consider, as she has before, taking National Parks out of any policy that could force road construction under R.S. 2477 across these iconic landscapes.

Additionally, if the BLM adopts a lenient approach to highway claims on its lands, it may directly threaten neighboring Park Service units that are traversed by the same claims. A relaxed approach by BLM to a claim can point a loaded gun at the neighboring Park that disagrees with a highway claim.” As an example, Huffman cited highway claims across Dinosaur National Monument, where he was superintendent for 10 years.

“Ill-conceived policies that open culturally sensitive areas to road development place thousands of archaeological sites at increased risk of vandalism and destruction,” said Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Utah-based Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. “The evidence is indisputable: Unrestricted road access is coequal with rampant vandalism. Improved access means greater opportunity for the unsavory and unethical to wreck havoc on archaeological treasures of national importance.”

Conservationists have expressed concern about recent testimony from David Bernhardt, the nominee for Interior Department Solicitor. In his answers to recent questions from Senators, Mr. Bernhardt did not address how the Department’s ability to comply with laws that protect wildlife, water quality, and archeological treasures will be affected by allowing counties and states to perform highway construction and maintenance without studying how bulldozing, grading and road use may undermine protection of these resource. Mr. Bernhardt also inadequately addressed whether the Interior Department would provide assurances to private property owners whose lands may be subject to disputed RS 2477 claims.

“If they truly care about private property rights, they would make a statement that the new policy will not affect private lands,” said A.J. Chamberlin of Property Owners for Sensible Roads Policy. “It’s hard to believe that the Interior Department would move forward on a final policy without consulting private landowners.”

Interior Department Announces Guidelines to Implement Court Decision on R.S. 2477

For Immediate Release:
March 22, 2006

WASHINGTON, — Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton today announced new guidelines to assist Interior land managers in implementing a recent court decision regarding roads across federally owned lands. The new guidelines implement the principles outlined in the 2005 Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Bureau of Land Management (SUWA v. BLM) decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. This decision and the new guidelines protect federal lands by clarifying that these roads cannot be expanded or significantly improved without consultation with federal land managers.

SUWA v. BLM clarified many legal issues related to Revised Statute 2477 (R.S. 2477), which granted rights of way for the construction of public roads across federal land. Because of this clarification by the 10th Circuit, Secretary Norton today also formally revoked the interim Departmental policy on R.S. 2477, issued in 1997. In addition, the new guidelines direct the termination of the Memorandum of Understanding entered into between the Department and the State of Utah in April, 2003.

R.S. 2477 granted rights of way for public use across federal land prior to 1976, when Congress repealed the law. Congress specified that any valid R.S. 2477 rights of way existing at the time of the repeal would continue in effect. This has resulted in considerable doubt as to whether counties or the federal government own certain roads on federal lands.

"The Court's decision provides a thoughtful and reasonable way to resolve road disputes between the federal government and counties," Norton said. "The decision allows the roads to be maintained at the status quo; it does not authorize automatic expansion of roads. Our new guidelines respect the obligation that Interior has to protect federal lands and environmentally sensitive areas, particularly parks, refuges and congressionally designated wilderness areas."

In SUWA v. BLM, the 10th Circuit clarified that only courts could finally determine the ownership issue, but that federal agencies are permitted to develop a process to analyze claims for administrative purposes. The new guidelines announced today clarify how Interior will carry out its obligations following SUWA v. BLM.

"For example, under the guidelines announced today, a dirt road will remain a dirt road and a two-track road will remain a two-track road unless there is a permitting process and environmental analysis," Norton said.

The new guidelines recognize the special status of national parks, wildlife refuges and congressionally designated wilderness areas and direct Interior land managers to issue, as necessary, revised instructions or guidance consistent with the SUWA V. BLM decision and their obligation to protect federal lands and resources. The new guidelines recognize a number of options for Interior land managers to address claimed rights of way:

  • where a claimant wishes to do no more than maintain the existing status quo of a road and the current use and maintenance are consistent with the land manager's duty to protect the surrounding and underlying federal lands, the parties may utilize a road maintenance agreement;
  • where title to the road is already vested in an entity other than the federal government, the parties may utilize a recordable disclaimer, which formalizes that the federal government itself does not dispute the entity's road claim;
  • where a road has an unclear R.S. 2477 status but the land manager and a claimant agree on the need for the road, the BLM, pursuant to FLPLMA Title V, may grant rights of way irrespective of R.S. 2477;
  • where a claimant wishes to perform construction or expand use beyond the status quo, the land manager may make an informal, nonbinding determination (NBD) of whether the R.S. 2477 claim is valid and whether the proposed improvements are reasonable and necessary in light of the traditional uses that established the claimed right of way. A land manager would allow improvement only if the land manager determines that the improvement is consistent with the traditional uses and is consistent with Interior's duty to protect surrounding and underlying lands;
  • where a claimant seeks a binding determination of a claimed right of way, the claimant may file a quiet title action. A court would then make a determination.

Before a land manager implements any of the above options, members of the public will be given notice and an opportunity to comment.

March 21, 2006

Kelso Depot building renovation and tour

Backward Glance

by Steve Smith
Desert Dispatch

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part story.

One of the first projects I worked on as a volunteer at the Mojave River Valley Museum was a picture search for the displays at Kelso. James Woolsey came to the museum and talked about what they were looking for. He also showed me the plans. I must admit the plans didn't mean much to me at the time, but now that I can go to Kelso Depot, I have a sense of pride at my small contribution and I now can see what those plans were leading to.

Work on restoring the depot started in 1999. The first stages of the restoration was to gut the building. As is often the case, lead-based paints were used in the building and had to be cleaned out. During the clean up it was discovered where the building needed extra construction work. They also uncovered a few surprises. In the walls was discovered time cards from kitchen employees, old batteries and small wires that powered a doorbell system that ran to the upstairs sleeping rooms.

Once the tearing apart was done, they had to rebuild. The plan was to do the best job possible to bring the depot back to its original state. Most of the original wood trim and doors were salvaged. The great old staircase was stripped of enamel paint revealing the beautiful wood underneath. Everything was carefully researched and made to look as original as possible. The one addition to the building is the elevator, which allows visitors access to all three floors of the building.

One good example of the meticulous work is the red awnings over the second-story windows. These awnings were on the building when it was first built. A few years after that the awnings were removed. So now when you look at the exterior of the depot you are getting a close as possible view of the building as it was when it was built.

The first sight as you come in the front door is the Beanery counter. It is restored to how it looked originally, only smaller. All of the wood has been stained, and even the pie case has been brought back. The only thing missing is someone to serve you. The National Park Service is looking for vendors to run the counter. From what I have heard of the number of visitors that have come to the depot recently it should be a good business opportunity.

The old front counter is also in the room and is manned by staff. This is the place to ask questions and find out what is going on in the preserve. Behind the counter is the room that introduces you to the desert with sounds of the desert playing in the background. These are very realistic. During my visit I went outside to take some pictures and heard what I thought was the recording but in looking around I saw the bird singing.

What I liked about the depot (heck, it should be called a museum) is that all the senses are taken care of. There are soundbased displays on the booming of the Kelso Dunes and recordings of Curtis Howe Springer, the evangelist who sold mineral cures and ran the health resort at Zzyzx. There are also displays that let you try lifting a railroad tie and using a tool to move a rail road wheel and kids can actually climb a saddle in the ranching section. Smellwise you can enjoy the fresh air outside the depot or the diesel fumes of the passing trains.

The Mojave Preserve is a big place and is full of interesting history and the depot represents everything there. At the depot you will find rooms dedicated to ranching, the railroad, Route 66, the people who lived at Kelso and samples of what the sleeping rooms looked like in Kelso's heyday and many more interesting displays. One of my favorite places in the building is the reading room upstairs. This is a small library with all sorts of information regarding the preserve and maps, old and new. If you are planning a trip into the preserve this is a good place to see what is out there and to learn about the great resources in our backyard. Of course after you go around in the desert, you can sit in the comfortable chairs and nap like I did at the end of a long day.

March 15, 2006

Actions Renew Tensions Over Use of Desert Land

Release of the west Mojave plan and a judge's rejection of a proposal for the Algodones Dunes reignite debate.

By Janet Wilson, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

A pair of decisions in the last two days governing recreation, conservation and development across several million acres of California desert are reigniting tensions over endangered species and motorized access in the fast-growing region.

Late Tuesday, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials signed the west Mojave management plan, designed to streamline construction and map areas for motorized recreation and wildlife protection on 9.3 million acres of public land in five counties and 11 cities. Parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern and Inyo counties are included in the plan, which took 12 years to craft.

"You have tremendous, growing populations in … the west Mojave, and then you try to balance that with conservation of species, and it becomes a very, very delicate balancing act, and that's what we think this plan achieved," said Jan Bedrosian, spokeswoman for the bureau's California office. The plan identifies vital areas for the threatened desert tortoise, Mohave squirrel and 98 other species, pinpoints off-road trails, and lays out areas that could be developed.

But the plan was promptly lambasted by environmentalists and off-road vehicle groups, who said that thousands of miles of riding trails had been improperly mapped, that there were no funds for enforcement or implementation, and that lawsuits were inevitable.

"They don't have a nickel — not a nickel — to implement any of it," said Roy Denner, president of the Off-Road Business Assn., who was appointed by Interior Secretary Gale Norton to serve on the BLM's Desert District Advisory Council and who has monitored the plan closely.

"It wasn't done well," he said. "What they were trying to do — and it's pretty naive — is they were trying to provide for every kind of environmental concern they could with the idea that it would prevent lawsuits, and it's just the other way around. They're going to get sued by the environmental extremists … and off-road access is going to be cut off. It's a joke."

Tom Egan, a former bureau biologist who worked on the early stages of the plan before leaving the agency, called the final version "egregious," and said it would lead to the disappearance of the tortoise in many areas and leave other species "on hospital beds." He noted that the plan included measures for placing signs indicating trails were open to off-roading, but none to say which areas were closed.

A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity — an environmental group that has long opposed the expansion of off-road driving in the desert — said that the plan would harm the desert tortoise in particular, and that the organization probably would sue to stop it.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston threw out another bureau plan and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological report for the Algodones Dunes to the south that would have greatly expanded off-roading, saying that the plan would harm the federally protected Pierson's milk vetch wildflower and the desert tortoise, and that the agencies had wrongly interpreted the Endangered Species Act.

The judge "basically shredded their plan," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. Noting that about half of the most popular parts of the dunes remain open to riders, he said: "It's time for them to compromise and recognize that 50% is enough."

Bedrosian said bureau officials had not seen the decision and could not comment immediately. She said officials thought they had adequately protected species by calling for tightly controlled riding on designated routes with heavy monitoring.

Vince Brunasso of the American Sand Assn., which intervened on the side of the government to have 49,000 acres of the popular dunes reopened to riding, said: "I agree. Let's compromise. Let's have 50% of the dunes in North America reopened then, because if you do the math and add up all the acres we have access to, it falls far short of 50%."

Brunasso said the Algodones Dunes "are different, and they're beautiful, and we can't go to the deep center section. The American people are being robbed of the ability to enjoy that beauty … we're not done fighting."

He said his group would try to have the Pierson's milk vetch delisted as an endangered species.

"The BLM counted 1.8 million milk vetch last year. I don't know how many you have to have before an official person would say its not endangered or threatened" and off-highway vehicle use can coexist with it, he said.

Patterson and others have said the wildflower is doing better for now because of good rains last year and because off-roading has been banned in key areas.

March 14, 2006

Remodeled Kelso Depot has rich desert history

Backward Glance

by Steve Smith
Desert Dispatch [Barstow, CA]

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.

In desert history and in fiction much centers around oases. Recently I got a chance to visit an oasis that had undergone a rejuvenation and on March 25 will have its grand opening, Kelso Depot.

The town of Kelso got its start when the Union Pacific Railroad came through in 1904. How the town got its name is one of my favorite stories. Three railroad workers decided to draw one of their names out of a hat to decide the name of the town. One of the gentlemen had recently left the area but the other two threw his name in for him. Wouldn't you know it the guy that left, John H. Kelso, won.

The town was founded because of the water needed for steam engines. The nearby steep grade at Cima Summit (which rises in elevation 2,000 feet in 18 miles) was also a reason for the town's founding. Helper engines would tie onto passing trains and help them over the grade. The helper crews lived at the depot or at other houses in town so when they got a train over the hill they would turn around and head back to Kelso.

The first depot at Kelso was built in 1905 when the Los Angeles to Salt Lake line was established. One of the influence on building the depot was the Santa Fe's Harvey Houses. Harvey Houses were so profitable and popular with passengers that the Union Pacific wanted to copy the success. They built a separate building for a lunch counter. When a new station was built, the old depot was moved and used for a number of purposes.

The present station was built in 1923. It was planned as an "all-in-one facility." The station had rooms for workers, telegraph office, Beanery lunch counter, downstairs hall and billiard room. The station also served the people of the small town as a meeting hall.

The Depot also provided amusement for the children of the town. The dump in back of the depot attracted wild burros. The town's children would lay out a noose and capture the burros by a hoof. Many a time the children would get drug for a bit and suffer rope burns. They sometimes tamed the burros and kept them as pets.

The lunch counter not only served the workers but also served passengers traveling on trains with no dining cars. One item on the menu, stew, lent itself to a humorous story at the beginning of the station. The new lunch counter requested a stew pot from the head office. What arrived was a thunder mug, a pot used as a urinal before flush toilets. Despite the many odd looks visitor's gave it, the thunder mug did serve as a passable stew pot.

On average the town had a population of around two hun- dred. During World War II the town had its biggest boom. Kaiser Steel started the Vulcan Iron Mine nine miles south of Kelso. They shipped its ore to the steel mills in Fontana. From 1942 to 1948 it was estimated that 2,500 tons of ore passed through Kelso daily. At its peak the town housed 2,000 workers.

The population of Kelso took hits from different sources after World War II. Kaiser Steel shut down the mine because of high sulfur content in the ore and the railroad started using more powerful diesel locomotives so the helper engines weren't needed and the water wasn't as important. By the 1950s Kelso was becoming a ghost town.

The depot continued to be open during the seventies when it became a gathering spot for desert visitors and locals. One visitor, James Woolsey, once had an ice cream cone there. He doesn't remember it but his father told him about it. James went on to work on the depot restoration and the displays in it. The nearby water was a particular draw for birds and their watchers.

In 1985 the railroad decided that it was not feasible to run the station any more so they closed the depot entirely. The railroad company had planned to demolish it but through efforts of local people and the Bureau of Land Management it was spared the wrecking ball.

In 1992 the Bureau of Land Management purchased the depot and the property around it for one dollar. The depot came under the care of the National Park Service when the Desert Protection Act was signed into law and created the Mojave National Preserve in 1994. Renovation work was started 1999 and continued until last year when the Depot opened up as the Preserve's visitor center. The depot is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Grand Opening for the restored Kelso Depot will be March 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be tours and field trips starting at 10 a.m. The dedication ceremony will be at 2 p.m.

The depot is located 35 miles south of Baker. From I-15, exit at Kelbaker Road and drive south 35 miles to Kelso. From I-40, exit at Kelbaker Road and drive north 22 miles to Kelso.

Come back next week when I will talk a bit about the renovation of the Kelso Depot and a tour of the building.

March 1, 2006

Park Service plans Kelso Depot grand opening


San Bernardino Sun

The National Park Service will hold a grand opening ceremony for the renovated Kelso Depot on March 25.

The event, open free to the public, will begin at 2 p.m. at the historic depot, located 35 miles south of Baker on Kelbaker Road. It also can be reached by driving 22 miles north of Interstate 40 on Kelbaker Road.

Built in 1924 by Union Pacific Railroad, the depot has been transformed into the Mojave National Preserve's main visitor center. It also contains a museum, theater and bookstore.

The depot will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with tours and field trips starting at 10 a.m. on March 25.

Light refreshments will be served, park officials said.

Visitors who have old photographs of the depot are invited to share them and have them scanned for others to enjoy.

For more information, call the preserve headquarters at (760) 252-6101, or visit the preserve's Web site at