June 7, 2006

Healing Desert's Wounds

College-age activists camp in the Mojave for months as they work to restore land that has been trashed by garbage, off-roaders and graffiti vandals.

CAMOUFLAGE: Paul Miles, 24, rigs a fake bush to hide an illegal trail.

By Eric Bailey, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

BARSTOW — Twenty miles from town, in a brutally lovely land where the road and sky collide, a ragamuffin tribe of college-age kids is hard at work in the middle of nowhere.

They're healing the desert.

Dan Prell whacks the sun-scorched earth with a sodbuster pick, his dreadlocks shimmying under a blue bandanna. He grins habitually, happy to miss another cold winter in his native Neenah, Wis.

"It's a blast," the 21-year-old said between swings, no trace of irony hedging his words. "It lets me get out of a small city and go camping for eight months. What could be better?"

In Southern California's vast outback, a century of mankind's heedless incursions — from George Patton's tanks in training for World War II to survivalists taking target practice — have left lasting wounds on a fragile landscape slow to mend.

Those infirmities bring young men and women such as Prell and crew leader Mizuki Seita, a 4-foot, 11-inch whirlwind called Miz by her six-person team.

Theirs is a boot camp existence in the middle of the Mojave. For little pay, three square vegetarian meals and a tent overhead, these twentysomethings camp out in California's badlands of biodiversity for months at a time, rising early to wield shovels and rakes in a ritual of surgical repair.

The goal is to make assaulted swaths of desert look as if humankind had never set foot or knobby tire there.

Such repair parties started combing Southern California's arid backyard after Congress passed the Desert Protection Act in 1994.

They come in all persuasions. Suburban sagebrush-huggers spend volunteer weekends pulling up invasive saltcedar, prison crews troll for trash among the yucca, teen groups try their hand at rehabilitation.

But in recent years the most devoted restorative presence has been the Student Conservation Assn., the nonprofit organization that dispatched Seita and her crew to the East Mojave for an eight-month hitch.

Founded nearly 50 years ago and headquartered in New Hampshire, the group sends small teams of college-age adults to ecological sanctuaries all around the country. They first came to the Southland desert in 2001 and have returned every year since. This season 40 workers have toiled in places that include Dead Mountains Wilderness, Stepladder Mountains and the Kingston Range.

They find plenty of scars.

This day, Seita and company pull up into rolling folds of rock hugging the south slope of the Ord Mountains, a craggy range southeast of Barstow. Their main mission: to make a couple of motorcycle trail heads disappear.

Fresh from the usual bagel breakfast and a warmup game of Hacky Sack, the workers bounce up in a bulky bronze Suburban. Clouds embrace distant mountains shouldering snow.

Summer Farmer, 23, of Springfield, Ill., spots the day's first indignity: a boulder painted with graffiti. She grabs a steel-wire brush.

Some guy named Rudy just had to let the jack rabbits and coyotes know he loves the L.A. Dodgers. In doing so, he spoiled the antique sheen, known as desert varnish, running in stratified ribbons across the rock. It could take nature a thousand years to replace it.

Scrubbing under the sun, Farmer talks about snow.

Back on Presidents Day, they awakened to find the desert covered with white. They weren't "Illinois-sized" flakes, Farmer said, "but they were getting there."

Prell, a self-confessed sissy about the cold despite his Wisconsin roots, fled to a car in the sub-zero sleeping bag he had his mom send out. He awoke to find "Good Morning" scrawled on the snow-covered windshield.

It was the work of Paul Miles, 24, late of the University of Georgia. At 6 feet 4, with wire-rim glasses and the dreadlocks he's been cultivating without a haircut for the last five years, Miles would stick out even without a crowd.

He's one of the veterans, on his third gig with the conservation group. The California desert astounds him. So does the abuse it has endured.

"It's spectacular out here," Miles said. "But it's a mess, a real mess." Trampled plants. Scattered shell casings. Abandoned cars. You don't see it, Miles noted, zooming by at 75 mph on the interstate.

Mary Verrilli, 25, scrabbles along, raking out the well-worn trail edge. Puny roadside berms can loom like a brick wall to a desert tortoise, the Mojave's famously imperiled critter.

Besides marring the landscape, the pathways the team is trying to obliterate can have other unfortunate effects on the desert landscape. Errant food scraps draw ravens to prey on vulnerable young tortoises. A traveler can unwittingly carry invasive seeds on tires or shock absorbers for miles, introducing rapacious plants that overtake native flora.

Prell and 21-year-old Aaron Drake of Boone, N.C., are whacking holes in the trail. They're preparing a bit of camouflage, a sort of re-imagineering in a desert Disneyland.

Miles delivers an armload of dead creosote branches. Twisted and blackened, they go into the shallow holes, small rocks anchoring the base.

Seita calls it her desert restoration flower arrangement.

These faux bouquets of creosote and burro weed and other flora are planted a few dozen yards up to where the path disappears over a knoll. Beach ball-size boulders are rolled into the way to complete the effect.

Seita holds her hands up like a cinematographer framing a movie scene. The goal is to make this trail portal vanish, giving nature time to reclaim the land.

"I've done trail building in Tennessee," Verrilli said. "This is the reverse."

The dead branches will stand several years, acting as a little oasis to catch water, deflect breezes and provide shade so young plants take root.

Rangers used to post signs on closed trails, but that proved "0% effective," said Steve Borchard, the federal Bureau of Land Management's Desert District manager in California. Scofflaws riddled the placards with bullets and ran them down with all-terrain vehicles. Hay bales blocking the trails fared a bit better, Borchard said, but the students' pick-and-shovel subterfuge works best.

In the last three years, the Student Conservation Assn. has closed more than 1,700 unauthorized desert trails.

Heather Bosserman, 26, spreads a topographical map on the sport utility vehicle's hood. The pages are laced by a spider web of red lines marking "illegal incursions" — off-road routes that shouldn't exist.

Peering through wire-rim glasses, auburn hair tucked under a Yellowstone baseball hat, Bosserman seems the no-nonsense one. She loves the work but can't help being realistic.

Plenty of days they clean up trash or close a trail only to come back the next day and find everything undone. After cleaning up a campsite one morning, they returned in the afternoon to find an abandoned Porsche.

"You do what you can," Bosserman lamented.

Seita, the shortest and oldest at 28, refuses to go down without a fight. If a cyclist zips by on an illegal trail, she scampers in pursuit, waving her arms until the offender stops.

"Most people are nice about it," she said. "They don't understand that once you've done damage to the desert, it's hard to get it back. They don't think of these plants as unique, like a redwood or sequoia."

After a lunch of pasta salad and hummus on homemade bread, they spread out among the boulders looking for trash.

Farmer comes back with an old VCR. Miles, a merry prankster, trudges to the truck with his head poking out of a latrine lid.

They are, Miles said with pride, "a motley crew."

This sort of job — hard work, a token $160-a-week paycheck, a hardy embrace of solitary wilds — tends to attract nature-lovers looking to break into the environmental field. After half a year working and living together, Drake said, they're all "pretty much family by now."

Seita is the lone Californian. She grew up in Japan, came to the U.S. at 13 when her dad was transferred to Southern California. Seita stayed when her family returned to Japan and has worked three years now in the desert.

"It's hard to explain to them what I'm doing," she said. "They think I'm cleaning up trash in a national park."

As the sun edges toward the mountaintops, the team begins a slow ride back to camp. "The car is pretty stinky on the ride home," Prell said, chortling. "Lets you know you're alive."

Camp is on the far side of the Ords in a canyon that cleaves the ridge. The fading light casts a rosy glow on a mosaic of rock sculpted by time. Dinner in the big, olive-green, Army tent that serves as a mess hall is a hash of potato, cabbage, carrots, onions, yogurt, dill and sunflower that Bosserman and Seita prepare in a Dutch oven over an open fire.

After dinner, Farmer flips through a paperback. Verrilli and Bosserman talk of playing cribbage. Miles mends a sock.

The mice are out; a brave scavenger skitters among chair legs. Coyotes are gearing up to howl as some of the crew members begin heading to bed at 8 p.m.

A new desert dawn, and a new desert workday, will soon be upon them.