Envisioned as America's last great desert sanctuary, the 1.4-million-acre Mojave National Preserve is feeling the pressures of development inside and outside its boundaries--just four years after it was created.
A Las Vegas firm is proposing to build more than 100 homes around a golf course on a square mile of privately owned land in the park. Another real estate company with vast holdings in the park has posted roadside billboards advertising its land for sale.
And within 20 miles of the preserve's northeast border, Nevada officials are laying plans to use a huge dry lake bed as the site of a new international airport for cargo and passenger charter services.
Congressional hearings are scheduled to begin today on legislation that would transfer the site of the proposed airport--about 6,000 acres in the Ivanpah Valley, 30 miles south of Las Vegas--from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to the Clark County Department of Aviation.
If the land can be acquired and billions of dollars in private and public financing can be arranged, work on the airport could begin by the turn of the century, according to Jacob Snow, assistant director of the department.
Nevada officials say the airport is necessary because Las Vegas' McCarran Airport is running out of room to expand and in a few years will not be able to accommodate all the takeoffs and landings needed to serve the booming popularity of one of the nation's top tourist destinations.
Proponents of the airport, including all of the members of Nevada's congressional delegation, say that the environmental effects would be negligible. But conservationists disagree, arguing that such a facility would fill the sky over the Mojave Preserve with the thunder of large, low-flying jets and pull commercial and industrial development south from Las Vegas deep into the desert.
"The sky over Clark Mountain and that [northern] region of the park would become a flyway for 747s," said Eldon Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada desert committee.
The National Park Service has not taken a formal position on the airport. But officials have expressed alarm that the potential encroachments faced by the fledgling park and its fragile habitat.
For example, the proposed housing subdivision would be within five miles of the park's largest herd of desert big horn sheep, which live around Old Dad Mountain, and within a mile of the Soda Dry Lake wilderness area.
"This development would turn a significant piece of national parkland into an undesirable and unnatural habitat," said John Reynolds, director the Park Service's Pacific West region, which includes California.
Private Land Within Park
But there may not be much that environmentalists or Park Service officials can do to stop the housing development.
The Mojave Preserve, unlike many other national parks, does not control all of the land inside its boundaries and does not have the budget to buy out other owners. About 175,000 acres--more than 12% of the preserve--is in the hands of 2,200 private owners.
Moreover, the 1994 legislation that established the preserve prohibits the Park Service from applying its own land use regulations to private property there.
A four-hour drive from Los Angeles, the Mojave Preserve still feels like a world away, with its sand dunes, bizarre volcanic formations and snaggletoothed mountains stretching to the horizon. It is home to a number of rare plants and animals, including big horn sheep and desert tortoises, that need the isolation of the Mojave to survive.
But one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, Las Vegas and Clark County, lies just across the state line. And as they grow, the park and some of the surrounding desert are beginning to acquire new value as real estate.
"As people move to the Southwest, this is the kind of place--a little bit remote--that draws many of them, especially the snowbirds who come to see the natural attractions," said Steven Lilburn, a San Bernardino real estate consultant who has been hired by the Encore Group of Las Vegas to help develop a planned community at the northern edge of the Mojave Preserve near the town of Baker.
Lilburn said the project is in "the preliminary phase." Encore has been buying options on about 400 acres in the preserve and hopes to acquire more, including about 80 acres owned by the National Park Service.
The property, which is mostly flat, could eventually accommodate several hundred homes and some commercial development, including motels and restaurants, Lilburn said. But the initial phase calls for about 120 homes, a recreational vehicle park and a lighted golf course.
The homes would be priced in the $80,000 range, he said, and thus provide affordable housing for the tiny town of Baker, a gateway community to the Mojave Preserve and Death Valley National Park to the north.
Lilburn and two Encore representatives met recently with National Park Service officials, presented drawings of the proposed development and offered to throw in several sweeteners.
"They made verbal offers to build a visitor center, employee housing and a park administration building," said Mojave's superintendent, Mary Martin.
Martin said she made it clear, however, that the Park Service would not welcome the development.
"We have serious concerns about the impact it would have on natural resources, on air quality and on the clarity of the night sky, which is a special feature of a remote desert park like this one.
"We are also alarmed about the precedent such a development would set in a park with the amount of developable private land we have here," Martin said.
Developer Launches Marketing Effort
This year, the largest private landowner in the park, the Catellus Development Corp., which owns about 86,000 acres, made good on a threat to begin marketing its land.
In 1996, after a deal fell through to sell its Mojave holdings to the federal government, Catellus officials said they had no choice but to begin mineral surveys and subdivision mapping in preparation for selling the land to anyone interested in buying it.
"We have identified some property with mineral potential," said John Bezzant, the firm's vice president of resources. "I get calls weekly in response to our signs. Most of the people we hear from are looking for personal-type retreats."
So far, he said, the company has not sold any of its parkland.
But Bezzant said Catellus has also stayed in touch with the Park Service in the hopes of reviving a deal.
Park Service officials said they are not optimistic.
"I don't have any land acquisition money," Reynolds said, "and I don't have a strategy for getting any."
As for the proposed airport, the hearings before the House Resources Committee starting today will examine whether the empty land, now used largely for recreation, is a suitable site for what local officials say could eventually become one of the nation's busiest air transportation centers.
"We are talking about a facility that could handle 40 million passengers a year by the middle of the next century," Snow said.