May 26, 2011

The Old Spanish Trail, Explained

New Mexico to Southern California

Old Spanish Trail (in red). (National Park Service)

by Nathan Masters

Although Southern California today is a region teeming with millions, for much of its history it was a remote outpost of the vast Spanish Empire. Nearly 227 years passed between Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's first exploration of the California coast in 1542 and Gaspar de Portolá's establishment of the Presidio of San Diego in 1769. Then, for another sixty years, Southern California grew in relative isolation from the rest of Hispanic civilization. Finally, in 1829, an intrepid merchant opened a trade route—today known as the Old Spanish Trail—between Los Angeles and Santa Fe, creating Southern California's first overland link with the older Spanish settlements of New Mexico.

From June 2-5, historians, archivists, and representatives from government agencies and the Hispanic and Native American communities will gather in Pomona at the 2011 Old Spanish Trail Association annual conference to explore the history of the trail in California.

In the late nineteenth century, hundreds of miles of unforgiving terrain and harsh climate divided Southern California from New Mexico, but both stood to profit from a direct trade route. Alta California then formed, along with the province of New Mexico, the northern boundary of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The recently-colonized Spanish territory boasted fine natural harbors in San Francisco and San Diego. But with its location at the northern extreme of the Spanish Empire, and surrounded by inhospitable desert to the east and southeast, Southern California was effectively isolated from the political and cultural center of Mexico City to the south.

To the east, the older Spanish province of New Mexico, first settled in 1598, offered California integration with the burgeoning United States and the Mexican heartland via established overland trade routes. For Southern California's rancheros, New Mexico also represented an untapped market for the region's abundant supply of horses and mules. From the point of view of landlocked New Mexico, a trade route to Southern California represented not only a potential market for Santa Fe's serapes and other handmade goods, but also a connection to foreign markets via California's ports.

Almost as soon as the first Spanish settlements arose in California, efforts were made to bridge the chasm and link the two provinces. A team of Franciscan missionaries left Santa Fe for California in 1776, but made it only as far as Utah Lake, near the present-day city of Provo.

In 1826, American fur trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith blazed a trail from present-day Utah to the Mojave Desert. After a clash with hostile Mohave Indians, Smith met two Tongva guides who offered to take his expedition to Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles. The guides led Smith along the intermittent Mohave River and over the San Bernardino Mountains near the Cajon Pass. Smith's party arrived at the mission on November 27, where they were warmly received by the missionaries, as depicted in the scene below.

Three years later, Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo led the first successful caravan from Santa Fe to Southern California, combining Smith's route with portions of the Franciscans' 1776 path to Utah to open what would later be called the Old Spanish Trail. In doing so, Armijo had established an important link between California and New Mexico, now the northern flanks of the newly-independent Mexican Republic.

Elizabeth von Till Warren, a historian of the Old Spanish Trail, writes of the new route's effect:
News of the opening of trade with California resulted in immediate commerce between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. With a few exceptions, pack trains made annual treks between New Mexico and California, bringing woven Mexican products to California, which lacked sheep, and bartering them for horses and mules, scarce in New Mexico.
The trail carried mule-trains over the Cajon Pass, then west through Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, and El Monte, to the region's major settlements at Mission San Gabriel and Los Angeles. There the traders unloaded their goods, many of which were sold at the Los Angeles Plaza.

The increased commerce hid a dark and ugly side to the trail's establishment, according to von Till Warren:
Raids for Indian slaves became common, with victims sold at either end of the trail despite official condemnation of the practice. The traffic in human beings reverberated among the peoples who lived along the trail for many years longer than the caravans plied their trade.
The trail remained an important trade route for several years until, shortly after the American conquest of California, several competing routes comprised of wagon roads were opened. The Old Spanish Trail, which allowed only for pack animals, soon fell into disuse.

Today, monuments mark the trail's path through the Southland. In Upland, the Madonna of the Trail statue overlooks the route once taken by Santa Fe-bound traders. The monument, dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1929, was one of twelve placed along the National Old Trails Road, which stretched from New York City to Los Angeles. In the Cajon Pass, an obelisk-shaped monument, dedicated in 1917, commemorates the early pioneers who traveled between Southern California and points east.

The trail's historical significance was further recognized in 2002, when an act of Congress, passed unanimously by both houses and signed by President George W. Bush, designated the corridor as the Old Spanish National Historic Trail and placed the historic route under the supervision of the National Park Service.

May 18, 2011

Marines invade Johnson Valley

Big Bear Grizzly

Johnson Valley -- Off-road and outdoor enthusiasts are doing their best to prevent losing the largest open area in the country to the Marine Corps.

Johnson Valley is thousands of acres bordered by the San Bernardino Mountains, Lucerne Valley, Yucca Valley and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. The Marine Corps states that Twentynine Palms is the only location in the country with the potential to expand the land area to meet training requirements for marine expeditionary brigades.

What that means is taking over approximately 168,000 acres of open land now known as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area.

“I don’t like it,” says Quinn Thomas, owner of All J Jeep products in Big Bear Lake. The off-road enthusiast says there are serious safety concerns with the proposal as well as the significant loss of recreation land. “There aren’t many places left to go,” Thomas says.

May 26 is the end of the public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement. Thomas and other off-road and outdoor recreational enthusiasts are among the thousands who have submitted comments and urge others to do the same. Ray Pessa of Yucca Valley, who is a member of the Friends of Giant Rock, says the Marine Corps expansion will have a huge impact on the off-roading community. Friends of Giant Rock is an off-roading club in the high desert.

Alternative 6 is the preferred option by the Marine Corps. It leaves about 80,000 acres for recreational uses, according to information provided by the Marine Corps. About 44 percent of the land is available 10 months of the year.

The proposal calls for closing a majority of Johnson Valley permanently for use by the Marine Corps. Another section on the north side remains open while another parcel on the south corner will be used by the Marines about 48 days a year. The remainder of the time it will be available to the public.

That has Pessa and Thomas concerned. They question how the public knows there is nothing left behind from the live-fire exercises. They want guarantees no live ordinance is left before the public uses the area.

Additionally, there is no barrier between the public and Marine land, Pessa says. Fences are set up to protect wildlife, but not the public he says.

Pessa says he is also concerned that once an area is taken away, even though it’s promised to be a shared use, the public won’t get it back. He says off-road and other recreation activities will be crammed into a smaller area, which will lead to injuries and accidents.

More than 90 percent of the Marines that deploy to combat train in Twentynine Palms. Marines must train at a high state to be ready to respond to crises anywhere in the world. The expansion would provide space for a full scale exercise to be conducted twice a year for 24 continuous days during each cycle.

Pessa is torn. “I want them to have the best training they can get,” Pessa says of the Marine Corps. He would prefer the expansion went east instead of west as proposed.

Alternative 3 is preferred by off-road enthusiasts, which expands the base to the east, but was rejected in favor of Alternative 6. After several scoping meetings held in 2008-09, the Marine Corps responded by developing Alternative 6.

Comments on the Draft EIS are due by May 26. Comments can be made online at A copy of the EIS is available online, along with maps and other information on the proposal.

Pessa says Johnson Valley is the largest public land area still open to the public. It’s a true wilderness, where you can go get lost and experience the desert. “I hate to lose it,” Pessa says.

May 14, 2011

Government tramples on citizens as it seizes desert

The Press-Enterprise Opinion

For decades, the Sierra Club and environmental groups like it have successfully eliminated many uses they have perceived as inappropriate in the California desert by pushing for preservation in the halls of Congress. The advocacy and resulting congressional designations are arrogant and bad public policy.

Certainly, 50 years ago the desert needed new, science-based management to address burgeoning motorcycle use.

However, the cumulative effects of congressional designations, along with environmentalist-sponsored lawsuits and species listings under the Endangered Species Act, have decimated many desert uses, gutted the Bureau of Land Management's 1980 California Desert Conservation Area plan and make a mockery of congressional mandates that the bureau wisely manage public lands for an array of uses and protection of natural resources.

Users of public lands were unfairly and unnecessarily hurt, livestock grazing and mining being the worst hit, and the economic values lost are sorely missed in these tough economic times.

And, to top it off, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced her California Desert Protection Act earlier this year ("Desert protections sought," Jan. 26). This leads me to wonder: How much protection is enough?

Perspective is needed to better appreciate this question. I offer the following analysis, which reviews 80 years of desert use history.

For this purpose, the area of the desert is the 1976 congressionally-designated California Desert Conservation Area, 25 million acres in size.

It is essentially the entire California desert excluding the Owens Valley.

By 1930, 25 percent of the desert had become private land, mostly towns and farms in the Antelope, Apple, Coachella, Mojave River, Palo Verde and Imperial valleys. The remaining 75 percent, mostly federal public lands, was little used and essentially had no management or use restrictions.

The Bureau of Land Management's did not even exist then. It did not come into existence until 1946.

By 1976, 25 percent of the desert was still private and 25 percent was now restricted to military use or designated as state and national park lands. This left 50 percent remaining for limited public use.

When Congress established the California Desert Conservation Area, it directed the Bureau of Land Management to develop a management plan for this remaining 50 percent.

After an exhaustive effort involving the public, as well as local, state, and federal agencies and science groups, the Bureau of Land Management completed the 1980 California Desert Conservation Area plan, which placed this land into four management zones. These zones designated the degree to which the land could be used and the protections that would be required.

The most restrictive zone it designated as wilderness. Wilderness zones made development off-limits, and, with a few exceptions, basically limited use to foot traffic.

So out of the remaining 50 percent of land for public use, 2.1 million acres, or 8 percent, was set aside as wilderness. This left 42 percent for other uses.

The Bureau of Land Management began enacting its plan, though due to legal reasons, it had to get congressional backing for its designation of the wilderness zones.

But, believing the amount of proposed wilderness to be too small, and having disdain for science-based multiple-use management, environmental groups pushed for more restrictions, lobbying Congress to make more desert off-limits.

In 1994, Congress passed legislation, the California Desert Protection Act. In it, Congress drastically increased the amount of land in the wilderness-zone category.

When everything shook out, 25 percent was now designated as wilderness and 25 percent designated for other uses.

By 2007, the bureau was forced to make a set of amendments to the California Desert Conservation Area Plan due to expanded endangered-species listings and lawsuits.

Now, species-protection areas were placed within the remaining 25 percent still open to public use. These species-protection areas severely limited use, and, in essence, cut this remaining 25 percent in half to 12.5 percent.

Today, this 12.5 percent is under threat of further restrictions. The still-churning environmental groups are ironically not happy with recent solar and wind proposals for the desert and has urged more land be placed off-limits.

New Legislation

They are pinning their hopes on Feinstein's legislation, which would designate that 1 million more acres be named a national monument, 250,000 acres be placed in a wilderness zone and 74,000 acres be added to our state's national parks.

If this bill passes, the 12.5 percent of land open for limited public use would shrink to 10 percent.

As you can see, through the years, the bureau's original multiple-use management mandate in the desert has been emasculated by an environmental agenda and Congress, and yet the assault on our right to use our lands continues.

So, back to the introductory question: Will there ever be enough land preserved in the minds of environmental groups? Likely not.

As long as uses proposed are not to their liking, there will never be enough.

Richard Crowe, who is a resident of Beaumont, worked for the Bureau of Land Management for 33 years, 29 of them within the California Desert Conservation Area, dealing with a wide range of multiple-use management issues.

May 13, 2011

Water plan being developed for Mojave National Preserve

Restored game guzzler near Goffs, March 25, 2009. (Chris S. Ervin)
By KAREN JONAS, staff writer
Barstow Desert Dispatch

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE • The National Park Service is seeking public input for a plan to manage water sources in the Mojave National Preserve.

The plan will focus on what will be done about abandoned above-ground water sources — such as abandoned wells, former stock ponds, springs, previous development by ranchers, and artificial water sources for wildlife that are already in use, said Linda Slater, public information officer for the Mojave National Preserve. The proposed plan also includes water sources below ground.

Slater said that many of the ranchers who previously used the preserve are now gone and have left behind many of their abandoned water structures. The preserve needed to develop a comprehensive plan so it already has a game plan when it comes to water issues instead of resolving issues on a case-by-case basis.

The plan will most likely include at least four alternatives developed with the help of public comment — including taking no action on the water sources, said Slater.

The large water sources mainly affect bighorn sheep and mule deer, said Slater. The artificial water sources were mainly intended for bighorn sheep and are currently maintained by a bighorn sheep conservationist group, said Slater.

A study was started in 2008 to determine the effect on mule deer when water sources were opened for them, said Slater. Researchers would shut off water sources and turn them on again over periods of time. They fitted mule deer with radio tracking collars to determine their location when the water sources were either off or on. The study is still underway and Slater did not have preliminary results on Friday.

The plans to possibly open up more water sources to wildlife is complex and the preserve wants to make sure that it isn’t locked into anything that would lead to problems, said Slater. She said the scientist who is leading the study on the mule deer wants the plan to be flexible, so it can be adapted as more information is gathered on the complex relationship between water and wildlife.

It will most likely be months before the plan is put into place, said Slater. There will be a number of scoping meetings in nearby areas, including one in Barstow this June. Public comments on the plan will be accepted until July 11 and an environmental impact statement will be developed after the public comment period is over.

For more information on the plan, visit

May 6, 2011

Solar threat

Desert Tortoise Estimate Undercuts ESA Listing

Riverside Press-Enterprise

The discovery of far more desert tortoises than expected near a planned solar power plant in the Mojave Desert should prompt federal officials to rethink the project. And the incident should spur federal officials to require independent environmental studies before bulldozers roll on future solar projects.

Last week, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management assessment found the $2.1 billion BrightSource Energy Co. project near Primm, Nev., would disturb up to 3,000 tortoises and kill as many as 700 young ones. That far exceeds an estimate of 32 of the threatened species at the site -- a number derived from studies commissioned by the developer.

After biologists relocated 39 tortoises -- the maximum allowed -- BLM officials last month ordered BrightSource to stop work on two-thirds of the 5.6-square-mile site. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials will decide soon if completing the second and third phases of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System -- which would nearly double the amount of solar electricity produced in the country -- would jeopardize the species.

The clean energy generated by this project is no excuse for federal officials to allow shoddy surveys that underestimate the tortoise population. A developer rushing to qualify for hundreds of millions in federal "stimulus" funding is hardly an objective source about issues that could obstruct construction. Federal officials should have required an independent biological survey before grading and construction work began in October. And that approach should be standard for the numerous solar projects now proposed for desert land.

In this case, the sheer number of the animals that would be killed or disturbed by the solar plant justifies a significant downsizing -- eliminating one or both of the last two phases. Federal officials could have avoided such backtracking had they had the right information before BrightSource broke ground.

Wildlife officials are likely under political pressure to let the developer proceed with much of the project. But even a compromise such as relocating large numbers of the animals would be highly risky. In 2008, the U.S. Army suspended a tortoise relocation effort at Fort Irwin after about 90 of the 556 tortoises moved died, mostly killed by coyotes.

The Mojave Desert, with endless sunny days, is not a bad place for solar power plants. But federal officials need to do a better job of surveying the native wildlife before construction starts. Green projects should not, ironically, degrade the very environment they are meant to help sustain.

May 1, 2011

Bill to protect desert backed by once-fierce foes

Carolyn Lochhead,
San Francisco Chronicle Washington Bureau

Washington -- In 1994, a rookie lawmaker named Dianne Feinstein pushed through the largest national parks and wilderness bill ever - by a single vote on the last day before Republicans took control of Congress - protecting 8.5 million acres of the California desert against the wishes of many who lived there.

Seventeen years later, many of those who warned that the California Desert Protection Act would sacrifice their way of life to an environmentalist utopia have changed sides, becoming allies in Feinstein's quest to create one of the biggest environmental legacies in California history: a new bill to protect 1.165 million more acres ringing the national parks at Death Valley and Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.

"Is it going to pass tomorrow anywhere?" Feinstein said. "No. Am I going to cease and desist? NO!"

When it comes to the desert, "She's just intense," said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association. "She's persistent. She's very formidable."

With Republicans again in control of the House, Feinstein's former foes now count on her to protect their off-road vehicle playgrounds and block efforts to build giant solar plants in the desert.

"There has been a 180-degree turnabout in perception and attitude," said Gerald Freeman, owner of the Nipton Hotel near the Mojave Preserve. Freeman said tourism and a national park "prestige factor" has replaced the view that "environmentalists have stolen our land."

Huge ecosystem

For environmentalists, the three giant national parks of the California desert offer a rare last chance to save an intact ecosystem on nature's grand scale.

By creating buffers and filling in critical wildlife corridors, the California Desert Protection Act of 2011 would link the three parks with the desert ecosystem rather than land parcels in mind, said David Lamfrom, desert program manager for the National Parks and Conservation Association.

The Mojave is under pressure. Rivaling the Sahara in solar intensity and tantalizingly close to Los Angeles, the Mojave is prime territory for solar plants that can cover as much as 8 square miles. The Marine Corps wants to add 262 square miles to its base at Twentynine Palms (San Bernardino County). More than 8 million people visited the desert last year.

Just north of Baker (San Bernardino County), the Dumont Dunes on a single weekend can attract as many as 40,000 off-road enthusiasts, said Susan Sorrells of Shoshone (Inyo County), whose family has lived in the desert for four generations.

"Without this legislation we could lose the scenic and ecological landscapes that make the desert unique," said Paul Spitler, associate director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society. "This is a unique part of world - not just of California and the nation - but of the world."

Last month, third-ranking House Republican Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield fired a warning shot, introducing legislation to roll back millions of acres of wilderness designations, using the same arguments of 1994 that public lands should be open to multiple uses, including logging, grazing, mining and presumably renewable energy.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands (San Bernardino County), who fought the 1994 act and gave the Mojave Preserve $1 to operate in 1995, "has repeatedly expressed his concern about expanding government control and ownership of desert lands," his spokesman Jim Specht said.

But two Republicans whose districts would be directly affected - Reps. Howard "Buck" McKeon and Mary Bono Mack - while neutral on Feinstein's bill, teamed with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to set aside new California wilderness in 2009. Another Southern California Republican, Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), this year proposed his own wilderness bill.

A battle-scarred Feinstein has changed tactics since inheriting the original desert legislation from the late Democrat Alan Cranston. She and her allies have spent years laboriously building consensus among rival desert users, staving off the range-war atmosphere of 1994.

Feinstein would give off-road vehicle users their first-ever congressionally protected playgrounds. She has convinced the Marine Corps to share the land it wants with off-roaders for 10 months of the year.

Some of Feinstein's fiercest former local foes now revile the prospect of solar projects allowed on "multiple use" land.

"We ought to put this solar stuff on rooftops before we fill up the public lands in the desert with these god-awful utility-scale contraptions," said Chuck Bell, a vocal opponent of the original parks act and president of the Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association.

Ex-foes back Feinstein

Local GOP officials, who once protected strip mines, count on ecotourism to fill their tax coffers. Barstow, a San Bernardino County community that was once a hotbed of the anti-park insurgency, has endorsed Feinstein's bill along with more than 100 organizations and businesses, including city councils deep in GOP territory.

Joshua Tree "helps to fill hotels, it helps create transient occupancy taxes and it provides a real boost to the local economy," said San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry, a Republican.

Battle over solar sites

Feinstein's bill has staved off solar development in key parcels.

After filing applications to build on thousands of acres, solar companies have mostly withdrawn from the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, which would also protect an unblemished stretch of historic Route 66.

"It was devastating and difficult and obviously treacherous for the industry, and not the way you would hope to start a renaissance, but we're past it now," said Eddy of the Large-Scale Solar Association. "Any projects within the boundaries of her monument are considered too much of a risk right now to develop."

Wind developer Oak Creek Energy of Oakland last month pulled the plug on a five-year effort to build a wind farm in the Castle Mountain area that Feinstein wants to add to the Mojave Preserve.

"The primary reason was that we found this area was heavily desired by powerful interests," executive vice president Edward Duggan said in an e-mail.

Giant energy plan

The state and federal governments are trying to devise a giant plan to site solar plants, preferably on old farmland or other disturbed areas.

Eddy said that is easier said than done, and the state needs all the solar energy it can get - from roof tops to utility-scale facilities - to achieve its new 33 percent renewable fuel standard. Billions of dollars of investment are on the sidelines, waiting for regulatory certainty.

"If we delay too much, then there won't be an industry later," Eddy said. "We're really at that fragile point."

Applications by solar companies to develop property that was donated for conservation was the genesis for Feinstein's legislation. The Wildlands Conservancy had raised $45 million in private funds and taxpayers pitched in another $18 million to buy old railroad parcels and give them to the federal government. Feinstein drew the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument to protect those parcels.

Approach Senate first

She included a new Sand to Snow National Monument and painstakingly drew in new wilderness areas while releasing several wilderness study areas.

Feinstein's plan is to pass the bill in the Senate first, itself a giant task.

"There is huge support, and I think we have a unified community," she said. "If it passes the Senate, I believe the opportunity for the House increases dramatically, because I think people want it."

Her original 1994 act, "has been a terrific success," she said. "We have kept the desert desert for all time."