June 15, 2006

Watering holes get new look


Mojave Preserve management, wildlife scientists, environmentalists and sporting groups are actually coming together over the issue of water in the Mojave National Preserve. The result is going to be good things for wildlife.

All of these different groups have been embroiled in a battle over the deactivation of more than 130 different water sources connected to the former cattle operations on the preserve. All of those water sources also supported a vast network of desert wildlife.

Wildlife and hunting groups were outraged the National Park Service violated its management plan and promises made during the drafting of this plan to study the impact shutting off these water sources would have on wildlife before the valves were turned off.

Wildlife biologists who have seen species expand their ranges and populations when water was added to desert mountain ranges said the losses caused by the former park superintendent's demand the water be shut off were likely very significant. But because the promised research on the preserve was never done, no one could actually put numbers on wildlife losses or measure the decrease in range and habitat usage.

Cliff McDonald, a Needles hunter and wildlife activist, and the Safari Club led a drive to restore just 12 of the original wells on the preserve for wildlife use. The preserve staff prepared an environmental assessment that would have allowed that to occur, but everyone involved agreed there was inadequate, comprehensive scientific data to support adding or removing the water.

Lawsuits were threatened on both sides of the debate, and then the park superintendent left. In an amazing transformation, people started talking again, wanting to work together and solve obvious problems, get answers to honest questions and move forward.

The Park Service has proposed a comprehensive study to look at "added water" in the desert and its effect and importance. And professional wildlife biologists from all over the West are enthused about the research because it would involve before and after measurements and data gathering. The research project and the well reactivation have been rolled together. Sort of.

"It's not that the 12 wells idea is dead," said Larry Whalon, chief of resources for the preserve. "But we're not going to hold ourselves to those 12 locations."

The research will determine the best places to put water and then measure the effects once the water is in.

For the first time, we'll really know with scientific certainty the effect adding water has on desert environments and wildlife populations in those environments.

"This has the potential to demonstrate the importance -- or lack thereof -- of water sources on this type in desert ecosystems," said Dr. Vern Bleich, Department of Fish and Game bighorn sheep biologist.

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.

June 6, 2006

Cameo of George Palmer Putnam

George Palmer Putnam
1887 - 1950

HSUMD Newsletter
Vol. 21 No. 6 June 2006

Amelia Earhart with George Palmer Putnam.

(Following is an article prepared by Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert member and local historian, John Di Pol, drawn from his library of history books. Ed).

With your indulgence, permit me to diverge a bit from our usual fare, although there is a connection of our topic, tenuous as it may be, with the history of our region.

Who was Mr. Putnam? Well, he was the husband of the famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, at the time of her tragic disappearance in the Western Pacific while on her around-the-world flight in 1937.

George Putnam was born in 1887 in Rye, NY, to the comfortably wealthy family of the publishing company G. P. Putnam Sons, Inc. George attended schools in New York and Connecticut, then Harvard, but that lasted only a year. Putnam had restless feet and he headed west. Before departing he had met the heiress Dorothy Binney and continued corresponding with her. Marriage was proposed and accepted. George brought his bride out west to Bend, Oregon. There he entered politics, became mayor and publisher and owner of the Bend newspaper. After a few years, including a stint in the Army during WW I, George and Dorothy moved back to New York where George accepted a position in the family's publishing business.

George was a driver and hard worker. He was a member of two Arctic expeditions, in 1926 and 1927, both sponsored by reputable scientific societies. He authored several books and made the "big leagues" when he signed Charles Lindbergh to publish the book "We", Lindberg's account of his solo flight across the Atlantic. Because of his reputation of working with Lindbergh, he was contacted by a wealthy American dowager who wanted to sponsor the first flight of a woman across the Atlantic and commissioned Putnam to find a suitable candidate. And George did so: he came up with the essentially unknown Amelia Earhart. The rest is history.

George was instrumental in organizing the flight, which was made in 1928. Because Amelia was not instrument qualified, two rated pilots accompanied her. No matter, Amelia made the international headlines. George rapidly became Amelia's agent, promoter, publicist, confidant. Successes followed: Amelia's solo transatlantic flight in 1932; first person to solo Hawaii to California and many other honors, with George busy in the background. George's marriage to Dorothy suffered and divorce followed in 1929. His relationship with Amelia had deepened; marriage proposals followed, with Amelia finally accepting and they were married in 1931.

By the mid-1930s, planning started for Amelia's around-the-world flight. On May 29, 1937 Amelia, with Fred Noonan as navigator, took off from Oakland eastbound on her historic attempt. It was July 2nd, on the leg from New Guinea to Howland Island in the Pacific, that Amelia and Fred were lost at sea. George was devastated, as was the rest of the nation, literally. In addition to the search efforts of the U.S. government, Putnam enlisted help of his own and, obsessed with finding her, spent months tracking down every lead.

Putnam rebuilt his life with writing, publishing and lectures. In 1940 he moved to Lone Pine where he purchased a cabin lodge high up at Whitney Portal in the Eastern Sierras. With the advent of WW II, George, at age 55, applied for a commission in the Army Air Corps. He was accepted and served as an intelligence officer in the China-Burma-India theater. After the war George returned to Lone Pine, in poor health. He began corresponding with Margaret (Peg) Haviland, whom he had met while at Intelligence School before "shipping out". This lead to their marriage in late 1945, with Peg joining him at Whitney Portal.

Their life at the Portal was serene, but full, with George writing, doing consulting for publishers, maintaining contacts around the country. But, a problem. Peg could not stand the winter cold, so the following year they spent time at Stovepipe Wells Inn in Death Valley. During these years George wrote two books: Death Valley and Its Country, 1946, and Death Valley Handbook, 1947. The royalties helped him to surprise Peg. He purchased the Stovepipe Wells Inn for her! Peg stayed most of the year at Stovepipe to operate the place, with George at the Portal working on his latest book Up In Our Country, a conversational essay on the inhabitants, flora and fauna of the area. But by 1949 George's health was failing. By winter he was at Stovepipe too ill to travel. Later, after Christmas, he was taken to the hospital in Trona with kidney failure and died there on January 4th, 1950. He was cremated and his ashes are in the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.

Peg continued to operate Stovepipe Wells. As tourism increased she built up the business by expansion and improvements. In 1962 Mrs. Putnam met and married Willard Lewis. She ultimately sold the Stovepipe in 1966 to the Fred Harvey Co., or was it AmFac, or whatever. Mrs. Putnam-Lewis passed away in 1981.

Up In Our Country was published posthumously in 1950. Your writer had found a copy in a used book store several years ago - the only copy he has ever seen. A slim, handsome volume, conservatively designed. He bought it.

Ref: THE SOUND OF WINGS, The Biography of Amelia Earhart, Mary S. Lovell, 1989. L.A. TIMES, April 22, 2001.

UP IN OUR COUNTRY, George Palmer Putnam, 1950