The Mojave National Preserve: 1.4 million acres of contradictions

  • Mojave National Preserve

    Diane Sylvain
  • Hikers on Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve

    Elden Hughes
  • No gas service at the Cima store

    Elizabeth Manning
  • Irene Ausmus

    Whip Manning

Note: this story accompanies another, similar feature story in this issue.

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 restrooms.

"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."

It's funny 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 parks.

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 for travelers.

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 wilderness.

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 land.

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 preserve.

"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: C-O-M-P-R-O-M-I-S-E."

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.

In 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 later.

"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."

Other 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 pill

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 says.

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."

Camping 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 lost anyway."

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."

Driving 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.

Elizabeth Manning is assistant editor for HCN.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A miner turns host

- This rancher wants to stay

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