RECREATION / NATURE : Weekend of Desert Distractions : While scientists come here to study strata and spiders, there's plenty for the public to do as well.


Business cards, letterheads and pamphlets used by the California Desert Studies Center all display a drawing of the desert iguana, one of the center's neighbors.

They could just as accurately depict a scorpion, any of a variety of rattlesnake or a coyote.

For the California Desert Studies Center, which is operated by a consortium of universities including Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach and Cal Poly Pomona, is in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

At its closest, it is only 40 miles from Death Valley. It is 11 miles from Baker, the nearest town, about 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas, and 5 miles from a paved road.

While biologists study the area's nearly microscopic spiders, geologists check igneous rock strata and archeologists examine prehistoric petroglyphs, there is a great deal for the public to do as well.

"We have study groups out here at least 18 to 20 weekends a year," said Cal State Fullerton biologist Gerald Scherba, director of the center since 1985. "These are open to the public.

"The mission of the consortium is teaching, research and dissemination of information about deserts. To implement that, we have all these activities, including desert weekend courses. Scout, church and family groups often participate.

"They're open to everyone, and they're probably the best bargain in Southern California. For about $115, students get five meals, two nights' lodging and instruction for the entire weekend."

The subject matter can be as diverse as the temperature variations.

This spring, titles include "Hunting and Trapping Techniques of Desert Indians," "Experimental Archeology in the Mojave," "Wildflowers of Death Valley," "Birds of the Mojave Desert" and "Ancient Lakes of the Mojave Desert," which began today and will continue through Sunday.

Most instructors are from the California State University system, while others come from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, from observatories, museums and private institutions.

Sometimes, other sciences are included. "Desert Sky in the Fall," obviously, is an astronomy class that takes advantage of the clear air.

The center generates its own electricity, but only for a few hours a day. It relies on a well for its water, has no regular telephone service--a radio-telephone line is relayed through a railroad yard--and faces temperature extremes that, following last December's freeze, have exceeded 100 degrees.

Scherba admits that the climate can be "barren."

"It never gets any hotter than 118," he jokes, but the center's resident manager, Rob Fulton, says the mercury has since reached 119. And Fulton, who has lived at the center for five years with his wife and two teen-age sons, was there in December when the temperature hit a record 8 degrees above zero, freezing several palm and tamarisk trees, perhaps killing some of them.

Scherba, who was part of the first Cal State San Bernardino faculty in 1962, takes issue with isolationists who would try to keep the public away from the desert as a means of protecting it.

"The best way to preserve the desert is to educate people about it," he said. "They experience it, they come to understand it and then they feel they own the place. Once they feel it is their desert, they won't mistreat it."

The name of the facility--the Desert Studies Center--aptly describes what goes on there.

Primarily, Scherba and Fulton both explain, the site is used for study by biologists, geologists and archeologists. Most of the work, because of the weather, goes on between October and May.

"The archeologists sometimes work through the summer, however," Scherba said. "They seem to be the hardiest breed."

Fulton, the resident manager, has two degrees in biology from Cal State Fullerton but--as the only full-time employee at the center--does things most biologists do not.

"Rob has to overhaul generators," Scherba said, "repair the reverse osmosis units which keep the water drinkable, adjust the wind generators, fix the brakes on the vehicles, most everything."

While the location of the site, officially known as Soda Springs, may have been occupied for as long as 11,000 years, it was the occupant from 1944 to 1974 that most people remember, and who center directors would just as soon forget.

Curtis Springer, a radio evangelist, rented the location from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which operates it, in 1944, saying he was going to operate a mining claim.

Springer built dormitories, a chapel, an office and swimming pools. He recorded radio sermons from a studio he built on the site, and called the location the Zzyzx Health Resort, hoping the name--his creation--would be the "last word" in the dictionary.

After a series of court proceedings, Springer was evicted in 1974, and control reverted to the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1976, the bureau signed an agreement with the California Desert Studies Consortium, which consists of Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Northridge and Cal State San Bernardino, which was the host campus.

It was operated from San Bernardino until 1978, when Lon McClanahan of Cal State Fullerton became director. Fullerton has been host campus since then, and Scherba, a biologist who once studied the life of ants, took over in 1985.

With the assistance of a part-time maintenance man whose wife works for the Bureau of Land Management, Scherba and Fulton have also managed to upgrade the facilities. All the dormitory rooms have heaters, and an improved electrical system is being planned. Few people go to the center expecting a resort, however. Scientists from all over the world have come to explore the desert, and the weekend courses have become increasingly popular. As recently as 1985, nine courses had a total enrollment of 242. In 1989-90, 20 courses were offered, with an enrollment of 411.

While the study of the area's history is one of the areas most stressed, Fulton wants to be sure people don't get the wrong idea. One recent class taught students how early inhabitants used obsidian to make arrowheads.

Those with questions about course curriculum can contact the Cal State Fullerton department of biology at (714) 773-2428 or the Cal State San Bernardino Office of Extended Education at (714) 880- 5975.

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