February 28, 2008

BLM: so much area to cover, so little time

BLM battles bullets, trail cutting, motorcycles, cherry bombs to stop “trashing of America”

Along the Trail
By David McNeill
Mammoth Times

I was out on the Chalk Bluffs near Bishop over the Martin Luther King holiday, and was surprised at what I saw. Just a week earlier I had observed about 10 people blowing off M-80 firecrackers in the rocks for hours. It was unnerving to say the least and ruined a good hike. On this day things got way out of control. The parking areas were full with 50 carloads of rock climbers at the bottom of the Bluffs. Cars were coming into the top entrance of Sad Boulders all day long, where there is very little parking. That increased the chance for damage to the brush all along the road from overflow.

Things were going about how they usually do on a holiday weekend in winter at the Chalk Bluffs, as I climbed up onto the big petroglyph panel called Sky Rock. I heard some motorcycles in the distance and didn't think too much of it, since there are roads out there. The next thing I knew, four guys on motorcycles were illegally going cross-country across the fragile high desert land. That was the first time I have ever seen anything like that in 30 years of hiking out there. It is common to see a solo track here or there on the Volcanic Tableland from some outlaw rider, but never a team effort. Of course I ran after them, and of course they got away. I phoned up law enforcement officer Mike Hubbard at the Bishop BLM office, and he invited me to come down and do a story on what they face out in the “wild west” with so much area to cover and so little time.

The Eastern Sierra is an off road paradise that is unsurpassed in beauty and different types of terrain. Despite this wonderful asset, there are still outlaw riders, who defy the rules and rough ride over the land. It is vicious and a number one problem for BLM, as careless Off Highway Vehicle people continue to erode the land foot by foot each year. This is the problem that Mike and his partner in Lone Pine, Ron Stormo, face each day trying to patrol an area 750,000 acres in size that extends from Cartago in the south northward to Topaz Lake, a stretch of nearly 250 miles. This is an area of diverse desert landscapes, volcanic rock and hot springs in Long Valley near Mammoth Lakes.

About 10 years ago, Mick Ryan and other climbers from the Eastern Sierra started advertising in magazines, guidebooks and the Internet that Bishop, Calif., was the new place to go for bouldering and rock climbing. Things had tightened up down in Waco Tanks in El Paso due to archaeological site damage from the climbers, and they were looking for new territory to establish. As thousands of people converged on Bishop to climb in a Haight-Ashbury type movement, BLM, Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power and the U.S. Forest Service had to react quickly with trail systems, signs, parking barriers, toilets and increased law enforcement. For BLM this was all extra work that the two overburdened law enforcement officers and the recreation department inherited.

To keep people centrally located instead of camping all over the place, Mike, along with geologist Cheryl Seth, helped set up a campground called the Pit in an old borrow pit that was used for the Pleasant Valley Dam construction. This was a perfect location for the campground and an excellent choice. The Pit is wintertime camping only and a great deal at $2 per day, including a host. There is no water and the fees cover the cost of the toilets, trash collection and recycle bins. Climbers were driving all over the place damaging brush, and the recreation department had to place barriers and configure parking areas. At the same time all the petroglyph and archaeological sites had to be identified and protected as best as could be done. Currently, the recreation department headed by Diana Pietrasanta, has six employees who work hard to do as much resource protection as they can.

Another difficult area for BLM to manage is the hot springs and tubs in Long Valley as Wild Willys and Travertine near Bridgeport. Since Hot Creek is still closed, there has been increased use at the BLM tubs. One trail counter at Wild Willys hot tub recorded 30,000 visitors in one year, an astounding number of people going to a small area in one year. That is why the BLM and USFS installed a quarter-mile-long boardwalk to protect the sensitive ground out there.

Archaeological site vandalism has been going on for a long time in the Eastern Sierra. People drive out on ATVs and dig up the rock rings where the ancient people had their shelters. Thankfully the petroglyph target shooting practice has subsided, but people are still picking off pieces of petroglyphs and pictographs, at the same time picking away the pieces of our great land's heritage.

Mike and Ron have been staying on top of another situation involving partying high school kids at a place called the Quarry on top of the Chalk Bluffs. It is the usual stupid situation that many of us did as high school kids — throwing beer cans, breaking glass, making huge fires and leaving them burning. Mike picked up 500 beer cans after one night's party and plastic protectors from liquor bottles. Very clever how they get those bottles out of the store. There is a lot of potential for trouble out there from fires to vehicle accidents and underage drinking.

A change of the guard will be coming for both Mike Hubbard and Ron Stormo — Ron retires in April, Mike in December. Mike ends a long productive career that started as a firefighter after graduating from Humboldt State with a B.A. in wildlife management and outdoor planning. When a job opened up in the Eastern Sierra, he jumped on it. He grew up in Garden Grove in Southern California and vacationed with his family in the Eastern Sierra in the 60s. In 1988, he got a job with BLM as a law enforcement officer. Ron Stormo is also an ex-firefighter, former Hot Shot and worked for the park service. He lives down in Lone Pine and keeps the southern end under control.

It is hard to replace these guys, who have vast amounts of experience and common sense. They will be missed when they pass the baton. They will do everything they can to break in the new officers and give them a good orientation to their new duty station in the most beautiful place on Earth: the Eastern Sierra.

The BLM office in Bishop is very down home and public service oriented. Under the capable leadership of Bill Dunkelberger, all the staff are always accommodating to any valid concern that the public might have. When I have had a concern about some land use issue, they always met with me and never blew me off. They gave me an opportunity to talk about it and that means a lot to me. So they encourage you to keep your eyes on the long falling skies, and don't let our land get hurt. If you see something that isn't cool, they welcome you to give them a buzz. They rely upon us to do our part as good stewards of the land and to take part in the protection of it. Do your part to help stop the trashing of America.

David McNeill has lived in Bishop since 1974, working for the Water District and the Forest Service for most of that time. At home in the wilderness, he does a lot of hiking with Windy, his Springer spaniel. With a taste for writing he explored during stints at Mammoth's Channel 5 and the Mono Herald, he has a drawer full of stories.