December 1, 2008

Interview With Dennis Schramm

Superintendent of Mojave National Preserve

The Desert Report

A Brief Introduction to Mojave National Preserve:
To millions of drivers en route to or returning from Sin City, the Mojave National Preserve is a large green or brown area on a map, a desolate, rugged, barren landscape to be traversed. To those who have come to know “the Preserve” it is a 1.6 million acre desert mountain wonderland, teeming with wildlife, wildflowers, and wilderness; a place containing singing sand dunes, sweeping vistas, and arguably the finest night sky viewing in Southern California. The Mojave Preserve is a significant reservoir of cultural history dating back 8,000 years or more and is a haven of wilderness within a developing world, allowing current and future generations the opportunity to experience the vastness and diversity of the Eastern Mojave Desert.

Introducing Mr. Dennis Schramm

Dennis Schramm has been the superintendent of Mojave National Preserve for almost three years. He is a professional botanist who grew up in the Mojave Desert and has witnessed firsthand the population boom that impacts desert wildlands. Dennis has worked for the NPS for 31 years and has worked in Alaska as well as Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. I have posed questionsto Dennis in order to share the work being done at Mojave National Preserve. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) would like to thank Dennis Schramm for taking the time to discuss the Mojave National Preserve with us.

David: Speaking to those who are unfamiliar with the Preserve, what is significant about Mojave Nnational Preserve?
Dennis: Well, from the perspective of the enabling legislation, it is the natural and scenic resources including transitional desert elements that all come together here; it is the human history and the resources associated with Native Americans and westward expansion; and it is the opportunity for compatible outdoor recreation and to promote understanding of the Mojave Desert. From my personal perspective I think the most significant thing is the preservation of 1.6 million acres of prime Mojave Desert ecosystem and the vast landscapes that are encompassed within the Preserve. Considering the developments being proposed today in the Mojave, it is so important that a large expanse of the Mojave Desert is permanently protected for future generations.

Your favorite destination in the Preserve?
Wow, that’s kind of hard. There are so many different landscapes and vegetation types to explore. But I would have to say that the hike into the Castle Peaks is definitely one of the tops on my list.

In your lifetime, how has the Mojave Desert changed?
Population growth and the way people use the desert have changed a lot. Of course Las Vegas has grown substantially since I went to school and college there in the 60’s and 70’s. This surge of people has caused unprecedented development in the Vegas valley and the Victor Valley/Lancaster areas.

Have attitudes towards the Mojave changed?
I’m not sure if attitudes overall have changed, but a lot more people seem to be interested in motorized recreation, whether it is jet skis on Lake Mead and the Colorado River, or four wheel drive vehicles in OHV areas. There is still a core population of folks who prefer a more intimate experience with the desert, but their voices don’t seem as loud as in the 60’s.

In your tenure, what do you consider to be the greatest victories or achievements attained?
Well, I have to include in my tenure my first seven years here as the planner and management assistant. Of course, my first major accomplishment was completion of the General Management Plan in 2001. During those first years we also removed 4,000 feral burros and around 8,000 cattle (all with donated funds!). Restoration of the Kelso Depot and opening it as our main visitor center has been a significant achievement and remains a tremendous opportunity for visitor contact. Mojave achieved a 99% visitor satisfaction rate last year and a lot has to do with the Kelso Depot and staff that work there. I’m also proud of the work we are doing to reduce our impact on the environment. We now have eleven solar systems operating around the Preserve and this year will eliminate the last diesel generator from the Preserve. This year we also converted all our maintenance equipment to bio-based fluids and greatly expanded our recycling program. Finally I would have to say that the staff we have hired are among the best around and we accomplish a great many things each year due to their hard work and dedication.

What do you consider to be the greatest threats to Mojave Preserve?
I think most of our threats today are originating outside the Preserve, some from sources that you wouldn’t have suspected. Obviously, the proposed Southern Nevada Supplement Airport just north of Primm poses major threats to the natural quiet of the Preserve if it is built. Then there are the hundreds of solar and wind energy applications filed all over the desert. Mojave has nine proposals surrounding it in California. The Ivanpah Solar is moving rapidly through the permitting process. It lies on the bajada just east of Clark Mountain. They propose to clear nearly 9,000 acres for solar energy development, the majority of which is wet solar. They would heat water to produce steam by pointing mirrors at several 450 foot tall towers. Then they would burn natural gas at night to keep the water warm. We’ve learned recently that some of the projects are proposing new utility rights of way through the Preserve to connect with grid.

Why? How can these challenges be best addressed?
The public needs to speak up at the hearings for these projects. As a federal agency we can only do so much. We raise our concerns at every opportunity, but we are also thinking ahead to mitigation if the projects do get built. It is important for the public to learn the details about these proposals and know how these projects will affect the future of the Mojave Desert.

Looking forward, what are your goals and priorities for improving Mojave Preserve?
This could go on for a while! There are several areas that we have identified for the future. One obvious opportunity is the National Park Service Centennial Celebration in 2016. A major initiative is already underway to get the parks ready for this milestone event. 1Mojave has identified a number of proposals, and we will continue to refine our thinking in conversations with the public. One major initiative that needs to be supported is the relevancy of parks to future generations. This means connecting kids with parks and with the outdoors in general. We are working on this initiative with several of our sister parks. Restoration of disturbed lands and ensuring safe visits for the public at all of our abandoned mine lands is a priority for us, and for all the desert parks. Reducing our carbon footprint is a major priority for all of us. We will be looking for opportunities to implement meaningful actions that contribute to this goal. This is just one aspect of dealing with climate change. Protecting Mojave from invasive species rates high as well. Surprisingly, given the long grazing history, Mojave has few issues with the major weed species. After the Hackberry Fire I would have expected lots of exotics to invade the area, and that has not happened. It is important to guard against these invasives making inroads into the Preserve. I also think it is important that we get some wayside exhibits with short accessible trails at four or five key areas along the main paved roads through the Preserve. Providing opportunities for the public to experience areas like the lava beds and cinder cones, the diverse Mojave scrub vegetation in Granite Pass, and the Joshua Tree community on Cima Dome are important to helping people connect first hand with the resources and not just have a drive through experience. Finally, we are anxious to move forward with a tortoise headstart facility in Ivanpah Valley. This facility will help us and other land managers learn more about juvenile tortoise survival and to jumpstart the population recovery with reproductive age tortoises that have been protected from predation. Getting more juveniles to reproductive age in the population is critical to tortoise recovery.

What opportunities exist for the conservation community and the local community to support the efforts of Mojave Nnational Preserve?
Opportunities are almost endless. Obviously volunteers and donations are very important to our operation, and these tend to come from the local communities and members of conservation groups. Being an active voice for National Parks and being a participant in the public review of development proposals that are threatening to further fragment the desert. Teach the children to love the outdoors!

I would like to offer you the last word, is there anything you would like to impart to those reading this article?
Mojave National Preserve is a very special part of the Mojave Desert. Many people worked very hard to create the Preserve and it is up to all of us to ensure that future generations can enjoy this place as we do. Most of all, get out and enjoy the quiet, enjoy the dark night skies, enjoy the smells after a desert rain, and enjoy the vast open spaces and spectacular landscapes. This is your national park!

David Lamfrom is the Cal Desert Field Rep for NPCA’s Cal Desert Field Office. David is a relative newcomer to the Cal Desert and pursues his passions of conservation, wildlife photography, hiking, and herpetology throughout the Mojave.