December 5, 2011

Desert preservationist Hughes dies

Pioneering Inland-area environmentalist Elden Hughes outstretches his arms while saying, "What a beautiful day" in 2009. (FILE PHOTO)

David Danelski

Elden Hughes, dubbed by many the “John Muir of the desert” for his work to preserve wild lands, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

Mr. Hughes spent years exploring and documenting the wonders of the Mojave Desert and other pristine areas, convincing policy makers that such places should be preserved forever.

His work spurred passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. It was a key part of his work that earned the comparison with Muir, the naturalist whose work helped establish the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

“Elden Hughes dedicated his life to the protection and revival of our great Mojave Desert and its tortoises,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, in a prepared statement.

“I'll never forget when he brought a couple of tortoises to a large constituent breakfast and the amazed and glowing faces of youngsters when he told them they live for decades, “ added Feinstein, who sponsored the legislation.

“He was just a lover of life, smart and witty, and a great singer and guitar player,” said David Myer, a friend of Mr. Hughes and executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen. “He just had a zest for life that was even endearing for his opponents, and that zest was a great asset for his promoting the environment.”

Mr. Hughes’ wife Patty said Monday that Mr. Hughes had been battling prostate cancer and recently suffered from severe back pain. He died early Sunday at their home in Joshua Tree.

“I take joy in knowing that he is no longer suffering,” she said.

In a 2009 interview, Mr. Hughes took insisted on taking a reporter to the remote Sheephole Pass in the hills east of Twentynine Palms. He gestured in the gusting wind toward his 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 now preserved in the federal legislation he fought for.

“It's just glorious,” said the large man with a white beard wearing a red polo shirt. “You can see the bare bones of the earth sticking through, and it is huge.”

Appreciating the desert takes a certain mindset, Mr. Hughes said later that day.

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

Mr. Hughes was first moved by the desert in the late 1930s, when his mother, Ruby, took him camping in Palm Canyon near Palm Springs and to Death Valley, he said in 2009.

He grew up on a cattle ranch in Whittier and took horseback rides between his home and Huntington Beach and he saw urban sprawl slowly consume the hills and fields.

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.

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 lands.

In 1987, he and his wife embarked on one their most influential projects: a two-year campaign to have documented in photographs 116 desert areas they and their cohorts believed should be protected. The effort produced a series of photo albums presented to decision-makers in Congress.

After years of hearings and debate, the California Desert Protection Act, protecting more than 6 million areas of California desert, squeaked through Congress in the fall of 1994. He and his wife took five baby desert tortoises to the Oval Office when President Bill Clinton signed the bill.

In recent years, Mr. Hughes spoke up against placing a large-scale solar energy project on Mojave Desert lands providing habitat for the desert tortoise, an iconic species listed as threatened with extinction. There is just as much sunshine for such a project on played-out farms and other less pristine properties throughout the region, he argued.

Mr. Hughes is also survived by his sons, Mark, Paul, and Charles, and three grandchildren. A memorial service is pending.

Myer said Mr. Hughes had asked him to scatter his ashes on top of Navajo Mountain in Utah, a task that will involve traveling 50 miles via boat and 10 more miles on foot.