This rancher wants to stay

  • Branding at the Blair ranch in the East Mojave

    Whip Manning
  A miner turns host

Jerry Freeman, owner of the tiny town of Nipton, population less than 50, is one of the few residents of the East Mojave poised to benefit from a tourist economy:

Jerry Freeman: "I first came out here in the 1950s to stake some claims when I was a geology student at UCLA. I worked for 20 years as president of my own mining company until the Canadians bought us out. That allowed me to buy Nipton in 1980. At that point I got out of mining and into tourism.

"I saw the impact of economics hitting this area decades ago. The railroads, mining and ranching - all three were fading. None are really making a living. It's a submarginal existence.

"I was pro equity for the miners and ranchers, but I was never opposed to the preserve. Early on, I had to keep that support to myself. A lot of people were afraid to say anything because of the way locals act. When Babbitt held a press conference to discuss the $1 budget, I was one of two locals willing to stand up with him. Nobody else would go.

"Right now, we have five rooms in the hotel. Eventually, I hope to develop a high-end camping and hotel resort for 100 to 200 guests, like Furnace Creek in Death Valley. I see Nipton as a great launchpad for excursions into the preserve. It would be great to get a passenger rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and to re-establish a stop in Nipton. I get excited about the future.

"My business is hosting visitation, so I'm trying to encourage tourism. We're delighted with anyone who wants to come visit the East Mojave. Other people who live or come here want to keep it a secret."


Although other ranchers in the preserve have said they might sell their land and grazing allotments to a land trust or foundation, Rob Blair says he won't. His family first settled here in 1913, and he hopes that one of his three children will someday take over the ranch.

Rob Blair: "I fought this thing as hard as I could. I even testified in Congress and went to Washington, D.C., twice. At first, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wanted a 20-year sunset clause to phase out grazing inside the preserve. Out in the hall I told reporters, "I can't live with this." Then Babbitt came out, and I asked him in front of the reporters, "How would you feel if I owned your house in 20 years?"

"Finally the Cattlemen's Association convinced Sen. Dianne Feinstein to come out here to meet the families who ranch here. She did and she fell in love with my wife, who rides alongside me. As we walked her down to the helicopter pad she told me, "You guys will stay here."

"I think we'll be able to stay until they change the Desert Protection Act. The bill says grazing will continue, but a lot will depend on the preserve's superintendent.

"After the bill passed, I said to myself, "You can't kick a dead horse. You can't change it, so you might as well work with it." I didn't lose. I may have lost the battle, but I didn't lose the war."