Protection and Preservation

There was a time when desert ecosystems were not considered to be worthy of protection. Deserts were viewed by many as wastelands, devoid of life, valuable only for the wealth that could be extracted from the unending rocky landscape. Even the National Park System had a hard time seeing the sense of protecting a place like Death Valley. Death Valley had no large waterfalls, no big forests, no mountain majesty. Fortunately, there were those who saw things differently, people like Bob Eichbaum, Stephen Mather, Horace Albright and activist Edna Perkins who wrote of the landscape’s “terror and beauty” and saw “a mantle of such strange beauty that we felt it was the noblest thing we had ever imagined.” There was also a tiny pupfish that opened a window to preservation, and restoration that unleashed the power of Earth’s resilience.


Scotty and Superintendent Goodwin - ca. 1940

Theodore R. (T.R.) Goodwin was the first full-time Superintendent of Death Valley National Monument. Goodwin followed Sequoia National Park Superintendent John R. White, who split his time between the two National Park Service units.

The Monument was established in 1933 at a time when most national parks were traditionally spectacular places with great mountains, waterfalls, geysers, etc. In that era, deserts were treated as wastelands.

The opening of the Furnace Creek Inn in 1927, combined with the decline of the mining industry, stimulated National Park Service interest in Death Valley as a potential park.

Herbert Hoover’s election in 1928 and the appointment of Horace Albright as the National Park Service Director led to agreements with the Pacific Coast Borax Company to give up much of their holdings in the area, with the understanding that some mining would be allowed to continue.

Two men in front of a fountain with hills in background. Two men in front of a fountain with hills in background.

Left image
Credit: Photographer: Tom Murray; Images of America: Death Valley by Robert Palazzo 2008 Arcadia Publishing

Right image
Credit: NPS/Ted Barone


Ash Meadows Ranching - 1969

The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, established in June, 1984 protects over 23,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and alkaline desert uplands. The Amargosa Valley wetland was once the largest wetland in Southern Nevada, known as one of the most ecologically diverse places in North America, and was populated by Native Americans for thousands of years. The Amargosa River, which drains eventually into Badwater, flows through the Ash Meadows aquifer.

In 1970, the Spring Meadows Corporation bought 5,645 acres in Ash Meadows in an exchange with the Bureau of Land Management, eventually expanding ownership to 12,000 acres along with the majority of water rights in the valley. They established the first large-scale cattle operation in the region and drew water from Ash Meadows, which decimated the wetlands and caused water levels in Devils Hole and other springs to drop. The battle to save the Devils Hole Pupfish and establish the Wildlife Refuge is described in the next set of photos.

The reconstruction and restoration of the wetlands at Point of Rocks Spring has begun to be successful, as seen in the modern photo. This is a good example of the resilience of nature if humans provide the right conditions for nature to revive.

A truck and man next to pond with power lines A truck and man next to pond with power lines

Left image
Credit: Photographer: Peter G. Sanchez; Death Valley National Park Museum #6468

Right image
Credit: NPS/Ted Barone


Devils Hole Water Drained - 1971

Devil’s Hole is a remnant of a large system of shallow lakes and rivers dating back to the ice age, covering thousands of square miles. It is connected to a large cave system over 500 feet deep and a groundwater system that extends to the northeast for more than 100 miles. Earthquakes anywhere in the world can affect the water level, sometimes causing waves that wash up onto the rocks surrounding the pool. Because its aquifer system is so large, the water level is also affected by lunar tidal action, just like the ocean.

Devils Hole is the only natural habitat of the Devils Hole pupfish, an Ice Age relic population. When wells drilled for cattle ranching caused water level declines that threatened the fish’s survival (this photo shows the low level in August, 1971), the Department of Interior devised a management plan to protect the pupfish and their habitat. The local community, many of whom were employed by the ranches, saw the government’s effort as “tantamount to a declaration of war”. One resident alleged pupfish were “only good to be fed to cats.”

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the pupfish had to be protected, in part because Devils Hole is included in Death Valley National Monument. The Nature Conservancy stepped in and bought the land around the hole, transferring it to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984 as the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

Monitoring equipment near water with rocky walls surrounding. Monitoring equipment near water with rocky walls surrounding.

Left image
Credit: Death Valley National Park Museum #6810

Right image
Credit: NPS/Ted Barone


Devils Hole Rescue Divers - 1965

In 1965, three teenagers from Las Vegas drove to Devils Hole with SCUBA gear, intending to dive into the caverns. After meeting a ranger from Death Valley National Monument who told them they were not allowed to do so, the boys returned at night and made their dive anyway. Tragically, only two of the teenagers returned to the surface. One of those boys went back in the water to find his friend and also did not resurface.

The two boys’ bodies were never recovered, but expert military divers, who made over 40 rescue dives, did find a dive light with dead batteries. Experienced cave divers think they got confused in the dark and got lost in some crevasse or tunnel, evidence of how complex the system is despite the small surface opening.

A group of people with SCUBA diving equipment in rocky pool. A group of people with SCUBA diving equipment in rocky pool.

Left image
Credit: Death Valley National Park Museum #2823

Right image
Credit: NPS/Ted Barone

Last updated: July 28, 2022

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 579
Death Valley, CA 92328


760 786-3200

Contact Us