May 4, 2008

CALICO BASIN: Tranquillity lost

Couple selling property near Red Rock to BLM

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Twenty-six years ago Gene and Becky Hutchinson bought a small ranch house on more than 2 acres of sandy soil off a gravel road in Calico Basin, away from the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas.
Except for their dogs barking when strangers approach, it has been a peaceful spot at the edge of Red Rock Canyon's scenic sandstone cliffs west of the city and far from its bright lights.

Purchased for a bit more than $100,000, the property has been perfect for the Hutchinsons, who came from Florida to work at jobs supporting Las Vegas' booming convention business.

But as years went by and the city's expansion crept westward, the rural community of Calico Basin lost some of its tranquillity. "This place isn't what it used to be," Gene Hutchinson, a retired union truck driver and Vietnam-era veteran, said Wednesday.

Tourists and rock climbers often camp on the side of the road, leaving behind their bottles and trash.

"I don't mind the climbing and the people coming out here to enjoy the area, but I don't like them leaving their beer bottles," he said.

"When I go someplace and take something, I take it back out with me," he said.

Once in a while, climbers attracted to the picturesque cliffs suffer injuries from falls and seek help at his house, which has the nearest land-line telephone. Even today, cell phone coverage is nonexistent there.

So when the Bureau of Land Management started buying property a few years ago to enhance the environment and aesthetics of nearby Red Spring Picnic Area, the Hutchinsons, too, considered selling their part of paradise.

Last month, the BLM announced it is proposing to pay $1.7 million for the 2.27-acre Hutchinson property in its latest round of planned purchases under the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act.

Two years ago, the BLM used funding from the act to purchase the 5-acre Garland property near Red Spring for $3.5 million.

The act allows money from the sale of public land around Las Vegas to be used to buy environmentally sensitive lands elsewhere in the state. In all, more than 40 projects are proposed under this round, totaling more than $80.25 million.

The proposed Hutchinson purchase is part of the bureau's plan to buy some of Calico Basin's 60 parcels from willing sellers to enhance habitat for wildlife and benefit the public's use of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

"Eventually they want the whole thing," Gene Hutchinson said Wednesday. "They want mine because we're right next to the park."

The Calico Basin community, which numbers between 75 and 100 people, evolved from land the government made available under the Small Tract Act of 1938 to attract residents to the West near the end of the Great Depression.

Of the 60 parcels, 23 have on them buildings, such as houses and horse barns. At 2.27 acres, the Hutchinson property is the smallest. The largest is 40 acres. That was sold by the BLM to the Girl Scouts in the late 1960s.

All of the other parcels became private holdings as a result of the Small Tract Act, said Bob Taylor, assistant field manager for the National Landscape Conservation System at Red Rock Canyon.

"The intent was to populate the West," he said.

One of Calico Basin's longtime inhabitants, Jake Stone, a cowboy and prospector, died about two years ago. His house and most of the antique equipment and wagon wheels that he kept along the road have been removed. The property's new owner hasn't approached the BLM yet regarding its potential sale, Taylor said.

In the meantime, some newer "dream houses" have been built in the basin and atop a ridge overlooking it, he said. It's unlikely that these properties will be sold. Reliance on well water from a small aquifer has precluded larger developments in the past, he said.

BLM spokeswoman Hillerie Patton said the bureau is trying to purchase any Calico Basin properties that fit with the conservation area's management plan and are in the hands of willing sellers. "As funding becomes available, we will try to make the acquisitions," she said.

The process will proceed slowly, she said, noting the bureau currently is interested in three Calico Basin properties whose owners want to sell.

"We're not looking to boot people out of their homes. We're not trying to do a land grab," Patton said. "By no means are we trying to encourage people to give up their homes to us."

Taylor said purchasing the Hutchinson property makes sense. It is adjacent to the conservation area and would enhance the park's open character.

Before the sale can be completed, the Hutchinsons, he said, will have to raze the house that was built in 1963 and begin restoring the acreage to its natural state. Otherwise, the BLM would have to contract the work out under the government's process.

That would entail purchasing abandoned buildings, and funding isn't available for demolition. Nevertheless, the cost to do that is included, up front, in the sale of the land.

"We just want the raw land," Taylor said.

That means the Hutchinsons will have to remove the septic tank in addition to all the buildings. Taylor said the water well, which is downstream from Red Spring, probably will be retired too.

"We'll restore that wash to its proper, functioning conditions, and bring in native plants," he said.
As it is now, the land provides habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and a state-protected bird, the phainopepla. The black-and-gray crested bird eats berries from mistletoe, a parasite plant found on old growth mesquite trees.

A healthy acacia tree also stands on the property, which sits at an elevation of 3,500 feet.

In the spring, wildflowers turn the landscape into a kaleidoscope of colors.

There are yellow desert marigolds, orange globe mallows and delicate Mariposa lillies. Brilliant fuchsia blooms poke from the top of an occasional hedgehog cactus.

Hutchinson said his wife has mixed emotions about moving, probably to Utah.

And he suggested that other Calico Basin residents will want to stay put.

"A lot of them ain't going to move because they've been here forever," he said.