July 12, 2015

Lost in the Desert: Proposed Mojave Trails National Monument Remains In Limbo

Route 66, America's "Mother Road," runs through the heart of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, but is in dire need of maintenance. Getting funding to pay for fixing washed-out bridges along Route 66 is lacking. (San Bernardino County)

By Alfred Runte
National Parks Traveler

If California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, has her way, Congress will finally vote on a new national monument encompassing 965,000 acres in the Mojave Desert. Other preservation measures are also planned. Lying roughly between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, this particular monument would in effect round out the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

To be called Mojave Trails, its heart would be a 105-mile segment of former U.S. Route 66. Now a county highway west of Needles, California, the critical segment ends approaching Barstow. No two-lane, paved highway in America is more significant; after all, this is America’s Mother Road. Beginning in the 1920s, millions resettling to California followed it west, as have millions of tourists ever since.

This is to explain the problem with Senator Feinstein’s proposal.

These days, historic Route 66 (also called the National Trails Highway) is indeed little better than a “trail.” Ever since losing its federal status, it has received only minimal, sporadic repairs. Finally, a series of washouts early last September tore several key bridges apart. Whole sections of the road were further covered with mud and debris. Initially pegged at $1.5 million, the repairs were expected to take two months. The work then ground to a halt on the insistence that three of the bridges needed to be replaced. Consequently, that half of the road—essentially midway between Needles and Barstow—remains closed.

“You’re kidding,” I said to myself, hoping to drive the entire segment in mid-June. But there it was—an imposing barricade, allowing access just for local residents. “They’ll fine you $600 if they catch you going around the barricade,” one bystander warned me.

Still, I decided to take the risk. Typical of desert washouts, a bulldozer had carved a temporary bypass. So much for a deliberative environmental study, allegedly a primary reason for the delayed repairs.

I then asked for an opinion about the repairs from the attendant at Roy’s Motel and CafĂ©, a popular tourist spot down the road at Amboy.

“They just keep making excuses,” he replied. “You know what I think? They’ve decided to abandon the road entirely.”

Fortunately for Roy’s, it further straddles the north/south route linking Interstate 40 and Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. Business between both is always brisk. He meant the east/west highway—the public’s favorite—historic Route 66.

“Probably the county is broke and waiting for Senator Feinstein to come up with the money to make the repairs,” I said.

Indeed, when later I checked, the county’s website confirmed that it needs federal dollars, some of which allegedly have been obtained.

That would be San Bernardino County, the nation’s largest county by area, in which all of the new monument would lie. The problem is: Rebuilding the bridges has not even started yet; no one knows when the road will fully reopen.

“That’s nuts,” I thought. “Given the tourist dollars the highway generates, it should have been reopened as originally planned—two months tops.”

Meanwhile, tourists have no choice but to take Interstate 40. However, sightseeing on the Interstate is risky business, lest you be run down by a line of trucks. Either that or a truck will force you onto the shoulder while swinging out to pass a slower rig. Trucks do that in California—leapfrog into the left lane the moment you start to pass. On top of the trucks, California drivers have a bad habit of tailgating. I personally consider Interstate 40 a deathtrap and try avoiding it like the plague.

Besides, the scenery and history are on Route 66. It is also parallel to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, today’s successor to the legendary Santa Fe Railway that developed the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Trains now up to two miles in length zip across the desert floor at 65 mph plus. They’re as much fun to watch as the changing light patterns playing off the mountains near and far.

The point is that drivers are fascinated by both the scenery and the history, including hundreds of thousands of tourists from abroad. Germany appears to send the most. Certainly, the Germans I have met absolutely love the road, which is so unlike crowded Europe. Whole clubs have formed around antique cars and motorcycles meant to recreate American life in the 1960s. Club members fly to the United States after shipping their vehicles to some East or West Coast port. After reuniting with their precious cargo on the docks, everyone heads straight for historic Route 66.

Senator Feinstein is right. The desert landscape alone is of national park-caliber, and should have been included in the original California Desert Protection Act 21 years ago. However, the congressman representing the district was opposed. It was amazing that Congress preserved as much as it did. Equally amazing, the National Park Service gained control over Kelso Depot, the elegant wayside of the Union Pacific Railroad running through the Mojave National Preserve to the north.

Long before the depot’s restoration in 2006, my wife Christine and I were regular visitors, then to wonder whether the depot would survive—and how. Now we wonder the same about Route 66. The longer it remains closed the more the bureaucrats can say it is no longer needed. Tourists can take Interstate 40 and play bumper tag with the trucks.

San Bernardino County insists that is not the case. Rather history is partly to blame—along with those confounded environmental impact statements everyone these days is “forced” to write.

“These bridges are timber and were constructed in the 1930s,” notes Brendon Biggs, deputy director of public works.

Fine; we all get it. The replacement bridges should be historically and environmentally compatible. But how is that any excuse to delay fixing the road for months—and now possibly even years?

The county had to know washouts would happen at some point; serious thunderstorms occur every summer. Why couldn’t county officials have been ready to make a permanent repair—up to and including a historically compatible design—the minute a bridge washed out?

One suspects the answer to that—as with every government agency these days—is money. The funds needed went somewhere else. For that matter, not only is the county broke; the state and federal government are also broke. In the past, powerful U.S. senators got their way—and most certainly got their way on rebuilding roads. Now it would appear that everyone—including Senator Feinstein—is waiting for the monument to be approved.

But will it be approved? If not, she insists she will ask President Barack Obama to intervene using his executive powers under the Antiquities Act. That would work for the land, but what about the road? Tourists are still coming with or without the monument. Is this to be the new America—plead poverty and keep pointing fingers until our entire infrastructure just falls apart?

If the repairs seem expensive today, how does Senator Feinstein expect to afford them later? Perhaps hoping to bypass the Park Service’s alleged $11.5 billion backlog, Mojave Trails would go to BLM. In that case, it is likely Route 66 would stay with San Bernardino County, and what is more, add to the confusion of what is the difference between a national park and a national monument.

Why indeed BLM, when immediately north and south of Mojave Trails the land manager is the NPS? Well do I remember this. BLM did absolutely nothing to protect and/or restore Kelso Depot. Only when the Park Service acquired the station was it meticulously studied and ultimately saved. Will BLM protect Route 66? If there is even a shred of doubt, I say the Park Service should have Mojave Trails—or at least that portion of the national monument requiring preservation of the highway.

Meanwhile, the road is still split in two. If this were Germany or Switzerland, I kept telling myself last month, it would have been up and running within a week. But then, Europe makes no excuses when its roads (and railroads) go down. There (sans Greece, perhaps), people still expect discipline from government. Only America makes the frivolous argument that the “environment” stands in the way (forget the bulldozers carving bypasses), when what really stands in the way is a bureaucracy eating up all the funds with “studies” and “consultants.”

Senator Feinstein needs to clear the air. Although her monument is a worthy project, the ifs here are doubly worrisome. If the Park Service cannot afford it, how is it any different at BLM? If BLM is not committed to historic preservation, how will that ever change in this monument? Especially here, access to the monument is everything. Route 66 needs to be a priority, not just an afterthought. Along with side roads and other historical alignments, its renovation is long overdue.

San Bernardino County admits it can never do that without a significant infusion of federal funds. Why not just give those funds to the Park Service and be done with it? Probably San Bernardino County would stand up and cheer. Yes, you take care of the road.

As for BLM, they don’t do parks very well. One day, the nation will have to decide. If indeed a national monument is actually a national park in waiting, why wait to have it managed by the NPS?

All I know is that I wanted to drive the road last month, and no one seemed to be in charge. You fix the road. No, you fix it. But yes, perhaps we should do another study. Does that sound like the country we grew up in?

Rather, when I was in high school and college, Californians were proud to say that as we go, so goes the nation. In that case, Route 66 is an even bigger wakeup call. When every level of government fails a public treasure like the Mother Road, it is reasonable, however painful, to admit that the nation is finally out of gas.