MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. — To many, this is a place to hurry through. The austere expanse of scrubby desert and jagged mountains in the care of the National Park Service is more popular as a shortcut between Los Angeles and Las Vegas than it is as a destination.
A recent Park Service survey found that the majority of the 650,000 annual visitors here spend less than three hours before moving on. The survey reflects a hard truth: The 1.6-million-acre preserve is an acquired taste.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Mojave preserve -- An article in the California section Sunday about the Mojave National Preserve said that some of the rocks there date back 2.5 million years. The oldest rocks are in fact believed to be 2.5 billion years old. Also, a photo caption with the article referred to Larry Whalon as the preserve's chief of resource management. Whalon is the chief of resources.
As the preserve's 10th anniversary approaches, its proponents celebrate it as a citadel of nature amid an onrushing tide of development, while local residents continue to resent the limits on off-road exploration, hunting, cattle ranching and other economic activities.
About an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, the preserve was established as part of the California Desert Protection Act. The legislation set aside more land than any previous conservation law in the lower 48 states. It expanded Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments, conferring national park status on each, and it created new wilderness in areas managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In all, the act increased protection for more than 9 million acres of desert.
If the acreage lacks the majesty of the Grand Canyon and other desert parks, it makes up for it in sheer scope. The three desert parks help keep intact a chain of wildlife habitat and migration pathways from the San Bernardino Mountains to the San Jacinto Mountains.
"We almost have a wildlife preserve from Joshua Tree through to Death Valley. That's a wildlife corridor 100 miles wide," said Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee. "That is an amazing achievement."
The Mojave National Preserve is home to about 200 native plant species, including the Mojave yucca and its menacing-looking cousin, the Spanish bayonet, as well as one of the country's largest and densest Joshua tree forests. Some of the rocks here date back 2.5 million years. The preserve supports a broad array of animal life: bighorn sheep, desert iguanas, chuckwallas, the long-nosed leopard lizard, 10 species of snakes and the threatened California desert tortoise.
The preserve was created over the angry objections of miners, motorcyclists, ranchers, rock hounds, hunters and property owners who argued that their freedom to enjoy the desert or eke out a living in it was being subordinated to the well-being of cacti and reptiles.
In Washington, D.C., congressional opponents sought to restrict the preserve's first budget in 1995 to $1. After President Clinton's veto, Congress allocated money, but only enough to hire a staff of four.
A decade later, the bitterness remains. Critics accuse the Park Service of systematically phasing out activities that Congress intended to protect. One of the most acrimonious debates has been over access. New rules barred motorized travel on desert tracks and trails that historically were open to Jeeps, dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
Now, as the Park Service prepares for next month's anniversary celebration, San Bernardino County supervisors are threatening to punch 2,500 miles of roads through the preserve, saying they're entitled to do so under a 19th century statute enacted to promote settlement of the Western frontier.
"The Park Service wants to return to the time of the Indians. These guys are anti-people," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Assn., which represents private property owners who own parcels within public land. Cushman grew up in the Mojave. "They only want enough visitors to justify their budget. It's a new paganism: They worship trees and sacrifice people."
Park Service officials insist the only human activity they want to restrain is the illegal sort, and they have encountered plenty of that -- the running of methamphetamine labs, the rampant poaching of protected animals and the dumping of household trash and industrial waste.
Friction between the Park Service and law-abiding residents was inevitable. When the Park Service took over, about 1,200 people owned property inside the preserve. Cattle grazed across 940,000 acres. There were 9,000 mining claims.
In 1996, Catellus Development Corp., the former real estate arm of the Southern Pacific Railway and the largest private landlord within the preserve, began mining surveys and subdivision mapping. A Las Vegas developer announced plans to build 100 homes and a golf course on privately owned land within five miles of the preserve's largest herd of desert bighorn sheep.