Sunday, February 26, 2012

Shuttered California state parks may be vulnerable to vandalism

Damage to the visitors center and other structures at Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert has officials working to improve plans to protect as many as 70 other California parks scheduled to close in July because of budget cuts.
Kevin Forrester, a superintendent with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, walks inside Mitchell Caverns at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. Since the remote park's closure, intruders have cut fences, kicked doors off of hinges and shattered windows and display cases at the visitors center. Critics say it might be a harbinger of what's to come when 70 more state parks are closed because of budget cuts. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / February 22, 2012)

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

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Workers hauled away the precious Native American artifacts and historical documents and locked the gates, assuming the area would sit undisturbed until the state could afford to reopen it.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."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New book, upcoming panel discussion highlight Mojave Desert

Beverly Dudley, 80, of Victorville, can still point out trees standing today that were part of the parks original design after her efforts in 1956 helped build Center Street Park in Victorville.

Victorville Daily Press

VICTORVILLE • In a long plaid skirt and turtleneck sweater, Beverly Dudley dug a shovel into a dry field at the corner of Center and Verde streets.

It was 1956, and Dudley was heading up the effort to build Center Street Park — Victorville's first real park, complete with lit ball fields, brick barbecues and public restrooms.

Dudley, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, contributed a small memoir and several photographs from this time to the latest edition in a series of books written about local history, thoughtfully titled "Mohahve VI."

"When people see 'Mohahve' written that way, they think it's a mistake, like we misspelled it or something," Richard Thompson, past president of the Mohahve Historical Society, said with a chuckle.

The 'Mohahve' series is compiled and edited by members of the Mohahve Historical Society. Some of the local authors will be at their monthly meeting Thursday to promote the book and answer questions about their contributions. The public is encouraged to participate in the panel discussion, which will feature the authors and editors, some dressed in 1950s-style clothes, and music and refreshments.

The book is a collection of 19 essays, some of which are scholarly, professional and annotated, while others are stories of events told by "old-timers." Most of the stories are personal accounts supported with court documents and military or government records. Thompson contributed an essay about Max Strobel, the original founder of what is now Hesperia and parts of Victorville.

"It's important to know about your local history," Thompson said. "If you're living in any area, you should know a little something about it."

Thompson, who moved up to the High Desert from San Bernardino in 1990, is a retired public works engineer and a history buff. He was stunned when he moved up here and realized that very little local history had been recorded, and at once began his research in the fields of geography and history, recording what he learned along the way.

Fran Elgin, vice president of the society, is a major contributor and organizer for "Mohahve VI" and its predecessors, starting with the original "Mohahve I" which, in itself, has its own interesting record. According to Elgin and other members, the original "Mohahve" series idea started at Victor Valley College in the early 1960s with a group of students who had a penchant for local history. In 1963 the students formed the Mohahve Historical Society, which has published books, held meetings and kept history alive for almost 50 years now.

The original "Mohahve" book included stories from people who had lived in the High Desert around the turn of the century. Since its origin, students, society members and local citizens have all donated their time and material to keep the series going.

"Research for these books was like prospecting for facts, panning for gold," Thompson said. "The little nuggets of information you find along the way make my research so interesting."

"These books, this book … they are a true labor of love for us," said Elgin, who moved to the High Desert in the 1960s from St. Louis. Elgin is a retired librarian from Victor Valley College, where she worked for 25 years. She now volunteers Tuesday mornings in the library's Local History Room.

The society also published in 2010 Leo Lyman's "History of Victor Valley," which, according to Elgin, would have been more difficult to compile if it had not been for all the time, donations and hard work provided by so many people who care about the community and its rich history.

"Nobody was paid for their contributions," Elgin said. "We just love our town and we want everyone to come out and support their community. There are a lot of really nice people who have a lot to share."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Homesteading in the Mojave

by Chris Clarke

Journalist Delilah L. Beasley documented African-Americans' contribution to California in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In this era when "urban" has become a coded phrase meaning "African-American," it can be easy to forget that California's desert backcountry has a rich African-American history of its own. Black California history isn't limited to the 213 and the 510: the 760 is pretty well-represented in its own right.

For generations the California deserts represented both opportunity and the possibility of being left alone to live your own life. Both of these siren songs were alluring to many African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The deserts of California, namely the Mohave and at Victorville, are government lands, and quite a few colored people have taken up homesteads on this land and are improving them. Some sections have been found to contain oil. Many of the colored people have bought this land and afterwards sold it for a good margin.

So wrote Delilah L. Beasley, the first African-American woman to land a regular writing gig with a major metropolitan daily newspaper, in her 1919 book The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Beasley, quite an interesting figure herself, traveled the length and breadth of the state doing research for the book. The work almost killed her. A poignant note in the preface reads:

During the past year the author has been in very serious ill health and all during the long months of illness there were a few good, staunch friends who voluntarily sent money whenever they wrote and never allowed her for one moment to entertain a thought that she would not get well nor complete the book.

Beasley did live another 15 years after writing that preface, long enough to land a column at the Oakland Tribune, lobby for California's passage of an anti-lynching law, and organize for the establishment of the then-controversial International House at UC Berkeley.

The legacy of the desert homesteaders she mentioned was not always as monumental. The East Mojave's Lanfair Valley, now mostly part of the Mojave National Preserve, offers an example.

In 1910, the first year of homesteading in the Lanfair Valley, six land claims were filed by black people, a respectable proportion of the total number of claims. All in all 17 African-American families homesteaded the valley, most of them in the vicinity of Dunbar - a settlement intended to serve as a center for African-American folks. Dunbar's Post Office opened in 1912, within a month of the opening of another Post Office a tenth of a mile away, in Lanfair. The two offices operated in a kind of de facto racial segregation until 1914, when, according to local historian Dennis Casebier, the U.S. Post Office noticed the redundancy and closed Dunbar's P.O.

Ambitious projects nearby included an orphanage for black youth and the planned community of Harts, billed by its founders G.W. Harts and Howard Folke as "bringing freedom and independence to a limited number of colored people." Neither really got off the ground, though a few young boys did move there from orphanages in the Los Angeles area for a time.

African-American homesteaders proved more resilient. The first half of the decade after 1910 was unusually rainy, and the Lanfair Valley saw a flurry of attempts at wheat farming, some more successful than others. Black families lived with their white neighbors in what must have seemed a liberatingly democratic fashion, the adults helping on each other's farms and the kids sitting together in school. This early integration had its limits, though. As Casebier writes,

In talking with people from that period (black and white) there is an almost categorical denial of any prejudice or discrimination between whites and blacks... In spite of this kind of testimony - which I consider to be honest but somewhat naive - there is evidence of some discrimination.

In speaking of her black neighbors one resident] said "I don't think they ever came to any of our dances." There's a reason for this. I have a copy of the bylaws for the social organization in Lanfair Valley called the Yucca Club and under the heading of who is eligible for membership the bylaws stated clearly that a member could be "any white person in the valley." This is the club that organized the dances.

Also in interviewing black homesteaders (remembering they were children in the teens) they seemed to know little about the community picnics and pioneer celebrations held at Lanfair on the 4th of July and they did not attend them. That tells me that likely their parents did not feel welcome at those gatherings - as they were specifically not welcome at the community dances each month.

Black and white homesteaders had a common enemy in those days: the Rock Springs Cattle Company, which held grazing rights to much of the Lanfair Valley, resented the homesteaders and did its best to chase them out. According to the National Park Service,

The homesteaders experienced constant conflict with the Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company. The company considered Lanfair Valley to be some of the best part of its range, and resented the "intrusion" of settlement. The company denied water to the settlers, forcing them to use the few public springs or dig expensive wells. Cattle trampled carefully nurtured crops, sometimes allegedly after the cowboys cut the nesters' fences. In return, the farmers would occasionally help themselves to beef. The cattle company brought in hired thugs, and rumors swirled claiming some homesteaders' cabins burned to ashes under mysterious circumstances.

In the end it was rain as much as racism that undid the African-American community in the Lanfair Valley: by the second half of the decade the climate reverted to its extremely arid type, wheat crops failed, and one by one homesteaders moved away to better opportunities elsewhere. By 1927 the population had dwindled to the point where the Postal Service was compelled to close the Lanfair Post Office. What remains now is cleared land, foundation stones, and the occasional fence line -- some of it still owned by the descendants of the homesteaders.

But in the few short boom years residents of the Lanfair Valley may well have enjoyed more relative freedom, and less hatred, than any other African-Americans in the U.S. In Casebier's words:

The fertile soil yielded crops with which homesteaders (black and white) could sustain themselves. The children made their own games and toys and played among the wonderland of Joshua trees. From where they lived east of Lanfair a half mile or more -- they could see the smoke of the train rising above the Joshuas and hear the whistle as the train came through twice a day - once early in the morning from Goffs to Searchlight and later in the day back from Searchlight to Goffs. They had a fine school in Lanfair with efficient teachers and friendly students and parents. There were outings to magical places like Fort Piute and Piute Creek and occasional visits to Goffs and sometimes even into Needles.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs.

Museum plans events for Arizona Centennial

COLORADO RIVER MUSEUM: The Colorado River Historical Society and Museum, between the Laughlin Bridge and Davis Camp, is planning two days of events for local celebration of the Arizona Centennial.

The Daily News

BULLHEAD CITY — With the Arizona Centennial less than two weeks away, the Colorado River Historical Society and Museum is preparing two days’ worth of events for the public to enjoy.

Museum president Dave McDaniel said the society has been hard at work on creating an interactive pathway around the museum grounds that will provide snippets of history from Arizona’s century of statehood. The path will include items that hearken back to the area’s history, with numbered markers that correspond to a brochure visitors can reference to read about Bullhead City’s past, from the first Native American settlers, to the Colorado riverboat days of the mid-19th century, to the founding of Hardyville, the area’s original white settlement.

“The new pathway that runs around the museum is going to be designated the Arizona Centennial Pathway, and along the pathway we’re going to have little snapshots of history,” McDaniel said. “Along each stop there are numbers, and in the brochure, they give information about Hardyville, steamboats in the area, the Beale Wagon Road, and we have a mural that was painted by Paul Jackson, who is the tribal artist for the Mojaves.”

Inside the museum, McDaniel said, visitors will find both current and historical maps of the state dating back to 1912, as well as some other artifacts that are indicative of local life during the early part of the last century.

“On Feb. 11, we’re going to have an open house from 11 in the morning until 2, and the city council’s and some of the Fort Mojave tribal members are invited,” McDaniel added. “And we’re going to have some souvenirs we’re going to give out. We’re going to have coin envelopes with wheat pennies in them that mention the Colorado River Museum and the ‘cent’ennial.”

Then at 1 p.m. on the Feb. 11, McDaniel said the museum will host a going-away celebration in honor of Bullhead City’s first elected mayor, J. Michael “Mike” Love, who will be departing to Sacramento, Calif., with his wife Gloria after spending the last 32 years here. On Wednesday, Love dropped by the Bullhead City Hall, where he bid his formal good-byes to current mayor Jack Hakim and City Manager Toby Cotter, receiving a certificate of appreciation and the key to the city for his service.

Following the open house, on the day of the actual centennial, Feb. 14, McDaniel said the museum is planning a host of programs for the day, running from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The programs will include presentations on a number of subjects including Hardyville and Original Bullhead, as well as a video presentation on the steamboats of the Colorado River and a hike to “Museum Rock,” a nearby Indian petroglyph.

The museum’s regular hours of operation are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, or a full schedule of centennial events, call 928-758-7643 or 928-754-3399.