March 12, 2009

Protector of the desert's wilderness

"What a beautiful day," environmentalist Elden Hughes, 77, says at the Sheephole Pass east of Twentynine Palms. Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

Desert protector and environmentalist Elden Hughes stood at the top of the remote Sheephole Pass east of Twentynine Palms and gestured toward a legacy that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Beyond a vast valley and bright-white Bristol Dry Lake, the jagged horizon was defined by the successive peaks of the Marble, Clipper and Providence mountains -- ranges preserved in the federal California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

Hughes, 77, a Sierra Club stalwart, fought for years to protect this land. The place still awes him.

"It's just glorious," he said. "You can see the bare bones of the earth sticking through, and it is huge."

It's a fascination that dates to his childhood in the late 1930s, when his mother, Ruby, took him camping in Palm Canyon near Palm Springs and to Death Valley.

Hughes now lives in Joshua Tree, but he grew up on a cattle ranch in Whittier and recalls a youth that included daylong horseback rides between his home and Huntington Beach. The route took him and his horse, Prince, through bean fields and pastures. He later watched urban sprawl slowly consume the hills and fields.

Wilderness offered solace. In the late 1940s, he drove on dirt roads to visit what is now Joshua Tree National Park. In his younger days, he was an avid river rafter, caver and camper.

In the 1970s, he was motivated toward activism after flying over the Mojave Desert and noticing large circular scars where vehicles had damaged the land.

"I thought, 'That has to stop,' " he said.

By the 1980s, as he pursued a career as a computer systems designer and salesman, he was chairman of Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee and working hard to preserve pristine public land between the Sierra Nevada range and Mexico. He and his cohorts identified 116 desert areas they wanted to protect.

In 1987, he and his wife, Patty, embarked on a two-year campaign to photograph, or have someone photograph, each of the areas. The effort produced a series of photo albums presented to decision-makers in Congress.

Republicans, concerned about creating new limits on grazing, mining and off-road recreation, opposed the preservation effort. Still, after years of hearings and debate, the California Desert Protection Act squeaked through Congress in the fall of 1994.

With the victory, Hughes wiped the sweat off his brow. He and his wife took five baby desert tortoises to the Oval Office when President Bill Clinton signed the bill that protects more than 6 million areas of California desert and created Mojave National Preserve and several wilderness areas in eastern San Bernardino County.

Of the 116 places documented in their photo books, about 10 weren't included in the legislation.

"We got most of it," he said.

Last week, as Hughes scanned the desert from Sheephole Pass, the thunder of artillery fire from the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center reminded him of a current concern: The military proposes to expand the center, possibly bringing live-ammunition training to land between the Sheephole Valley and Old Woman wilderness areas, both created in the 1994 legislation.

"Does the military really need to expand out there? Hell, no," he said. "Would they like to expand? Sure."

Instead of military training, Hughes said, he hopes to see most of the public land east of the combat center protected so wildlife would be forever free to move among the wilderness areas.

Appreciating the desert takes a certain mindset, Hughes said.

"You must get past the color green," said Hughes, quoting the late writer Wallace Stegner. "And you must get used to an inhuman scale."