Shifting Sands in Desert Battle

Updated: Aug 27

Mojave's denizens refuse to concede defeat on park law

Carolyn Lochhead

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.