On crisp, fall nights in the Mojave, the lonely tranquillity of this bleak, lovely place belies the fierce debate that still rages over its future.
The Mojave National Preserve is five years old. That’s the good news. Signed into law on October 31, 1994, the California Desert Protection Act established the 1.6 million-acre Mojave preserve, and added land to existing park sites in Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Creation of the Mojave Preserve was far from a sure thing; seven years of debate had pitted conservationists against mining and ranching companies, developers and off-road enthusiasts.
Boosters call the preserve the “crown jewel” of the California desert, encompassing an enormously complex set of ecosystems including 11 mountain ranges, four dry lakes, badlands, mesas, lava beds, caves, sand dunes and innumerable varieties of desert life. After five years, Mojave now has the basics: two visitors centers (in the towns of Baker and Needles), campgrounds, ranger-led tours and interpretive programs.
But the federal preserve designation was as much hope as reality, and its expectations about how these lands will be managed are still not universally shared. More than 10% of land within the preserve remains in private hands, with half of that owned by the Catellus Corporation, formerly the Santa Fe Pacific Railway. Although there have been a few private land donations, Congress has generally not provided funds to add to the public holdings. As a result, Mojave faces development threats from inside as well as outside the park boundaries, including such recent proposals as development of a subdivision complete with lighted golf course, and expanded mining operations on one of the mines still in use within the park boundaries.
Outside the park, an airport is planned just 10 miles from the preserve, intended to serve Las Vegas, about 35 miles to the north. Constant passenger jet noise would shatter the desert stillness, and broader training exercises proposed at nearby Fort Irwin could endanger fragile desert habitats. Both proposals have powerful backers in Congress, despite their incompatibility with the original vision for the park.
Five years ago Congress took an important first step in creating the Mojave preserve. Now it needs to build on that effort, not sabotage it.