May 15, 2015

Old Woman Mountains get a touch of new

The landscape in the Old Woman Mountains Preserve in San Bernardino County. The Native American Land Conservancy recently completed a project to improve trails and other features in the preserve. (Native American Land Conservancy)

Skip Descant
The Desert Sun

Hikers and other visitors to the Old Woman Mountains in San Bernardino County can now set out on improved trails with more informational kiosks and other upgrades.

The Old Woman Mountains Preserve — 2,500 acres in the eastern Mojave Desert — has completed a first phase of improvements intended to better connect the ancient landscape to modern visitors and native populations.

"It's a stunning landscape. And these trails are designed to introduce it to a person walking. It's a very easy terrain, and tell them what you're looking at, why it's here, why it matters and how it was used by the ancient peoples," said Kurt Russo, executive director of the Native American Land Conservancy, which leads the project.

"Three of the great deserts of the West all coincide on our preserve," Russo explained, pointing out the Mojave, Great Basin and Colorado deserts come together in this tiny corner of the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness Area near the tiny town of Essex. "So some species you'll find in each of those, you will find on our preserve."

The Native American Land Conservancy was able to complete the project with a $376,000 grant from the California State Parks Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division grant program, and more than $100,000 from the Bureau of Land Management, which offered supplies and technical support. Environmental groups and private land-owners also participated in the project.

"It was a great collaboration," Russo said.

"We provided advice on the development of their grant proposal," said Mike Ahrens, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management office in Needles.

"Once the grant was awarded and received, we provided logistical and coordination support for project implementation," he explained via email. "We also provided some of the materials for the project from a cache of materials that we had set aside for these types of projects."

Planning for the project began in December 2013, with the final proposal submitted in May 2014.

"And then we got word that it was funded in July of 2014," said Russo, adding construction began in January of this year.

"And we finished all of the construction phase in about seven weeks, which was way ahead of schedule," Russo added.

One of the key goals of protecting and preserving these lands has to with education and research, but also passing on "the spirit of the place" to native and non-native visitors.

"These places are very important for passing on conceptual knowledge, not just for flora and fauna, but the spirit of the place," said Russo.

"I have witnessed transformative moments among the youth, who go out there with the elders and sing the folk songs that come from there. And they sing them there, to the children, at night under the stars … and it's a very moving experience," he added.

The Old Woman Mountains Preserve is a cultural and biological sanctuary that once served as the meeting place for multiple American Indian tribes. Rock art, dating back 600-800 years, can be found throughout the Old Woman Mountains. The area is also home to more than 30 species of migratory birds, a third of all the native plant communities in California, as well as endangered and protected animal species like the desert tortoise, Bighorn Sheep and the golden eagle.

The Native American Land Conservancy, based in Indio, is a 501c3 organization founded in 1998 that includes the participation of tribal communities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Troubled by the loss and desecration of sacred landscapes in traditional territories, the NALC was formed to acquire, preserve and protect these historic sites and landscapes. NALC has owned, and provided protective management for, the 2,560-acre Old Woman Mountains Preserve since 2002.

A ceremony and blessing, along with a tour of the preserve was held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 23, 2015.