Off-Roaders in Uphill Fight on Canyon

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Times Staff Writer

After the flash floods of 1984, the gravel road that once delivered fortune-seekers and sightseers up this desert canyon vanished. Water carved the streambed clear down to bedrock, leaving a series of seven limestone waterfalls that stretch for more than a quarter mile.

Weekend explorers had used the road to reach the silver mining ghost town at the top. No more. The family sedans stopped dead in their tracks at the spectacular obstacle. But people driving four-wheelers saw something different. They saw an imposing grade. They saw boulders. They saw rushing water. They saw -- nirvana.

They came like mechanized mountaineers -- with battery-powered winches and yards of braided steel cable, with high-clearance tires and specialized, locking wheels. They came to conquer Surprise Canyon, hoisting Jeeps, Land Cruisers and even the occasional Hummer straight up the waterfalls.


The four-wheelers perfected the gear and technical prowess to tame this canyon in the mountains that form the western edge of Death Valley National Park. The run earned legendary status as the only one known to require winching up water-slicked falls. “Surprise” became an off-road rite of passage.

But these days, only wild burros and the occasional hiker traverse this canyon of cottonwood, willow and grape. Nature is spreading her branches over what is left of the old road. And a battle rages for this canyon’s future.

Two years after a lawsuit compelled the Bureau of Land Management to temporarily ban motorized vehicles from Surprise Canyon, the agency has teamed with the National Park Service, which controls the canyon’s top half, to decide whether to keep the gate locked for good.

The environmental review is expected to yield a finely detailed scientific portrait of this striking desert oasis. It also has pitted a network of off-road enthusiasts desperate to maintain access to public lands against environmentalists fighting to shut them out.

The tug-of-war offers a peek at an extreme sport whose devotees say they are too often stereotyped as meatheads. It also raises questions that are cropping up across the West: Should nature get the chance to reclaim places that have tolerated human activity for decades, or does a history of human use trump nature’s hand? If a road was drawn out of a wilderness area by Congress -- as Surprise Canyon’s was in 1994 -- can bureaucrats now reverse that and close the area to its most ardent human users?

“It’s like the Palestine situation,” said Richard Crowe, the bureau’s planner in charge of compiling a range of proposed solutions. “There’s a clash of two fundamentally opposing views.”


To off-road proponents who have lost access to other playgrounds, permanently closing Surprise Canyon to vehicles would be like banning climbers from Mt. Everest.

Built in 1874, the road served a steady trickle of traffic before the 1984 flood wiped out the lower portion. If the canyon’s ecosystem survived that -- along with recent floods that erased many signs of the sportsmen -- the four-wheelers ask, why close it now?

“We are putting tires through there,” said Marlin Czajkowski, 47, of Fresno, who designs and builds four-wheeling gear and has coaxed his 1980 Toyota up the canyon three dozen times. “We are displacing plants and animals. You betcha. But that road has been there forever.”

In this remote canyon just north of cult killer Charles Manson’s onetime desert hide-out, Czajkowski found inspiration to develop the Marlin Crawler, a dual transfer case that allows vehicles to inch up the rocks in a gear so low that they move more slowly than their winch cables. He has donned miner’s garb to regale fellow off-roaders when they pulled into Panamint City, the ghost town that once sustained a thousand silver-seekers.

“When I saw that gate” across the road, he said, “I cried.”

But to environmentalists, banning what they dub “motorized wreckreation” from the canyon is a no-brainer. The canyon is home to the longest year-round stream in the Panamint Range. Two springs burst from the earth along its course, dripping through maidenhair fern and verdant moss.

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 placed the canyon’s upper reach in newly formed Death Valley National Park, and designated the lower canyon as a wilderness area, surrounding it with protected acreage. But Congress excluded a 60-foot-wide corridor along the road.


Keith Hammond, a spokesman for the California Wilderness Coalition, said he believes the streambed never should have been excluded from protection. “This is seriously parched Mojave Desert, and you’ve got this green oasis flowing through it.... The off-road folks say, ‘We can drive right up the middle of the creek and still protect it.’ A lot of us are very skeptical,” said Hammond, whose organization listed the canyon as one of “most threatened wild places” in 2003.

In temporarily closing the canyon to vehicles, the Bureau of Land Management pointed to the Panamint daisy, Panamint alligator lizard, desert bighorn sheep and ringtail cat as some of the sensitive species that rely on the stream habitat.

Others say oil, gas and antifreeze have spilled from damaged vehicles, although samples taken before the closing showed none in the water. Still, just how sensitive the canyon is -- and whether the four-wheelers do significant damage -- remains an open question. The bureau and the park service are pressing ahead to study everything from the stream’s aquatic life to the canyon’s historic and prehistoric remains.

On a recent day, the bureau’s Crowe picked his way up the canyon with colleague Jeff Aardahl and the National Park Service resources management chief, Linda Greene.

A storm had pushed gravel and vegetation down the canyon for miles, taking with it a partly buried ore cart that four-wheelers had used for years to anchor their winches. Nature is now rebuilding in the silence, choking the canyon with willow and boughs of billowy baccharis.

But Aardahl pointed to a meadow just above the falls that is healing poorly. Vehicle ruts have channeled the stream and accelerated erosion.


“You have created a corridor where the clock doesn’t get reset,” said Bob Ellis, a board member of the conservation-oriented Desert Survivors.

A rush for silver in the 1870s packed Panamint City full of fortune-seekers, booze, bandits and “fleshpots,” Neil C. Wilson recounts in his 1937 book “Silver Stampede.” The road came shortly after.

Flash floods washed it out repeatedly. Miners, and even county workers, hauled gravel up to rebuild. But the 1984 storms shook the desert floor with the roar of a jet plane, sinking the streambed by more than 20 feet in places.

Mining stalled and so did road maintenance, ending abruptly at a mining camp where father and son George and Rocky Novak have maintained a ramshackle home for decades.

In 1989, Rick Russell wandered through. Expecting a passable road marked on government maps, he found a paradise in the rough. Russell, whose Chino-based firm Sidekick Off Road makes maps and videos for other die-hards, called on the Bakersfield Trailblazers.

Together, the off-roaders stacked rocks in the riverbed to make the falls passable for a vehicle with a winch. Coaxing a 4,500-pound vehicle up water-slicked boulders is no easy task, though, as learned by those who fail to approach Surprise with precision and respect.


First, a used axle or other anchor is fitted into old drill holes in the rock, a point for the lead vehicle to secure a winch line. The driver uses a hand-held control to slowly reel in the extended steel winch cable -- powered by the vehicle’s battery while the engine runs. A co-pilot navigates from the rocks as the vehicle makes its run, in turn pulling the winch line of the next four-wheeler behind it. That line is then hooked to the boulders, and so on.

Those who navigate up the falls are rewarded with a relatively clear road on to Panamint City -- although it is now thickly overgrown.

“When you reach the end, you find a historic city,” Russell said. “You sit there and watch the sun go down and think about what it was like when there was a stamping mill.”

The California Assn. of 4-Wheel-Drive Clubs signed an agreement with the bureau to maintain the route. Members hauled out trash, cleared the road of brush and maintained the cabins at Panamint City.

But not everyone was thrilled. As the only true neighbors, the Novaks complained that four-wheelers fouled the water and scared off wildlife. George Novak often rushed the road brandishing a gun. Rocky Novak was convicted for spreading axle grease on the rocks after the four-wheelers passed through. (He maintains that he lubed the boulder to “catch gold,” not to trip up off-roaders.)

“There were times when it was just bumper to bumper up there, and the river was running mud for a month,” Rocky Novak, 49, said on a recent afternoon, dressed only in a pair of dirty denim cut-offs. “Once, I found a stretch of toilet paper 100 feet long.”


State wildlife and water officials also grew concerned. Then, in May 2001, the engines were silenced. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity had filed a sweeping federal lawsuit against the bureau, alleging that the agency had failed to consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on implementation of its California Desert Conservation Area Plan.

The Tucson group successfully demanded the closing of Surprise Canyon after the bureau agreed to settle the case. The off-road community was livid.

“Any which direction we go, we have two districts of the BLM, two national forests and a national park,” said Ron Schiller, chairman of the High Desert Multi-Use Coalition. “Every one of them is working on plans to close.”

But the bureau noted in its assessment that, in the Panamint Mountains alone, 14 canyons and 150 miles of routes and trails remain open. “While none of these routes offer the opportunity to drive up a flowing stream or winch a motor vehicle up a waterfall, it is unlikely that this kind of opportunity exists anywhere else in the United States, due to environmental concerns,” it noted.

Four-wheeling advocates say the falls provide a Darwinian barrier that weeds out the inexperienced and destructive, allowing only the well-trained and well-financed to pass. Still, Czajkowski said he has seen plenty of “boneheads” attempt the run and fail, burning out their winches or toppling sideways.

“There are guys who aren’t equipped to be there who go up with tires spinning,” said Czajkowski, who is among the off-roaders willing to accept controls on access. “We can’t do that anymore. There need to be restrictions. But I’m not ready to say good-bye.”


Yet a compromise appears increasingly tricky.

Although the Bureau of Land Management promotes multiple uses on its lands, the park service is charged with protecting natural resources and fostering visitor enjoyment. Vehicle traffic up a riparian zone is less likely to fall within its definition of acceptable use.

“Let nature heal herself,” said Death Valley National Park Supt. James T. Reynolds. “If I can influence the BLM to think about the same thing, more power to me.”

Complicating matters, last winter the bureau found the stream eligible for congressional consideration as a National Wild and Scenic River, a distinction that probably would limit vehicle access. The National Park Service probably will make the same finding.

The battle is expected to heat up well before a draft of the environmental review is released to the public later this year.

Earlier this month, 28 Trailblazers completed their purchase of a two-acre in-holding of private land at Panamint City. Private property owners have a right to access the canyon, although federal officials say not necessarily by vehicle.

When Trailblazer Brian Lollich researched the landowners, he found three: a sympathetic Upland man, who agreed to sell one parcel; a Texas man whose land is being bought and donated to the National Parks Foundation; and the bureau’s Crowe.


Crowe said he had not yet seen his 40-acre parcel, inherited from his father. His superiors and a bureau ethics official say his land ownership does not pose a conflict of interest. Crowe will present options to higher-ups, not make a final call on use of the canyon.

A decision on the type of access granted to private property owners also will depend in part on the park service.

Experts say the situation would pose a legal conflict only if Crowe stood to benefit financially from the decision. But it could clearly create headaches for the bureau.

“There’s a definite appearance of a conflict,” said Czajkowski, who is among the new landowners. “This isn’t over. Now we’re going to demand a key to the gate.”