Reporting from Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, Calif. -- California parks officials closed a gem of the state park system last spring, sadly shuttering Mitchell Caverns, a natural wonder that for eight decades had drawn visitors to this remote spot in the Mojave Desert.
Workers hauled away the precious Native American artifacts and historical documents and locked the gates, assuming the area would sit undisturbed until the state could afford to reopen it.
But several times in the last four months, vandals traveled 16 desolate miles north from Interstate 40 to plunder and damage the park’s isolated structures. Their actions left advocates for the caverns angry at the state and have officials working to improve plans to protect as many as 70 other California parks scheduled to close in July because of budget cuts.
The worst damage was to the 78-year-old rock-and-mortar visitors center at Mitchell Caverns, the main attraction of the 5,900-acre Providence Mountains State Recreation Area.
Intruders cut fences, kicked doors off of hinges and shattered windows and display cases. They stole metal signs and survival gear, including hand-held radios, flashlights and binoculars. They also stole diesel-powered generators and ripped out thousands of feet of electrical wire used to illuminate the only natural limestone caverns in the state park system, San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigators said.
“What happened at the visitors center is devastating and heartbreaking,” said Kathy Weatherman, superintendent of the California Parks and Recreation Department’s Tehachapi District. She said the caverns themselves were not damaged. The state is taking steps to try to prevent more destruction, including searching for a full-time caretaker, Weatherman said.
The attacks have heightened concerns about possible vandalism at other state parks scheduled for closure. Those 70 parks are among the least used in the state. They represent one-quarter of the 278 that exist across California but tally just 8% of total visits. Many are in remote areas where they are particularly vulnerable.
Officials are seeking anyone with the clout and funds to keep them from being left unguarded after they are closed. “Now, amid budget constraints, we’re looking for ways to get caretakers, guardians, local law enforcement and volunteers to protect these precious places,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
As with so many cuts in California government spending these days, the hope is that once the budget improves, the state will restore services and amenities that have long made the state a rich place to live. But there are no guarantees, especially because just 13 of the state parks and beaches are financially self-sustaining. Fans of many of the parks scheduled for closure are scrambling to try to find some combination of private funds and volunteerism to keep the gates open, fearing that if they ever close it could be for good.
The Mitchell Caverns visitors center, 220 miles east of Los Angeles, had been the home of the caverns’ original owners, Los Angeles businessman Jack Mitchell and his wife, Ida. The couple moved to the desert to open the caverns as a tourist attraction in the 1930s and sold them to the state in 1954. A memorial plaque says the Mitchells wanted the state to preserve the area and the caverns “for future generations to appreciate.”
Sue Ellen Patrick, 71, granddaughter of Jack and Ida Mitchell, said of the destruction: “My family feels betrayed because the state didn’t do what it promised us, which is protect the caves and the heritage.”
State Parks and Recreation Department officials decided to mothball the area last May because of two unrelated events. The park’s two rangers retired and the state found serious problems with the water system, said Linda Slater, resource interpreter at the nearby Mojave National Preserve. The state couldn’t afford the repairs needed to keep the park open.
After valuables were removed, the property was left unguarded, parks officials said.
“The state locked up the place and then walked away, leaving it wide open to troublemakers,” said Dennis Casebier, executive director of the nonprofit Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Assn.
Said cattle rancher Rob Blair, 54, who lives within view of Mitchell Caverns: “It’s disgusting what’s going on out there. These intruders were pretty bold to cut the locks off a state park gate, then tear everything up and steal big-ticket items.”
Park officials estimate the damage at $100,000.
Responding to a trespassing call on Feb. 5, sheriff’s deputies arrested Christopher Alvarado, 48, of Azusa and Trisha Sutton, 36, of Covina. Deputies said they found stolen items at the couple’s campsite near Mitchell Caverns. Alvarado and Sutton were booked on suspicion of burglary, receiving stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and possession of burglary tools, Sheriff’s Lt. Ross Tarangle said.
The investigation continues, with police trying to determine whether other people were involved.
Although police reports indicate that a person interviewed at the site said vandals found a key to the cavern gates and destroyed natural features inside, Tarangle said those reports have yet to be confirmed, and parks officials insist they have no evidence the caverns were damaged.
From a distance, the entrance to the caverns resembles two large eyes on a massive rock. Their earliest inhabitants included a Pleistocene ground sloth that stumbled into the darkness 15,000 years ago and left claw marks on a wall. Later, the caverns were blackened with smoke from the fires of Chemehuevi Indians who used them for shelter, storage and ceremonial purposes for at least 500 years.
This week, Kevin Forrester, sector superintendent for the parks department, recalled memories of better times as he walked along a path to the visitors center.
“Look at it now,” Forrester said with a sigh. “We’ve had to board up the windows and weld the doors shut.
“It’s going to take a lot of money to bring this place back to life.”