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Off-Roaders in Uphill Fight on Canyon

Environmentalists, federal officials stand in way of bid to regain access to desert oasis.

June 23, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SURPRISE CANYON, Calif. — After the flash floods of 1984, the gravel road that once delivered fortune-seekers and sightseers up this desert canyon vanished. Water carved the streambed clear down to bedrock, leaving a series of seven limestone waterfalls that stretch for more than a quarter mile.

Weekend explorers had used the road to reach the silver mining ghost town at the top. No more. The family sedans stopped dead in their tracks at the spectacular obstacle. But people driving four-wheelers saw something different. They saw an imposing grade. They saw boulders. They saw rushing water. They saw -- nirvana.

They came like mechanized mountaineers -- with battery-powered winches and yards of braided steel cable, with high-clearance tires and specialized, locking wheels. They came to conquer Surprise Canyon, hoisting Jeeps, Land Cruisers and even the occasional Hummer straight up the waterfalls.

The four-wheelers perfected the gear and technical prowess to tame this canyon in the mountains that form the western edge of Death Valley National Park. The run earned legendary status as the only one known to require winching up water-slicked falls. "Surprise" became an off-road rite of passage.

But these days, only wild burros and the occasional hiker traverse this canyon of cottonwood, willow and grape. Nature is spreading her branches over what is left of the old road. And a battle rages for this canyon's future.

Two years after a lawsuit compelled the Bureau of Land Management to temporarily ban motorized vehicles from Surprise Canyon, the agency has teamed with the National Park Service, which controls the canyon's top half, to decide whether to keep the gate locked for good.

The environmental review is expected to yield a finely detailed scientific portrait of this striking desert oasis. It also has pitted a network of off-road enthusiasts desperate to maintain access to public lands against environmentalists fighting to shut them out.

The tug-of-war offers a peek at an extreme sport whose devotees say they are too often stereotyped as meatheads. It also raises questions that are cropping up across the West: Should nature get the chance to reclaim places that have tolerated human activity for decades, or does a history of human use trump nature's hand? If a road was drawn out of a wilderness area by Congress -- as Surprise Canyon's was in 1994 -- can bureaucrats now reverse that and close the area to its most ardent human users?

"It's like the Palestine situation," said Richard Crowe, the bureau's planner in charge of compiling a range of proposed solutions. "There's a clash of two fundamentally opposing views."

To off-road proponents who have lost access to other playgrounds, permanently closing Surprise Canyon to vehicles would be like banning climbers from Mt. Everest.

Built in 1874, the road served a steady trickle of traffic before the 1984 flood wiped out the lower portion. If the canyon's ecosystem survived that -- along with recent floods that erased many signs of the sportsmen -- the four-wheelers ask, why close it now?

"We are putting tires through there," said Marlin Czajkowski, 47, of Fresno, who designs and builds four-wheeling gear and has coaxed his 1980 Toyota up the canyon three dozen times. "We are displacing plants and animals. You betcha. But that road has been there forever."

In this remote canyon just north of cult killer Charles Manson's onetime desert hide-out, Czajkowski found inspiration to develop the Marlin Crawler, a dual transfer case that allows vehicles to inch up the rocks in a gear so low that they move more slowly than their winch cables. He has donned miner's garb to regale fellow off-roaders when they pulled into Panamint City, the ghost town that once sustained a thousand silver-seekers.

"When I saw that gate" across the road, he said, "I cried."

But to environmentalists, banning what they dub "motorized wreckreation" from the canyon is a no-brainer. The canyon is home to the longest year-round stream in the Panamint Range. Two springs burst from the earth along its course, dripping through maidenhair fern and verdant moss.

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 placed the canyon's upper reach in newly formed Death Valley National Park, and designated the lower canyon as a wilderness area, surrounding it with protected acreage. But Congress excluded a 60-foot-wide corridor along the road.

Keith Hammond, a spokesman for the California Wilderness Coalition, said he believes the streambed never should have been excluded from protection. "This is seriously parched Mojave Desert, and you've got this green oasis flowing through it.... The off-road folks say, 'We can drive right up the middle of the creek and still protect it.' A lot of us are very skeptical," said Hammond, whose organization listed the canyon as one of "most threatened wild places" in 2003.

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