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.