The last weird place

Can rangers and desert rats coexist in Death Valley?

  • Death Valley National Park

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • VAST VALLEY: Mesquite Flats sand dunes, Death Valley Nat'l Park

    Jack Dykinga photo
  • Rocks at the Racetrack believed to be moved by wind - Russ Finley/Finle

    oliday Film
  • At Teakettle Junction, visitors leave signs of their passage

    Dustin Haines photo
  • MOONSCAPE: Ubehebe Crater - Russ Finley/Finle

    oliday Film photo
  • NIGHTLIFE: The main street of Darwin, California

    Michelle Nijhuis photo

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - A place called Marble Bath sounds inviting, especially in one of the hottest and driest places in North America. The name and the blue spot marked on the map conjure up images of cool, pleasant springs, but at the right bend in the trail, there's nothing to be seen.

Be patient. If you search the creosote flats, getting thirstier by the minute and wondering how long it would take for someone to find you here, you'll stumble across Marble Bath. It's a claw-footed bathtub, lugged out here by God knows who and filled to the brim. With marbles.

Death Valley National Park is one of the weirdest places on earth.

At Teakettle Junction in the Racetrack Valley, travelers leave teakettles hanging like Christmas ornaments from the signpost. At a hot springs in a remote corner of the park, an annual clothing-optional baseball game is the wildest event of the season - unless you count the arguments among the bathers at the springs, who bicker like crowds of high school sophomores. There's a self-proclaimed mayor of Badwater, who presides over an empty salt flat 282 feet below sea level, in the shadow of an 11,000-foot peak. More than a few park visitors, in fits of contrariness, come here only during the summer, when temperatures can get close to 130 degrees.

Right in the middle of all this are the clean-cut Park Service rangers. Take Mark Thompson, who's spent nearly all his life in the West's national parks, thanks to his father's work as a park ranger. During the day, he often listens to recordings of birdcalls on his truck's stereo. When he spots a wren's nest in a creosote bush on the side of the road, he pulls over and jumps out to inspect it. He's red-haired, soft-spoken, and as he climbs into his Humvee in his Park Service uniform, it's hard to imagine him keeping tabs on a bunch of naked desert lovers. A ranger in Death Valley, though, has to be prepared for anything - and Thompson's M-16 rifle and his bulletproof vest show that he's ready for a lot more than just harmless oddballs.

Lately, the complexities of rangering in Death Valley have piled up. Five years after a massive park expansion, 12 patrol rangers must look after an area larger than Connecticut, in a part of the Mojave Desert that's never been formally surveyed. Almost all of the park is now a wilderness area, making rangers responsible for closing down roads and ensuring that visitors don't violate the federal Wilderness Act. Rangers also have to look out for their own safety, since the desert has been known to harbor violent criminals.

Challenges have been political as well as practical. Although environmental groups push for tough enforcement of the new regulations, many locals and some longtime visitors like anarchy, and they cherish their freewheeling refuge from the world. Patrol rangers find themselves trying to balance these concerns while they act as cops, naturalists and tour guides - all in the same day.

Keeping the wilderness wild has become a staggering responsibility, especially since the Park Service lacks the resources to do the job properly. It might get worse: As more recent campaigns to turn the West's lonely deserts into ever-bigger national parks gain momentum, rangers may soon be scrambling to manage even larger territories. After five years of experience in this expanded park, Death Valley's rangers have plenty of stories about life after the victory party.

A daunting triumph

On Halloween 1994, the California Desert Protection Act was signed into law, and spirits were high at park headquarters.

The new law gave Death Valley status as a national park, expanded its size from 2.1 million acres to 3.3 million acres, and designated 95 percent of the park as federal wilderness. There was a party for park staffers at the Furnace Creek Resort's swimming pool near the visitor center, and then-superintendent Ed Rothfuss handed out "Death Valley National Park" baseball caps to celebrate the park's promotion from monument status.

Around the country, many environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief. They'd participated in a Bureau of Land Management effort to designate wilderness in the Mojave Desert in the early 1980s, but they were disappointed when the agency recommended 2.2 million acres of wilderness in southeastern California - not the 5 million acres environmental groups had pushed for. And in 1982, the BLM allowed a popular motorcycle race to blast through the desert between Barstow, Calif., and Las Vegas. The event was the last straw for the agency's allies in the environmental community.

"Suddenly, there were 200-mile motorcycle races in the desert, a swath ripping the skin off the earth, and the BLM was not giving us any comfort or confidence," says Mike Prather, a schoolteacher, Sierra Club activist, and 20-year resident of nearby Lone Pine, Calif. "It was getting worse. And when you can't get agencies or government to meet your needs, you seek a legislative solution."

They got one. Sierra Club members had to survey over a million acres of Mojave Desert for wilderness characteristics, wait for the Clinton administration to enter the White House, and push for the election of two Democratic senators in California, but the Desert Protection Act finally made it though Congress.

The bill's passage ended an uncertain period at the monument. Although the Park Service had been consulted when the act was first introduced to the Senate 13 years ago, the details were left mostly to environmental groups, especially the California chapters of the Sierra Club. Monument staffers were sometimes in the dark about the act's status.

"There were a couple of days when we weren't even sure how to answer the phone, whether to say "National Monument" or "National Park'," remembers Dick Anderson, an environmental specialist at the park. "There were at least a few hours in there when we just said "Park Service." "

The staff needed to make the new park more than just a promise on paper. To satisfy the federal Wilderness Act, roads needed to be closed and boundaries posted. Car campgrounds had to be restricted to within 50 feet of the centerline of dirt roads, instead of being scattered throughout the park on small spur tracks, and Death Valley's more than 1 million annual visitors needed to be told of the changes. To make things even more complicated, the pile of blueprints marked with boundary lines that arrived from Congress were only estimates.

"Although it was pretty easy to get a general idea of where the park was, we didn't have real good detail," says Anderson. "We couldn't get it down to a post or a fenceline, only to a few hundred yards."

Environmental groups that had backed the Desert Protection Act were eager to get its provisions in place quickly, but it was a nearly impossible task for the Park Service. "When I came on after the act passed, I told the staff that our jobs were going to grow by 50 percent or more here," says Dick Martin, who has been the park superintendent since 1995.

"It was our job to absorb those million acres with the same size staff, and to evolve a formal wilderness management system at the same time. Of course, some of that evolution is still occurring."

The lawnchair patrol

Deadman Pass, the Last Chance Range, Dry Bone Canyon, Devil's Hole; the place names in Death Valley are a constant reminder that early Anglo explorers wanted to forget this place as soon as they could. Only the members of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, some of whom still live within the park, knew how to survive in such an inhospitable place. But cars have made it possible for more people to enjoy the Mojave Desert's strange beauty, and drivers have created a spaghetti plate of roads in and around the park. Closing these roads, and keeping them closed, is still a large part of the patrol rangers' jobs.

"It's hard work," says Jon Peterson, who patrols about 275,000 acres on the western edge of the park. "You've got to dig trenches and move big rocks. There has to be no question that the road is closed."

After the park's expansion, each ranger's patrol area grew by about 100,000 acres. While the park still contains about 600 miles of dirt roads, the rangers were responsible for closing 100 miles of roads and innumerable small offshoots within the new wilderness boundaries. It's not as easy as putting up a gate. Peterson sometimes uses flexible signposts to mark closed roads, but these are often vandalized or stolen. So he usually ends up blocking the roads with rocks, and then rolling the rocks back in place when they are moved by industrious drivers.

"We've counted at least 125 roads that penetrate into the wilderness boundary, and we probably haven't found them all yet," says Martin.

It's not only roads that the rangers have to worry about. Peterson proudly shows off a picture of an airstrip that he closed down last year; to get the point across, he spent days constructing three huge white X's made of rocks, large enough to be visible from the air.

Even if the road closures didn't take so much time, it would be hard for the rangers to keep an eye on their entire territory. "Death Valley rangers always keep a lawnchair in the back of their trucks," Mark Thompson says, explaining that it's not just for lunch breaks. Because their patrol areas are so huge, rangers spend a lot of time sitting on rocky hilltops, peering through binoculars at people and cars that are often miles away.

Some places still fall by the wayside. Thompson points out a side road in a dry wash, now closed, and says it's the site of some well-known petroglyphs. He used to drive down there once a week or so to check on them, but now says he can only hike down the road once a month. There are plenty of places like this, and the rangers know that when rock art is vandalized, cars are broken into, or dirt bikes buzz across wilderness boundaries, it's not likely that a ranger will be watching.

"We just can't manage the park with this lack of personnel," says a park staffer who asks not to be identified. "You can get away with a lot of stuff out here."

The demands of the job may also keep the rangers from learning about the resources they're protecting. Peterson, Thompson and others, including chief ranger Scot McElveen, say this is the knowledge that distinguishes rangers from city cops, and they fear it's disappearing.

"If you are constantly responding to a report of something, doing paperwork and then responding to something else, you don't have time to understand the relationship between creosote bushes and ravens or whatever it is you're supposed to be understanding," says McElveen. "I don't think that 12 rangers for 3.3 million acres is allowing that to happen."

Watching their backs

The sparse ranger staff may be dangerous for the resource; it may also be dangerous for the rangers themselves. When I ask Dick Martin about crime in the park, he says, "There's not so much crime here in a numbers sense, but ..." He pauses and leans back in his chair. "Every so often we get something pretty strange happening out here."

Death Valley does attract the eccentric, and sometimes more than the eccentric. The Panamint Valley, just to the west of Death Valley and also part of the park, is still remembered as the hideout of the Manson Family in the 1960s.

Illegal airstrips used by drug smugglers are still scattered throughout the area, and outlaw rave parties take place on the Bureau of Land Management land surrounding Death Valley.

A large-scale methamphetamine lab was discovered by a ranger in one of the park's canyons a few years ago; although the operation was shut down, the situation was considered so dangerous that the ranger now works in another part of the country under an assumed name.

Rangers also keep an eye out for "scrappers," shady characters who steal scrap metal from the Fort Irwin Army Training Center to the south and smuggle it back to Los Angeles through the park. "I'd hate for a visitor to run into one of those guys," says Thompson.

These stories help to explain the Humvee, the rifles, and that bulletproof vest Thompson uses in the field. The larger park has made it even more likely that a solo ranger will encounter a risky situation.

"It's more dangerous for them now. There's more drugs, there's more people with guns," says Mike Prather. "They have to protect themselves. They have to act in a warm fuzzy way, but they also have to think about how to protect themselves."

But some think the rangers are far from warm and fuzzy, and say concerns about personal safety are no excuse for bad behavior. Words like "aggressive" and "militaristic" pop up in more than one conversation with locals about the Park Service. Several tell firsthand stories of run-ins with zealous rangers.

"These guys are just cowboys," says Bud Feldkamp, a dentist in Redlands, Calif., who grew up within the boundaries of the present Death Valley National Park. He says ranger Dave Brenner stopped him and his family in a remote region of the park and ticketed each of the seven members of the group for violation of an unmarked wilderness boundary, delaying them for about an hour. When Feldkamp protested, he says, the situation escalated to the point that Brenner pulled out a tape recorder and motioned toward his can of Mace.

"Stories (about crime) are often used to enhance the rangers' image and their role," says Jim Macey, a resident of nearby Keeler, Calif., and a longtime visitor to the park. "I'm not going to say that some serious things don't occur once in a while, but if you look at it with a larger view, you're mostly dealing with a public who likes to get out and camp in the wild lands. What's happening to our society if rangers look at each visitor as a death threat?"

Individual park rangers don't normally defend themselves against complaints in public, and Brenner could not be reached for comment. But these stories don't surprise chief ranger McElveen.

"Because some people don't like the law, they're going to be painting rangers as bad people," he says. "Out of a million visitors a year, we get maybe two complaints. Just because 95 percent of the park is wilderness, they're going to portray my staff as bad for enforcing the law."

The rangers have a lot more to think about than their own safety. Some people have already staked emotional claims to those million unknown, unsurveyed acres recently added to the park, and they say the Park Service is changing the way they enjoy their favorite places. As the rangers watch their backs, they're also navigating a culture clash between federal regulation and the do-it-yourself spirit of the desert.

Separating the rats from the mice

Let's just call him Bob, since that's a common nickname at these desert hot springs we're gathered around. His wife left him for a smooth-typing fellow she'd met on the Internet, and life wasn't looking so good. He and another recently divorced buddy loaded up their car with camping gear and got the heck out of their northern Utah town.

They'd heard about a place in Death Valley National Park where they could get away from it all for a while, and after bumping down miles of dusty, washboarded gravel road to an unmarked turnoff, they arrived at a jumble of tents and trailers, a little grove of transplanted palm trees surrounding a hot spring, and a sign reading "CLOTHING OPTIONAL USE AREA." Perfect! they thought. A few days after their arrival, they were both luxuriating in steaming pools of water and wearing nothing but multicolored toenail polish.

Death Valley, and places like the hot springs that are now part of the park, represent an escape from reality for many visitors. While the stark scenery and overwhelming silence here are frightening for some, others turn into desert fanatics. They return again and again, looking for a dose of the desert and the sense of freedom that goes with it.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about this place, no matter where I am," says Robert Kramer, a longtime visitor to the springs.

In late March, it's easy to understand the attraction. It's a balmy 80 degrees at the visitor center in Furnace Creek. The sky is bright blue and endless, and the few clouds cast rippling shadows on the Funeral Mountains to the east. In the northwest section of the park, the sloping alluvial fans are studded with Joshua trees, and the salt flats on the valley floor are almost blinding in the clear sunlight.

Wildlife is scarce, but desert tortoises can occasionally be spotted here, and the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish hangs on in a single waterhole on the east side of the park. Raven calls echo against the rocks, and in the evenings, kangaroo rats dart across the road.

In the summer, however, the scenery might look more menacing. On a July day in Death Valley, a person needs nine quarts of water just to stay alive in the shade.

"Of all the deathly places, the most deadly - and the most beautiful," Edward Abbey once wrote of Death Valley. "Here, they separate the desert rats from the mice."

Nanny is watching

A few of these desert rats have ended up in Darwin, Calif., five miles outside the new western boundary of the park. Here, there are 51 post office boxes, three underground houses, and one business - Suspension Eyewear, a family operation that makes unslippable eyeglasses for bicyclists, runners and (so far) 61 NASA astronauts. There's no gas station, and no sign of life on the dusty main street.

"The first time people come here, they drive down to the intersection and don't see anybody or anything, and they turn around and leave," says Kathy Goss. "That's exactly what I did."

But Goss kept visiting Darwin, and the hot springs up the road, for close to a decade, and she became a permanent resident here two years ago. Like most Darwinites, she calls herself an environmentalist, but she's not sure she likes what's happening to her own backyard. In a place where reliable springs are few and far between, it's often impossible to get far on foot, and the road closures in wilderness areas have put some places entirely off limits to backpackers. Goss and others say the restrictions make them feel excluded from the park.

"Before the park was expanded, people who knew how to use the backcountry were trusted to do it," she says. "Now there's much more of an attitude that nanny-is-watching. The people who use the backcountry are the people who protect it, the people who educate others about it."

"I'm really glad to see the expansion," says Susan Sorrells, a landowner on the east side of the park. Her grandfather, state Sen. Charles Brown, helped establish the original Death Valley National Monument in 1933. "But closing the Wingate Wash Road (a four-wheel drive road) has closed off miles and miles of park area. To relegate everybody to the tarmac is just horribly short-sighted."

Jim Macey discovered the charms of Death Valley more than 20 years ago, and he now lives at the edge of Keeler, Calif., in a small compound of buildings.

"I don't think anyone, not even the Sierra Club, envisioned the degree of regulation and enforcement that we're seeing," he says. "It makes you not want to spend any time in the park."

Macey's place, filled with memorabilia from cowboy poetry gatherings and Death Valley explorations, is a crash pad for many of the geologists who frequent the area. This morning, he's grousing good-naturedly about the mess a group of college students has left in its wake, but he turns serious when he speaks of Death Valley.

Since the campground and road closures brought about by the Desert Protection Act, he says, visitors can't get away from each other the way they used to. "To leave people alone and let them have that special relationship with nature should be a main goal of the park," he says. "That emptiness, that spiritual quality, is one of the most important qualities of the resource."

Some of the geologists who do their research in Death Valley share Macey's views, though for more practical reasons. "The road closures make it much more difficult to conduct fieldwork," says Terry Pavlis, a professor of geology at the University of New Orleans. "There's been an incredible development of hostility toward researchers by law enforcement and resource management staff."

Brian Wernicke, a geology professor at the California Institute of Technology, sent an e-mail questionnaire to his colleagues last year, inviting them to tell him about their experiences with Death Valley park staffers since the expansion. He's received over 20 detailed responses, most of them saying that research permits have been more difficult to obtain and study sites have been harder to get to.

The Sierra Club's Prather says the new limitations are worth it, however. "There's tons of roads, there's tons of places to camp," he says. "I hate to be hard-nosed, but I think times change.

"It's an interesting kind of people who live out here on the edges," he continues. "They moved here because they wanted real isolation, freedom from virtually everything - the government, bosses, even neighbors. They're just fiercely independent, and they don't really get along with anybody."

Park staffer Dick Anderson is even more direct. "We're not here to make the locals happy, we're here to protect the park for the rest of the nation," he says. "I wish people would get that."

No more gentle and slow

While the rangers are under pressure from park visitors who don't like their attitudes or their rules, they're also being prodded by environmental groups who want them to speed up their enforcement of the California Desert Protection Act.

"We've intentionally had a gentle transition period from the (Bureau of Land Management) to Park Service on the new lands so that we don't ruffle any feathers," says Anderson. "But (environmental groups) don't want gentle and slow. They want the law enforced as it's written."

Environmentalists have mixed reviews of the Park Service's performance in Death Valley. "On the ground, they were very slow at marking the park boundaries," says George Barnes, a Sierra Club activist from Palo Alto, Calif., who was largely responsible for drawing the boundaries of the expanded park. "Some of the (closed) routes are very timidly marked. They're marked if you stop to read the sign, but there's nothing to impede traffic."

In spite of criticisms like these, efforts to safeguard the empty places of the West with new federal protections are on the rise. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, managed by the BLM, is nearing its third anniversary (see story page 10). Last December, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt proposed the establishment of a 400,000-acre, BLM-managed Shivwits National Monument in the remote Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon (HCN, 12/21/98), and Interior staffers say there may be more proposals on the way. Activists are also organizing behind new federal designations; early this year, a group of environmentalists published a proposal for a 3.2 million acre Sonoran Desert National Park in southern Arizona, near the Mexican border (HCN, 3/29/99).

While the Utah monument was a direct response to a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau, the Arizona Strip and the lands within the proposed Sonoran Desert park are not places beset with development or extractive industry. Like Death Valley, most people have avoided them for centuries for good reasons: they're hot, dry and lonely. As solitude becomes scarcer in the West, however, many think park and wilderness designation may be the best way to protect the silence of these landscapes from a growing human population.

"In California we have 31 million people, and we're projected to have between 40 and 60 million people by the year 2020," says Prather. "People are going to come, and the question is how can we protect the resource. To me, wilderness is the way it goes."

A sort of sledgehammer

Writes author Charles Bowden in the citizens' proposal for the Sonoran Desert National Park, "What would change is this: the heart of the Sonoran Desert would be preserved and the responsibility for this preservation would fall into dedicated and able hands."

But the "dedicated and able" agencies who try to make this preservation happen don't get much help from Congress (see story at left). New regulations may sound impressive, but they don't mean much without enforcement, and the Park Service's scarce resources make enforcement in Death Valley a difficult task. And since the park staff is stretched too thin to use its authority thoughtfully, say critics, increased federal protection becomes a sort of sledgehammer. It may be effective in a broad sense, but it's awfully blunt, and it's alienating some of the most outspoken allies of places like Death Valley.

Solving some of the controversies in Death Valley might not be difficult - if the Park Service had the flexibility, and the cash, to do the job right. The agency says many of the locals' concerns about access in the park might be satisfied by reopening a couple of campgrounds and changing a few minor regulations, but it's not clear if the park has the authority from Congress to do so. Staffers also don't have time to negotiate with dissatisfied visitors over the loss of favorite camping spots, especially when other park visitors are anxious to see the new regulations enforced.

In places like the Arizona Strip and the undeveloped regions of the Sonoran Desert, the proposals for new federal designations are not emergency measures. There's time to sharpen the tools of preservation, and make sure they are well-designed and well-funded. With foresight, these new measures could go all the way to the ground with a maximum of public support, and help to save the elusive qualities of these landscapes that park designation and wilderness status are meant to protect.

Still, controversy may be unavoidable. At the hot springs, a list of rules is posted at the entrance to the palm tree oasis, and ranger Jon Peterson shows up in uniform to check in at the hot springs every few days, squatting beside one of the hot pools and chatting with the mostly naked visitors.

"The 30-day camping limit per year is enforced," the list reads. "No discharge of firearms allowed. Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times. Stay tuned; there's more to follow." This grudging concession to the Park Service was written by the reclusive Lee Greenwald, otherwise known as "Lizard Lee," who's been the volunteer camp host at the springs for three years.

"This was the last low-elevation desert valley that was free, and that's all changed now," he says, choosing his words carefully. "The Park Service is into preservation, and to preserve you have to restrict."

"It's real typical of a new park," Peterson says of the ongoing debate. "I've been around new parks for most of my career, and in my view it takes a couple of generations for things to change." He looks around at the hot springs encampment, with its shantytown of dusty trailers around a bright green patch of grass, and nods. "It takes years and years and years."

Michelle Nijhuis reports for High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Bureau of livestock, mining ... and parks?

- So much land, so little money

... plus, several more sidebars in which people share their views in their own words, available in the "Sidebar" section of this online issue.

You can contact ...
* Death Valley National Park, 760/786-2331;
* National Parks and Conservation Association, Pacific regional office, Oakland, Calif., 510/839-9922;
* Sierra Club national headquarters, 415/977-5500.


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