CIMA, Calif. - Like most of her neighbors, Irene Ausmus never wanted the East Mojave Desert to become a national preserve, let alone the national park that environmentalists first wanted. "We live out here because we don't want people bothering us," says the 64-year-old Cima postmistress and owner of a sparsely stocked general store where you can buy chocolate syrup, Spam or a radiator hose.
But after living inside the
Mojave National Preserve for the past two-and-a-half years, Ausmus
says she doesn't mind the Park Service being here anymore. "Time
will tell," she says, but for now she likes the new rangers and no
longer worries that the federal government will confiscate her
property. The only drawback has proved to be the tourists who get
angry at her for not providing public
"They're all looking for bathrooms and
there are no facilities," she says. "I have my own bathroom and
that's all I want to keep clean."
Ausmus should mention bathrooms. The lack of facilities, including
restrooms, was one of the first things I noticed during a trip to
the Mojave National Preserve last December.
Other than two campgrounds built by the Bureau
of Land Management, which used to oversee the area, the only
amenity for tourists is a half-doughnut-shaped visitors' center off
Interstate 15, at the base of the world's tallest thermometer in
Baker - a 130-foot-tall tower to match the area's highest recorded
temperature. There are no entrance booths to the preserve, no new
hotels and no shops hawking rubber tomahawks. So far, the Mojave
National Preserve seems completely unlike most national
One reason for this is politics. During
its first two years in existence, enemies of the preserve hacked at
it through its budget. It received only $600,000 in 1995 and
managed to beg, borrow and steal $800,000 from other parks the
following year, after California Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis nearly
succeeded in allocating the preserve just $1. Only in fiscal year
1997 did the preserve get adequate funding of $1.9 million. Mojave
National Preserve Superintendent Mary Martin says she now has 17
people on staff and more arriving, up from a low of six employees
in early 1996.
"In some ways, we're a couple of
years behind where we should be," says Elden Hughes of the Sierra
Club, an environmentalist who has fought steadily for a park in the
East Mojave. "People are coming and the place isn't ready."
But even when the East Mojave is ready, Dennis
Schramm, Park Service lead planner for the preserve, says it likely
won't look much different. He calls the Mojave "a park for the 21st
century," a primitive area with little development inside the
preserve's borders. The Park Service would like to renovate the
historic Kelso Train Depot inside the preserve as a visitors'
center, he says, but mostly it will rely on border towns along
Interstates 15 and 40 - the two highways that define this lonesome
triangle on the north and south - to provide food, gas and shelter
But the main reason the East
Mojave doesn't seem like a park is that it isn't a park. It's a
preserve, and it's making itself up as it goes along. Right now,
Park Service officials are in the midst of crafting its general
management plan, due out in December 1998. Schramm says his
planning team has three guides: the preserve's enabling
legislation, the Park Service's purpose and mandate and other laws
pertaining to national park units.
The result is
1.4 million acres of contradictions: Inside the preserve, rangers
lead nature walks, off-road enthusiasts drive on hundreds of miles
of dirt roads, and hunters shoot coyotes and rabbits. Ranchers run
cattle and miners extract rocks from the earth while trains whistle
through here as they have for nearly a century. Dozens of people
still live year-round on private land inside the preserve, yet
nearly half of this park unit is
That's the way Congress declared it.
The preserve was created as part of the California Desert
Protection Act of 1994, which also upgraded and expanded Death
Valley and Joshua Tree to national parks and created 69 new
wilderness areas on Bureau of Land Management
When President Bill Clinton signed the act
into law, environmentalists applauded it as the single largest
wilderness designation in the continental United States and the
only environmental legislation to survive Congress that year. But
those who conceived and promoted the preserve saw some painful
concessions. Due to lobbying from local landowners, bighorn sheep
hunters, the mining industry and ranchers, the act allows hunting,
grazing and mining to continue inside the
"We wanted a 1.5 million-acre national
park without hunting, grazing and mining," says Peter Burk, a high
school librarian who first conceived the idea of a national park in
the East Mojave 20 years ago during America's bicentennial. "What
we got was a 1.4 million-acre preserve. I just hate the C-word:
In recent months, Burk,
also president of the Citizens for Mojave National Park, has become
critical of the Park Service. He says the agency could be doing
more within the existing laws to curtail ranching in desert
habitat, to rid the area of non-native burros and to halt mining.
Instead, Burk feels that Park Service officials are bending over
backward to mollify preserve critics. "The Park Service is giving
the cowboys everything they want," he says.
particular, Burk is worried about the make-up of the 15-member
planning advisory committee appointed by Secretary of Interior
Bruce Babbitt. Burk says Babbitt loaded the committee with "wise
users." Some of the tougher issues the committee must tackle
include how much grazing and four-wheeling will be allowed in
threatened desert tortoise habitat, what to do about the burro
population that exploded under the BLM's management and whether to
open Zzyzx Mineral Springs to the public. Zzyzx, now a research
station for California State University, was once a health spa
owned and operated by "radio minister" Doc Springer.
Like many environmentalists, Burk would like to
see a new desert economy based on tourism, not resource extraction.
Most environmentalists hope the Mojave will someday become a
full-fledged park. Burk just wants it to happen sooner than
"Let's face it, the Mojave is an urban
desert," says Burk. "No one wants the ORVers, scam mining artists,
the cowboys or the ranchers tearing the desert up. My wife, Joyce,
and I adhere to the myth of the Garden of Eden, the idea that
pristine landscapes are more attractive to people than spoiled
ones. It's stronger than the myth of the frontier. We love our
national parks to death."
environmentalists are more patient. "I'd much prefer it to be a
park than a preserve, but I'm not in a hurry," says Hughes of the
Sierra Club. "I don't know if it will happen in my lifetime."
A lovely, bitter
Ecologically, the East Mojave marks the
convergence of three deserts - the Mojave with its Joshua trees,
the Sonoran with its teddy bear cholla cactus and the Great Basin
with its sagebrush. Within the preserve are alkaline lake beds,
jagged mountain ranges, the world's largest Joshua tree forest and
the Kelso sand dunes that boom when you walk on them. Some 800
plant species and 300 animal species are here, including at least
two threatened species - the Mojave tui chub, a native fish that
ekes out a living in brackish desert springs, and the desert
tortoise, indicator species for the Mojave desert.
The history of this land ranges from early
Indian habitation to the region's present-day ranches, mines and
occasional methamphetamine labs. Once described as the empty space
that keeps Las Vegas and Los Angeles from becoming one giant
metropolis, the Mojave has always been used and occupied more
intensively than one might think. Farmers homesteaded in Lanfair
Valley during a wet period between 1910 and 1920, and many moved to
the desert during the Great Depression, "figuring it was better to
eat jackrabbits and beans and scratch at the rocks than starve in
the cities," according to desert historian Dennis Casebier.
Independence and a frontier spirit still exist
among today's East Mojave residents. It helps explain why the
preserve was such a bitter pill.
But things are
better now and the rumors are less outrageous. (At first, residents
heard that the Park Service was going to fence the entire preserve
and charge private landowners $200 to get to their property.) It
may have helped that the Park Service went through such a difficult
time itself a year ago. Kirsten Talken, the preserve's chief
interpretative ranger, says Baker residents called her during the
three-week federal furlough to see if park employees had enough
food to eat. "When push comes to shove, people come together," she
Some former opponents have even become Park
Service allies. Rob Blair, a fourth-generation rancher who runs
cattle on 163,000 acres of public land inside the preserve, says
the Park Service has been an easier landlord than the BLM. Blair
says the Park Service approved a permit to reconstruct a water line
in three weeks; the same permit had been delayed for six years
under the BLM.
Another ally is Jerry Freeman, a
former mining prospector who now owns the town of Nipton, along
with its historic adobe hotel where silent-film star Clara Bow used
to stay. Freeman is glad the desert's old industries and the
"salt-of-the-earth" people who depend on them are protected under
the California Desert Protection Act, but he's also happy that
they'll be held to tougher rules under the Park Service.
"Some degree of regulation has to happen," says
Freeman. "This isn't the Wild West anymore. It's the 20th century,
and the Mojave could be permanently ruined very quickly."
Still, there are a number of residents here who
will probably never accept the preserve. Casebier, the desert
historian who has renovated a historic schoolhouse in Goffs and has
written four-wheel guide books for the region, is one. He is
particularly angry about the roads closed by wilderness
designations and sees park tourism as even more destructive than
the old resource economies.
"You're going to get
a different type of person coming out here, and more of them," says
Casebier. "You're going to get the type of person that uses parks.
I see wilderness areas in the desert as death traps. Something will
happen and they will tighten restrictions. Then the people who used
to come here will be driven away or they'll leave."
Even though park officials say tour buses are
unlikely to stop here anytime soon, Casebier is sure that will
change: "The Park Service is at the base of the world's largest
thermometer off one of the nation's busiest freeways. It's too easy
for them to scoop people off I-15."
statistics for March are already proving Casebier right: Dave
Paulissen of the Park Service says some 1,400 people camped in the
preserve's two campgrounds over the previous three weeks, most of
those during spring break.
"I don't see the gain
by creating the preserve," adds Casebier. "There was nothing being
Burk disagrees: "Without the
California Desert Protection Act, we wouldn't have had a revolution
in consciousness in the Mojave Desert." From his suburban home in
Barstow, Burk sweeps his hand to the east. "Those mountains would
have been leveled to make latex paint."
away from the desert, with the lights of Los Angeles approaching, I
thought about something Jerry Freeman said: "The desert is a
fragile place. The ecosystems are delicate but so are its culture
and people. It's something that has to be approached gently."
Out of choice and necessity, the National Park
Service seems to be following Freeman's advice.
Manning is assistant editor for HCN.