Administrative History
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The eastern portion of the Mojave desert is a beautiful place. Successive mountain ranges, trending from southwest to northeast, tower above broad valleys with sweeping vistas. Shimmering bright playas, sun-baked remnants of Pleistocene lakes, occupy the lowest areas. Several diverse plant communities successively populate the gently sloping alluvial plains, known locally as bajadas, as elevation increases. The Mojave-signature Joshua tree is found throughout the area, and two forests, on Cima Dome and in Lanfair Valley, have the densest concentrations of the plant in the world. In the mountains, the pinyon-juniper community of the Great Basin predominates. At the top of some of the highest Mojave peaks, relic stands of white pine and Douglas fir were left stranded after the last glaciers retreated ten thousand years ago. Extinct volcanoes and lava flows, some estimated to be only hundreds of years old, sit less than thirty miles from huge sand dunes that make booming noises when fine grains of sand rub against one another. Much of the land in question is home to the endangered desert tortoise, and bighorn sheep live in the steep mountains. A cornucopia of wildflowers erupts after every desert rain, temporarily masking the dominant environmental fact that the area is dry.

The eastern Mojave is today largely encompassed by the Mojave National Preserve, a National Park Service unit in southern California created in 1994. The history of the area of the Mojave National Preserve since European contact can be explained as the function of two factors: arid desert lands, and urban proximity. Urban proximity itself gave rise to two ideologies that conflicted over the best uses for desert spaces, and in so doing, shaped the Mojave National Preserve as a Park Service unit.

Joshua tree and buckhorn cholla
Illustration 1 - The Joshua tree and buckhorn cholla are distinctive Mojave desert vegetation. (Photo by Eric Nystrom, 2001.)

The history of the eastern Mojave desert shares many characteristics with the history of other places in the rural desert west. Most of Nevada, much of Utah, and large portions of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico have had similar development patterns. The military made the land safe for whites at the cost of the Native Americans who called the area their homeland. Geological forces deposited large varieties of metals and minerals, and Euro-American prospectors were aided in their searches for wealth by a lack of vegetation to obscure their views. Small scale mining and prospecting, with occasional rich finds, was the norm. Arid-lands ranching flourished, involving vast tracts of public land controlled by cattle entrepreneurs who owned the only sources of water. As in other deserts, cattle ranching was successful in a way that much other economic activity was not, but margins were slim and the consequences for the environment were largely permanent, as native biota gave way to exotic grasses and woody shrubs proliferated to replace native forbs. Transcontinental railroads pushed through the Mojave, like other deserts, on their way to distant markets. After 1910, homesteaders acting with the Progressive-era faith in the potential of mankind to solve any problem attempted to farm the east Mojave. Unlike the deserts of central Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, where the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 took hold and made at least parts of the desert bloom, no nearby rivers could be tapped for irrigation in the eastern Mojave. Optimistic farmers utilized dryfarming techniques, and a series of wet years prolonged the experiment, but the average rainfall - less than eight inches per year in most places - proved too little for even the most virtuous farmer.

As southern California and the city of Los Angeles grew throughout the twentieth century, the eastern Mojave remained a relatively unpopulated desert, but the patterns of development and use of the area took on new forms as a result of its proximity to a major urban area. Certainly, the destination of southern California explains the presence of railroads in the Mojave - the Union Pacific, which runs through the middle of today's Mojave National Preserve, was originally called the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. Roads through the desert terminated in southern California, and author John Steinbeck's Okies traveled Route 66, the "mother road," through the Mojave to the prosperity of areas closer to the coast. Later interstate highways followed 66 and Highway 91, the highway to Las Vegas, and moved travelers through, but not to, the eastern portion of the Mojave desert.

Los Angeles and the rest of the Sunbelt grew enormously during World War II, and the demographic changes sparked by the war changed the nature of use of the desert. After millions of G.I.s got to know the desert through General George Patton's desert training camps, riding around the Mojave in jeeps and tanks, many post-war recreationists decided to do the same thing without the artillery. Off-road motorcycles were a postwar innovation, and the California deserts seemed like an excellent place to use them - the deserts were close to the population centers, only a few hours away from San Fernando Valley. Residents of the suburbs found the desert a nice place for solitude, but close enough to be convenient. Seemingly, no one cared about the land and people could use it as they wished, and no one seemed to live there either.

Eventually, the pressure of urban recreation on the desert became too much for the land to absorb without obvious long-term impacts. Spurred to action by the inaugural run of a massive cross-desert motorcycle race - the Barstow to Vegas - in 1967, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) focused its attention on regulating users of off-road vehicles and other recreation in the desert. BLM had no enforcement powers, but the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, known as FLPMA, gave BLM authority to regulate beginning in 1976. FLPMA also contained a special provision which required BLM to develop a comprehensive management plan for all of the southern California desert under its control. The result, published in 1980, was known formally as the California Desert Conservation Area Plan but universally as simply the Desert Plan. The Desert Plan prohibited certain activities and encouraged others, provided four land classifications to regulate use of federal desert, and created areas of protection, but the underlying premise of the whole document was that too many people, most of them from the greater Los Angeles area, were trying to use the desert and were harming it in the process.

By the time restrictive desert planning began in the mid-1970s, expansion of the suburbs already began to consume open areas closest to the city, and recreationists were pushed farther east in their desire for new places. In the context of the 1970s, where suburban sprawl was being systematically challenged by environmentalists as ugly and evil and the declining economy inspired pessimism in blue collar workers, the relatively empty deserts to the east of L.A. were seen as a buffer to urban society. Some people, who may broadly be described as "conservatives," saw the desert as a repository of American values, a vaguely Turnerian "empty" frontier where ruggedness reinvigorated the self, where guns could be fired without danger, where the individualist, perhaps embodied by a man on a high-speed motorcycle, could exercise his personal freedom to recreate however he saw fit. Residents of the desert, mostly ranchers and miners, were lauded by conservatives for their adherence to a system of hard work extracting wealth from the land, a way of life that seemed a throwback to a better America at a time of widespread manufacturing layoffs, the OPEC oil crisis, and rampant inflation. Another group, who may be broadly called "environmentalists," also praised the desert. For them it was a repository of open space, which seemed to be in dramatically short supply as they watched closer places become manufactured suburbs. It was a vessel of biodiversity - as more became known about the extraordinary species native to the desert, a post-Earth Day concern with the environment elevated the "unspoiled" desert to high status. And it was beautiful, in part because it was so empty.

These two constituencies, conservatives and environmentalists, both loved the desert, but had clearly differing ideas for its future. Conservatives saw mining, ranching, and off-road recreation as activities that enhanced the value of the desert, while environmentalists viewed those same activities as destroying the landscape, ruining the ecosystem, and damaging fragile desert lands. The Desert Plan, finalized in December 1980, attempted to split the difference between these groups. In the eastern Mojave, it created the East Mojave National Scenic Area, the first designation of its kind, which was intended to placate those environmentalists who wished to turn the area into a national park, while also permitting conservative uses of the land like ranching and mining to continue. During the early 1980s, James Watt, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, attacked environmental programs across the board, and decimated BLM's institutional culture by laying off some employees with pro-environment views and involuntarily transferring others in order to create a culture of fear dominated by a Sagebrush Rebellion-inspired, use-based approach to managing the bureau's lands. Desert Plan amendment cycles in the early 1980s reflected this change of managerial attitude. Beginning in 1982, the BLM proposed amendments that seemed, at least to environmentalists, to threaten to turn the desert over completely to consumptive and destructive uses.

The environmentalists responded by working to achieve more permanent legislative protection for the desert. By 1984, a group of conservation organizations, led by the Sierra Club and working together as the California Desert Protection League, were creating maps and legislation that would expand Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments into national parks, create a third so-called Mojave National Park out of the East Mojave National Scenic Area, and designate dozens of BLM-managed wilderness areas in the desert. Senator Alan Cranston introduced this legislation for the first time in 1986, but the California Desert Protection Act or CDPA, as the bill was known, did not meet with immediate success.

Conservatives and environmentalists battled over the bill and their conflicting interpretations of the best use for the desert for almost a decade. Over time, environmentalists made a series of compromises to placate individual foes - leaving a group of mining claims outside park boundaries, for instance. Occasionally, conservatives forced their issues on the bill, most significantly when they added hunting to Mojave National Park and made it a National Preserve instead. Differences of opinion between Democratic Senator Cranston and his Republican California colleagues, first Pete Wilson then John Seymour, prevented the Senate from acting on Cranston's proposal, even though the House passed the bill in 1991. In her 1992 campaign to fill out the remaining 2 years of Wilson's old Senate seat, Democrat Dianne Feinstein's support of the desert bill was a factor in the race. After she was elected, Feinstein made passage of the CDPA her top priority, as she wanted to have a large legislative success to show to voters in her 1994 reelection drive. The 1992 elections brought a Democratic administration into power, which along with Feinstein's Democratic senatorial counterpart from California, Barbara Boxer, removed partisan roadblocks that had prevented the bill's passage in earlier sessions. Still, passage was not assured - Republican opposition was fierce, and nearly scuttled the bill on several occasions. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell eventually held the Senate in session after it was scheduled to adjourn in order to break a Republican filibuster and pass the CDPA into law.

When Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act on October 31, 1994, he created with the stroke of a pen a new unit of the National Park Service in the eastern Mojave desert. A team of law enforcement rangers secured the area and posted signs to alert users of the new wilderness closures, while a group of administrators attempted to start a park from scratch. Many of these first park staffers had little administrative experience, and the park's startup was stunted because of a lack of office space and equipment. Within a few months, the new park staff grew rapidly and began to set programs into place, but local residents, almost all of them of conservative views, felt like they were not being taken into consideration.

After the so-called "Republican Revolution" of November 1994 swept the GOP into power in both houses of Congress, talk of scaling back environmental regulations in the name of increasing the efficiency of government was common in Washington. Reacting to constituent concerns and operating in the context of the Republican rollback of environmental measures, longtime U.S. Representative Jerry Lewis, whose district included the Preserve, maneuvered to pass an appropriations bill that gave the National Park Service exactly one dollar to administer Mojave National Preserve, and gave the rest of its appropriation to the BLM to manage the area in a multiple-use fashion. Over several months, as President Clinton and Republican leaders Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Bob Dole fought over the budget, the park was stuck in limbo. Some of the staff transferred to other parks, and the skeleton crew that remained lived in fear of their jobs evaporating. Clinton twice vetoed budgets he believed were too environmentally destructive. His vetoes resulted in two shutdowns of governmental services, but Republicans were blamed by the media and much of the public for the problems. In April 1996, Republican leaders sacrificed Lewis' Dollar Budget provision in order to pass the budget, and Mojave National Preserve's future looked less in doubt. At its core, the Dollar Budget fight reflected the differing visions of conservatives and environmentalists for the eastern Mojave desert, a split that was not changed by the passage of the CDPA.

Even before the dollar budget crisis had been resolved, the Preserve undertook an innovative planning effort. The Department of the Interior viewed the CDPA parks, plus BLM lands, as an excellent opportunity to experiment with bioregional, interagency planning efforts. The planning team was led by the NPS, and was located at Mojave National Preserve headquarters in Barstow. Ultimately, multiagency planning did not come to fruition because of interagency tensions, so the planning team developed a General Management Plan for the Preserve on its own. This park-based planning team was unusual, as most planning for the park service is conducted out of a central office. In its successful completion of a park-based plan, Mojave National Preserve could provide a model for future park planning.

The Preserve has also had to deal with a series of issues that stem from the negotiations between conservatives and environmentalists that resulted in the formation of the park and that are related to the area's history as a worked landscape. When the park was established, more than 15,000 mining claims were active for various sites in the park, and more than 400 abandoned mine sites exist inside park boundaries. Grazing was permitted to continue by the CDPA. A railroad runs through the park, as do a petroleum pipeline and hi-tension power wires, providing scenic intrusions and headaches for park managers. Hunting is also expressly permitted in the park by its enabling act, which puts the Park Service in the delicate position of attempting to maintain natural wildlife so they can be shot by trophy hunters. Mojave's urban proximity brought big-city problems - speeding, graffiti, hazardous materials, and drug trafficking - to the park, forcing cash-strapped management to adjust priorities.

These issues were the fruit of the compromises between conservatives and environmentalists that were made in the process of establishing the park. The landscape and management of Mojave National Preserve both reflect a heritage of conflict over the best use of particular spaces, and a legacy of impacts from urban proximity. Study of the park is therefore instructive both as an example of the price of accommodation, as interest groups' concerns are addressed and neutralized through the democratic process, and as a vivid lesson of the extent to which urban growth in the Southwest affects everything and everyone around it.

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Last Updated: 05-Apr-2004