Administrative History
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Modern Military Training

The Mojave Desert, a "wasteland" with easy railroad access, seemed to General George S. Patton to be an excellent place to train his troops during World War II. In early 1942, Patton established the Desert Training Center, and stationed troops throughout the Mojave. Much of the heaviest activity took place to the south of the current Mojave National Preserve boundaries, but some of these wartime camps and much of the maneuver areas were inside the present Preserve. A major division-size camp, Camp Clipper, was located north of Essex, with its northern boundary located inside the Preserve, north of I-40. A support division, including an ammunition dump, several large warehouses, and a military hospital, were located at Goffs, along with an emergency airfield a mile north of the hamlet. Later, the training grounds were expanded and renamed the California Arizona Maneuver Area, and remained in use until mid-1944. At least one million soldiers spent time in the area. Tanks and other military vehicles roamed throughout the desert, conducting exercises in the valleys of the Preserve and surrounding areas. [58]

During World War II, many places in the greater Mojave desert received permanent designation as military training areas, but lack of such a status did not preclude the military from again using the eastern Mojave for practice. In May 1964, the Army staged a training exercise in the public lands west of Needles with 89,000 troops. Soldiers practiced amphibious landings on the banks of the Colorado River, troops constructed machine-gun emplacements at major crossroads, and heavy weaponry rolled across the sweeping valleys. The operation, known as "Desert Strike," caused significant impact to desert plants and animals. At least some locals attempted to halt the operation, but were unable to get support from the BLM or conservation groups. [59] One author pointed out that the maneuver "laid environmental waste to sizable swaths of the East Mojave." [60] Fortunately for the fragile lands of the east Mojave, Operation Desert Strike was the last major military use of the area now encompassed by the Preserve.

The army's training exercises left permanent scars on the desert. Tank tracks remain visible in many places inside and outside the Preserve. Rock alignments laying out huge tent camps dot the desert, especially in the southeast corner of the Preserve, and military debris still litters the desert floor in some places. Military use compacted the soil and changed the natural ecology of the desert. [61]

Military use of the Mojave for training purposes had civilian ramifications as well. The military systematically mapped the entire Mojave desert in detail for the first time, utilizing aerial photography and traditional land-based methods to create maps for their training operations. After the war, many of the Army maps were sold to the public, and the U.S. Geological Survey utilized Army Map Service data to produce a series of 15 minute quads of the desert in the late 1940s and early 1950s. [62] The experiences of soldiers at the wartime desert camps translated to increased recreational use of the desert after the war. War surplus jeeps and camping gear enabled former soldiers and their friends to explore the desert in four-wheel drive, as they had done during their training, with new maps of the Mojave to guide their travels. [63] One U.S. Army photo, dated 1942, shows a soldier in full battle gear steering a huge military Harley-Davidson motorcycle down a Mojave sand dune - a stunning prelude of recreation to come. [64]


Recreational use of the desert began before World War II, but accelerated tremendously after that conflict concluded. The rise of recreation by off-highway vehicles (OHV) eventually prompted increased management of the entire desert by the BLM , and will be addressed in the following chapter. In addition to OHV users, others made attempts to encourage recreation in the eastern Mojave.

Illustration 7 - Jack and Ida Mitchell lived near the caverns in this house which is now a visitor's center for Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. The state park is located inside Mojave National Preserve. (Photo by Eric Nystrom, 2001.)

Jack Mitchell, a Los Angeles businessman who lost almost everything in the 1929 stock market crash, initiated an early attempt at recreational tourism in the present-day Preserve. Mitchell became interested in three magnificent limestone caverns after a local rancher, Mark Pettit, showed him the caves. By 1932, Mitchell had explored the caves, offered tours, and set up signs along Route 66 to direct visitors to the site. He continued to guide visitors for the next two decades. As Mitchell grew closer to retirement age in the early 1950s, he began deliberations with California's state park system to take over operation of the caves as a state park. Mitchell was killed in an accident before negotiations could be finalized, and the California state park system added Mitchell's Caverns to its holdings in 1956. The state promoted the tourism and development of the caverns and the surrounding Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, and dug a connection between the two main caves in Mitchell's Caverns to produce a single-loop tour experience. The caves and the state park continue to draw thousands of visitors every year to the area, and are the oldest formal tourism-related activity in the Mojave National Preserve. Originally, two more state parks were planned for Cima Dome and the Cinder Cones, but these were never built. [65]

pool enclosure
Illustration 8 - Springer's pool enclosure at Zzyzx overlooks Soda Lake. (Photo by Eric Nystrom, 2001.)

The California Department of Fish and Game (CDF&G) long encouraged recreational hunting in the eastern Mojave desert, as in the rest of the state. During the 1940s, CDF&G stocked non-native mule deer in what later became the Preserve. Deer are native to some parts of the desert, but the eastern Mojave, by 1940, was a landscape constructed by ranchers for production of beef. Hunting was seen by the ranchers as an undesirable intrusion of animals that would compete with their cattle and people who might damage their property. One local angrily categorized the action as "dumping them on land where ranchers were paying for the forage rights and where, with hunting, they have been a source of trouble ever since." Winnie Southcott, wife of the owner of the Gold Valley Ranch, died after she was attacked in her front yard by a large buck who apparently had no fear of humans. [66] By the mid-1980s, hunters harvested an average of 25 deer each year from the area of the Preserve, about a quarter of the total for San Bernardino County. California Department of Fish and Game also introduced chukar, an upland game bird popular with hunters, in the mid-twentieth century. Hunting of bighorn sheep had long been prohibited in the desert, but beginning in the fall of 1987, limited hunting was allowed to resume by CDF&G. [67] From the 1940s to the beginning of the twenty-first century, the state of California actively attempted to increase recreation opportunities in the eastern Mojave by locally implementing statewide programs designed to promote and sustain hunting.

While CDF&G attempted to make the desert amenable to hunters and Jack Mitchell tried to profit by showcasing its wondrous caves, a controversial preacher promoted an alternative vision of recreation in the Mojave. In September 1944, "Dr." Curtis Howe Springer, a radio evangelist and alternative-medicine salesman, staked mining claims at the site of Soda Springs, which he gradually developed into his famous Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort. Springer was a curious historical character who can be painted as a swindling quack or a misunderstood visionary. Springer constructed most of the buildings at Zzyzx today before 1955, utilizing men from the slums of Los Angeles for labor. Treatment at Zzyzx included good food and plenty of rest, along with an alcohol-free environment, which certainly helped some visitors. Lodging and meals were provided free of charge, though donations were encouraged.

Over time, Zzyzx proved very popular. The post office in Baker was upgraded to first-class status, largely because of Springer's mail volume, and motels there often lodged prospective visitors waiting for their turn at Zzyzx. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, after a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times raised the public's awareness of the seemingly illegitimate side of the Zzyzx business, several agencies, including the BLM and the Food and Drug Administration, pursued charges against Springer for allegedly false advertising, misleading labels, and misusing mining claims. BLM rangers bodily evicted Springer and his wife in April 1974 on the grounds that Springer was trespassing on public lands because he was living on his mining claims rather than extracting minerals from them. The BLM showed the Springers little sympathy, threatening them with handcuffs and giving them thirty-six hours to gather their possessions and vacate the property. Two years later, after some BLM consternation about what to do with Zzyzx, the California State University Desert Studies Consortium was granted a renewable lease to run the property as a research and education facility. [68]

After World War II, recreational use of the desert grew to substantial importance. From Jack Mitchell's attempts to make a living by giving tours of limestone caves to Curtis Springer's decades-long development and promotion of Zzyzx Mineral Springs, private interests used the eastern Mojave for economic gain through recreation and tourism. The State of California also sought to increase recreational opportunities by introducing non-native animals to the area as a means of increasing hunting. Recreation by off-highway vehicle users became so substantial that it prompted the first major systematic federal management of the desert. Beginning recently and growing rapidly, few could have predicted the speed with which recreation became a major activity on the lands of the east Mojave.

One of the least populated areas in the United States, the eastern Mojave saw relatively little management of any sort for much of its recent history. Euro-American traders chose to avoid the Mohaves when possible, but even after the establishment of a wagon road, military presence was limited to a thin corridor. Miners extracted wealth from the land, subject to only the permissive provisions of the General Mining Law of 1872. Ranchers used federal land as their own, possessing genuine title only to land around water sources. Homesteaders futilely plowed their personal portion of the public domain, but few were able to patent their holdings and none were subject to more oversight than that provided by hostile local ranchers. Military exercises used the eastern Mojave as a playground, and railroads, interstate freeways, electrical transmission lines, and petroleum pipelines were all constructed across the land. Increased management appeared on the distant horizon with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which required Mojave ranchers to change their practices and their landscapes to fit the new regulations. Only in the 1960s did the desert face an issue large enough to demand major attention. Recreation in the desert surged in popularity, and forced the federal government to move toward systematic management of the desert for the first time.

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Last Updated: 05-Apr-2004