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Shifting Sands in Desert Battle

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

Mojave's denizens refuse to concede defeat on park law

March 25, 1996

Mojave National Preserve Photo: Carolyn Lochhead

1996-03-25 Newberry Springs Mojave Desert -- An old miner sat at the vacant counter of the Bagdad Cafe on Route 66, a dubious oasis in the Mojave Desert and such a living caricature that it once served as its own movie set.

A relic of roadside glory, the cafe now rests on the edge of the new 1.4 million-acre Mojave Preserve, considered the crown jewel of the California Desert Protection Act, the largest parks and wilderness designation ever in the continental United States.

But Paul Reeves, long retired from a clay mine and something of a relic himself, sees no jewel. "It isn't very popular with people out here," Reeves tells a visitor. "You can't pick up a rock out there anymore."

The desert act was a huge triumph for environmentalists and for California Senator Dianne Feinstein, passing by one vote on the last day of the Democrat-controlled Congress in 1994.

It took some 8.5 million acres of federal land, much of it managed for ranching, mining and largely unfettered recreation, and turned it into national parks and wilderness -- protecting it from further intrusion by humans.

But triumph turned to trouble after California Representative Jerry Lewis, a powerful Republican from the desert area, convinced the new GOP-controlled Congress last year to give the Park Service exactly $1 to run its new Mojave Preserve.

Now, locals who opposed the bill are fighting to overturn major parts of it. Moreover, everything indicates that this public policy quagmire is the prototype for the future as Congress begins to debate new wilderness designations on public lands in Utah and throughout the West.

With many in Congress fearful of igniting a no-win range war in their home states, millions of acres that both sides agree deserve the highest level of federal protection seem destined to languish for decades.

Abandoned stop on Route 66. The Mojave retains a degree of wildness and freedom seldom found in national parks, encompassing abandoned open mine shafts, stick corrals and rusting windmills. Ancient petroglyph sites lie in the open as they were left. And graves of Mojave Indian laborers lie next to the old railroad bed they dug by hand, marked only by a few crosses hidden in the brush and rocks. Photo: Carolyn Lochhead

Dirt roads go on and on with no human in sight; elsewhere, ranchers herd cattle on horseback as the sun sets in the valley. Then there is Rob Blair, a living picture of Old West authenticity, a fourth-generation Mojave rancher in a yellow cowboy shirt, bandanna and big, black dusty hat, spitting tobacco as he makes a saddle. He writes poems about his love for the land.

"We've been out here seems like since time began," Blair says. "And we're still here and still working."

Ranchers in the 74 new wilderness areas created by the desert bill say they are under siege by bureaucrats who have placed millions of acres under extreme restrictions, ordering them to repair wells on horseback, carrying the pipe on their saddles.

Campers say flak-jacketed park rangers have closed historic campsites and Jeep roads. Miners complain of harassment, even though the desert act promises to honor "valid existing rights."

"I can stand on my front porch and every direction I look, and every single mountain range I can see, now is wilderness," says Ron Schiller, a hunter whose High Desert Multiple-Use Coalition is leading the battle to reclaim the desert. "Everything you've done all your life is all of a sudden closed off. And I mean closed off."

Mojave Desert Photo: Carolyn Lochhead

Environmentalists and their allies, including many local businesses, want opponents to accept defeat gracefully and move on: They envision a Mojave that draws millions of "ecotourists" with the magic lure of a national park where there is sanctuary for desert tortoise, the wild plants crushed by cattle and hillsides blasted by strip mines.

They see a scenic natural wonderland for a 21st century that values nature over the primary industries of the 19th century. They despise miners, barely tolerate ranchers. They would just as soon the trailer-haulers, gun-toters and rock hounds disappear.

"The desert rats would like to think they own the desert. They don't. It's owned by the people of the United States," declares Gerald Freeman, a former miner who bought the tiny village of Nipton on the edge of the preserve and renovated its old railroad hotel. "The desert has a higher meaning beyond what these desert rats give it, who treat it as their personal stomping ground."

As a public policy matter, the fight is between multiple use, which promotes human uses of public land, and preservation, which views humans as an intrusion. Wilderness designations minimize human impact, permitting entry only by foot or on horseback. Park status, where recreation is managed tightly, is a close alternative.

The issue seems as irreconcilable as the battle over abortion -- and the great irony in this case is that both sides share a profound love for the land and want to preserve its beauty and character. But how to define that character, and how to save it, puts them at each others' throats.

One insists that multiple use rapes the public lands through rampant strip mining, cattle grazing and Jeep driving. The other argues that the National Park Service will turn the lands into a ranger-interpreted tourist museum and herd campers into shoulder-to- shoulder campsites.

Chuck Bell, a member of the Nature Conservancy and a fierce opponent of the desert act, warns that the Park Service will sterilize the Mojave.

Mojave National Preserve. Photo: Carolyn Lochhead

"This piece of ground is not just scenery or habitat," he insists. "It's the unstructured aspect of what happened here, the character that man added to it, that makes it such a fantastic place. It's not just a coyote, and not just a fox. It's the sense of exploration and discovery that you don't get in Yosemite."

The ultimate aim of preservationists, Bell warns, is to run off people like Rob Blair and tear down his corrals when he's gone. The mine shafts will be sealed, the Indian graves roped off, and the desert stripped of what makes it worth saving.

"Twenty-five years from now, if the Park Service has its way, it will be paying people to come in and do what Rob Blair does now," Bell says. "If you doubt that, go to Scotty's Castle in Death Valley" -- or to the Great Smokeys, where actors re-create hillbilly life after the real ones were driven from their homes.

The desert bill was enacted over the opposition of nearly every local public official. Their absence at President Clinton's signing of the act "screams about the injustice of this bill," says Jim Bagley, a city councilman in Twentynine Palms whose grandparents homesteaded near Joshua Tree.

Locals resent being outnumbered in the larger political process. "There weren't enough of us," Lois Clark, who runs the Baker Valley News, notes bitterly. "We didn't have enough money. We don't have anything to bribe in exchange for their votes, and that's the way politics works."

Many point to the death of more than 40 bighorn sheep as an example of preservationist zeal. Throughout the desert mountains, state and volunteer wildlife managers maintain "guzzlers," or artificial water holes, to help restore the native bighorn sheep, which have largely disappeared.

When Park Service officials took over the Mojave, they required an environmental assessment, with public comment, before granting permission to wildlife managers to enter the wilderness by helicopter for an ongoing radio- collaring operation. Permission was requested in May and ultimately was granted in late September.

Sometime over the summer, however, several sheep fell into a guzzler, drowned and rotted. Their bodies poisoned the water and killed more sheep, 44 at last count. They were discovered after their radio collars transmitted signals indicating they were dead. Bighorn partisans contend that earlier access might have averted the tragedy.

The Interior Department is investigating the matter. Environmentalists and park and administration officials, meanwhile, dismiss the complaints as a combination of nonsense, misunderstanding and fabrication.

The allegations are "absolute untruths" and a "charade," declares Elden Hughes, the Sierra Club's chief desert activist.

Nobby Riedy, desert lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, contends that most people "have accepted the Park Service and have moved on -- Jerry Lewis and his little crowd of spoilers are the only ones who don't want it."

Riedy acknowledges that people are being forced to adjust to the new law but that not being able to drive down washes or build campfires from creosote bush are trivial inconveniences.

"It's a very small sacrifice for what we want to protect," Riedy says. Opponents are "not looking far enough into the future. To protect for the future, we've got to make sacrifices now."

On every point of contention there appears to be a combination of truth and exaggeration on both sides.

From a public relations standpoint, the Park Service may have bungled its Mojave takeover. Instead of kid-glove treatment for a community raw in its defeat, the Park Service sent in "special events" rangers with body armor and shotguns, as if expecting some kind of mob resistance.

"This crew should have been hand-picked," Barstow Mayor Mal Wessel says. "And yet automatic rifles were displayed. That never should have happened."

Preserve Superintendent Mary Martin concedes there was "some confusion" at first, saying: "We did have a group we sent out there to start protecting the resource, and they may have had some different information because they were coming from different Park Service units."

Although ranching and mining can continue, the new law restricts them. That was its purpose -- and there is every indication that these restrictions will tighten with time. Environmentalists have begun pushing in that direction. Pointing to a cow watering hole in the Ivanpah Valley, Riedy notes with irony: "We call that the Sahel."

Estimates of road closures range from 2,000 to 2,500 miles out of 30,000 to 40,000, depending on how many Jeep tracks are called roads. Sierra Club's Hughes says 85 percent of the wilderness areas remain within three miles of a road.

"To a person who is unwilling to ever get out of their vehicle, then of course this went too far," Hughes says.

Most of the Mojave remains accessible by Jeep despite closure of some popular trails. Still, there are large stretches of desert in many of the more remote wilderness areas, particularly Death Valley, where road closures have impeded access. The terrain is demanding, even for the hardiest of hikers.

Barstow emergency room physician William Scott, a member of the Sierra Club and Desert Survivors, a backpacking and mountain- climbing group, says road closures in the Turtle Mountains have added a daylong hike across flatlands before reaching the mountains. Scott says "overzealous" park rangers ticketed his car last spring for "off-road travel" when he parked by the road because the Teutonia Peak trailhead lot was full.

But supporters of the legislation contend that it is the desert that is under siege, not local residents.

"The outside world is here," says Freeman. He points to the Nevada valley where three new golf courses are going in, and to Stateline, a pool of casino neon that sprouted from empty desert. At the same time, nearby Las Vegas continues to expand.

"The character of this area is changing, dramatically and fast," Freeman says. "The encroachment of these masses of humanity is irrevocably changing the character of this land."

The future of public lands, he adds, is as "riparian habitat for people who get whacked out in urban living."

In the end, the battle for California's desert boils down to a clash of values, with much passion and little hope of resolution. But it is the prototype for the coming congressional debate over roughly 25 million acres of potential new wilderness in southern Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and elsewhere -- all land with a long history of human use.

It's a conflict over "how American society perceives the relationship between human beings and nature," says Robert Nelson, a University of Maryland professor and former career policy analyst at the Interior Department.

It also promises to be a modern American version of a holy war.

"The Earth is a sacred precinct, designed by and for the purposes of the Creator," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt warned opponents in a recent speech. Its protection rests on "our commitment to honor the instructions of Genesis . . . We are living between the flood and the rainbow, between the threats to creation on the one side and God's covenant to protect life on the other."

But God's covenant remains open to interpretation. At a rally in Goffs, a tiny community bordering the Mojave, Lewis told his supporters: "We're in a fight for our lives in this battle. And I do not intend to walk away from this battleground."


The California Desert Protection Act was signed into law by President Clinton on Oct. 31, 1994, increasing federal protection on some 8.5 million acres throughout the California desert from Bishop to the Mexican border.


-- Expanded Death Valley and Joshua Tree and made them national parks. Death Valley is now the nation's largest national park.

-- Created the Mojave Preserve, transferring its 1.4 million acres from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service.

-- Designated 74 new wilderness areas. How it works:

-- Wilderness designations are the highest form of protection of federal land. Generally, entry is permitted only by foot or on horseback. Mechanical transport, including bicycles and hang gliders, is forbidden. Wheelchairs are permitted, but not accommodated. Pre-existing grazing and mining rights and access to private property are protected but must conform to wilderness management. Where there are conflicts, regulations state that wilderness use should prevail.

-- National parks are less strict than wilderness, but they also operate under a preservationist philosophy. Visitation is encouraged, but recreation is managed tightly and economic uses are discouraged. Preservationists see national park status as a close alternative to wilderness designation.

-- National preserves are hybrid designations that fall somewhere short of a park by permitting hunting and oil and gas exploration and extraction.

POSTSCRIPT: Less than two decades later, many of the foes who railed against the Desert Protection Act had joined its fiercest defenders. See:

--Carolyn Lochhead

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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