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


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


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.