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Old 11-19-2005, 01:39 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Battle looms over Death Valley's Surprise Canyon

November 18, 2005

Battle looms over Death Valley's Surprise Canyon
CONSERVATIONISTS HOPE TO RESTRICT ACCESS TO NATURAL TREASURE IN PANAMINT MOUNTAINS
By ROBIN FLINCHUM
SPECIAL TO THE PVT

Words like bower and grotto aren't often used to describe the Death Valley desert, but a narrow canyon in the Panamint Range, aptly named Surprise, is all about the unexpected.

Here, in a hidden grotto, lush maidenhair ferns and verdant green moss grow under the constant spill of a fresh, coldwater springhead. Here, an endangered bird species has come to forage for the first time in recorded history. Here, a rare, year-round, strong-running creek rushes over a series of smoothly carved rock waterfalls.

And here, in this quiet place only disturbed by occasional military flyovers, a coalition of environmental groups has drawn a line in the sand, determined to protect the canyon and its creek from being thrown under the wheels of super modified off-road vehicles.

Actually, it's a line in the creek, an iron barrier standing sentinel at the mouth of the canyon, keeping off-roaders at bay until the federal government makes up its mind about the future of this unusual place.

Up until 1874, the trail up through the narrow canyon remained fairly undisturbed, traveled mostly by bighorn sheep, American Indians, and the occasional prospector. But a silver strike in the Panamints that year led to a mining boom that changed the canyon forever.

A town sprang up at the top of the canyon and eventually, with much toil and strife, a passable road was constructed to allow for vehicle traffic. Panamint City boomed and busted within a year, but the road remained and prospectors, mining hopefuls and later, tourists continued to travel it in small numbers for the next 100 years with regular repairs to damage caused by flash floods.

Then came 1984, which brought a deluge that all but destroyed the road. In 1990 another flash flood finished it off and, where the old roadway now merged with the Surprise Creek bed, it became instead an attraction for extreme off-road enthusiasts. Using winches and sometimes dragging their expensive, super-modified vehicles sideways up the narrow, twisting waterfalls and churning their way through the stream, off-roaders made their way up the canyon to the remains of Panamint City.

Surprise Canyon was considered by many as one of the most challenging off-road sites in the state. Few hikers ventured into the area and visitation was minimal, since few off-roaders could afford the specialized equipment necessary or the vehicle damage that often resulted. But while their numbers were small, the impact was large, said Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

In 2001, a lawsuit filed by the Center and the Sierra Club, among others, forced the Bureau of Land Management, responsible for the lower portion of the canyon, to close off the area to all vehicle traffic. "We don't say close the road," Patterson pointed out, "because there is no road left. The road is gone."

What was left was the Surprise Creek bed and all the wildlife and habitat it supported. Because of the rare and endangered species found in the canyon, the Center's lawsuit claimed that the BLM failed to meet its responsibilities in protecting the habitat. Now, pending the results of an environmental impact study, Surprise Canyon remains closed.

With the results of that study, which could possibly reopen the canyon to vehicle traffic, expected as early as January, representatives of the Center for Biological Diversity are stepping up their efforts to protect the canyon. Surprisingly, what stands in their way is not so much the extreme off-road community. Apart from a group of 35 enthusiasts out of Bakersfield, Calif., said Patterson, off-roaders have been very quiet on the issue.

The real obstacle in achieving protected status for the canyon, said Patterson, was the national political climate and what he called a disconnect between the regional Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service representatives responsible for the management of the canyon and more political higher-ups in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

"As far as I know, no one in Inyo County supports the reopening of the canyon," Patterson said. "But we have a hostile, anti-conservationist climate in the White House. If we had a reasonable political climate, this would be a no-brainer. If it were left to the local field office to make the decision, we believe the local BLM officials support keeping the canyon closed." Death Valley National Park officials have also said they support the closure of the canyon.

A small group of off-roaders in Bakersfield did purchase interest in a mining claim in the canyon, Patterson said, and requested access based on their property rights. However, he added, they made the purchase after the canyon was closed and so had little grounds for complaint since they well knew the situation.

Nevertheless, the ultimate question at issue is one confronting federal land management authorities all over the country - public access versus preservation of natural scenic and habitat resources. For Patterson, the answer to this question is simple. To open Surprise Canyon to vehicle traffic "would allow maybe 30 people to go in and tear it up with their super expensive jeeps. This is not a poor man's sport." Patterson estimated that the vehicle modifications necessary to make the crawl up the canyon could cost as much as $50,000.

Because their numbers were relatively small, in the past off-roaders often claimed that their visits to the canyon had minimal impact on the riparian habitat or the Surprise Creek bed, a year-round, strong-running stream. Patterson and others vehemently disagree.

In the four years since the closure of the canyon, the landscape has changed dramatically, said George Barnes of the Sierra Club. Barnes has been visiting the canyon for more than 50 years, he said, and now, "it's a different canyon."

Willow and cottonwood trees have grown up in abundance, hiding any trace of what was left of a roadway. "It's unrecognizable from the days when the old road was in place," Barnes said.

Probably the most important change noted by the Wilderness Coalition and others is the presence of the Inyo Towhee, an endangered bird never before seen in Surprise Canyon. The experts' best guess, said Geary Hund, of the Wilderness Society, is that the Towhee may have inhabited the canyon years ago and, now that the land has returned to its natural state, the Towhee has come home to roost.

Another new species in the canyon is the two-legged human backpacker. Since its closure to vehicle traffic, the canyon has attracted more and more hikers. A logbook at the trailhead registered a total of 554 visitors in the past year - many more than would have been able to access the canyon by jeep. Few hikers visited the canyon before the closure, possibly deterred by the noise and disruption of vehicle traffic, Hund said. The closure "is changing the nature of recreation here. Hikers are coming in far greater numbers. The foot traffic now exceeds the previous vehicle traffic and far more people benefit."

In fact, Patterson maintained, apart from the Bakersfield Trailblazers, the Center has heard very little protest from off-roaders. "The issue only applies to an extremely small subset of people," he said.

However, even a small convoy of vehicles traveling over the creek bed can't help but do damage to fragile habitat, said Paul McFarland of the Friends of Inyo, an environmental stewardship group.

The canyon's wetland riparian habitat is a rare thing, said McFarland, especially in the desert. Less than 1 percent of federally managed land in the mainland United States is designated as wetland-riparian. The canyon is also home to the rare Panamint Daisy and Panamint Alligator Lizard, McFarland said, among many other unusual plants and birds, including the endangered Least Bells Vireo.

That the very fragile aquatic habitat in the creek bed should be protected is, to McFarland, only common sense. Jeeps traveling through the creek spill oil and radiator fluid when turned over on their sides, he said. "Every time they pop an oil pan it goes right into this creek."

"I think it's ridiculous that the BLM is having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars studying this," McFarland said. Plus, he said, the costs to the federal government to maintain the route if it were reopened would be astounding. "It would be a ridiculous use of public funds when the government can't even afford to keep toilet paper in public bathrooms."

Patterson said his group loosely estimated that the federal government has spent nearly $500,000 in an effort to determine whether the canyon should be reopened "for 30 rich people who want to tear it up with their Jeeps."

The top of Surprise Canyon is under the jurisdiction of the Death Valley National Park Service, but the ultimate question of access will have to be decided by the Bureau of Land Management, since the beginning of the route falls within its jurisdiction.

Currently all that stands between the creek bed and determined off-road enthusiasts is a wide iron bar gate across the creek near the trailhead. Whether the federal government will see fit to remove the bar or cement it in place for good remains to be seen.

Patterson said the Center for Biological Diversity would continue to hold the line, whatever the federal government decides in its upcoming report, drafted by a political official far from Inyo County. "If the BLM makes a decision so out of touch with the local community, they're picking a fight. If the canyon reopens it will be a big fight and it will take a lot of our resources, but I believe we will win and it will be a huge embarrassment to the BLM."

Meanwhile, songbirds are singing and lizards are leaping in the newly revived grottos and bowers of this surprising desert canyon.

Find this article at:
http://www.pahrumpvalleytimes.com/20...ws/canyon.html
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Old 11-19-2005, 05:44 PM   #2 (permalink)
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is it me or does this "story" seem biased?

rich people eh?

nice spin on this
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Old 11-21-2005, 10:22 AM   #3 (permalink)
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No kidding. Most of the vehicles I've seen travel Surprise are WAY short of that $50k mark. Hell, my vehicle has less than 10K total into it and It'd make it. Obviously someone does not know what he's talking about and is exaggerating his viewpoint to support his claims. A well equipped vehicle with good size tires, lockers and a good winch + driver can make a lot of obstacles, if you don't mind body damage and winching.

Also, I don't see the Government maintaining the trail. It'd be maintained by a local club, like most trails, with very little support from the Gov.

Now whether there are significant resources to protect that wheeled transportation would disrupt, I don't know. If it was proven with solid, NON-BIASED facts, I'd be more willing to support a closure. In this case, I'm leaning towards re-opening the trail as the above article is littered with exaggerations and one sided BS.
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Old 11-22-2005, 04:58 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Crowdog
November 18, 2005

Battle looms over Death Valley's Surprise Canyon
CONSERVATIONISTS HOPE TO RESTRICT ACCESS TO NATURAL TREASURE IN PANAMINT MOUNTAINS
By ROBIN FLINCHUM
SPECIAL TO THE PVT

****

A small group of off-roaders in Bakersfield did purchase interest in a mining claim in the canyon, Patterson said, and requested access based on their property rights. However, he added, they made the purchase after the canyon was closed and so had little grounds for complaint since they well knew the situation.

Nevertheless, the ultimate question at issue is one confronting federal land management authorities all over the country - public access versus preservation of natural scenic and habitat resources. For Patterson, the answer to this question is simple. To open Surprise Canyon to vehicle traffic "would allow maybe 30 people to go in and tear it up with their super expensive jeeps. This is not a poor man's sport." Patterson estimated that the vehicle modifications necessary to make the crawl up the canyon could cost as much as $50,000.

Because their numbers were relatively small, in the past off-roaders often claimed that their visits to the canyon had minimal impact on the riparian habitat or the Surprise Creek bed, a year-round, strong-running stream. Patterson and others vehemently disagree.

****

In fact, Patterson maintained, apart from the Bakersfield Trailblazers, the Center has heard very little protest from off-roaders. "The issue only applies to an extremely small subset of people," he said.

****

Patterson said his group loosely estimated that the federal government has spent nearly $500,000 in an effort to determine whether the canyon should be reopened "for 30 rich people who want to tear it up with their Jeeps."

****

Find this article at:
http://www.pahrumpvalleytimes.com/20...ws/canyon.html

You would think that with only a "small" group of people from the pro-access side of the issue, and the apparent easy identification of whom they are, the author and editor would ask them for a contrasting quote on motorized access to drive on Surprise Canyon Road?

With the reported affluence of the pro-access motorists the author and their editor could probably get a free meal if they asked for a meeting in person ... or is the intent of this "journalism" presenting fact-based information or biased editorial?

Will you give the pro-access activists a chance to offer their side of the story (at a minimum, you may get a free meal)?

(*(anyone else want to help with a letter to the editor?)*)

Happy Trails!
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Old 11-22-2005, 05:49 PM   #5 (permalink)
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In fact, Patterson maintained, apart from the Bakersfield Trailblazers, the Center has heard very little protest from off-roaders. "The issue only applies to an extremely small subset of people," he said.



This Patterson has no shame. This is what we are dealing with.
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Old 11-22-2005, 08:06 PM   #6 (permalink)
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I'll be writing my letter tomorrow morning...
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Old 11-22-2005, 09:05 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ed A. Stevens
...

(*(anyone else want to help with a letter to the editor?)*)

Happy Trails!
Ed, just sent you a few emails.

Everyone else.
There are people right now devoting alot of time to responding to these articles, and another in the works. We are working very hard to shine a positive light on our cause.
The writer from the Las Vegas Sun has an interest in showing both sides of the story.

Do not bombard these writers or papers with negative or disrespectful comments.

Please be non-emotional in your response. Do not convey anything that can be taken out of context or used to portray off-highway vehicle users as people that do not care for Surprise Canyon. Please be accurate, use facts not opinions, and most of all... be polite.

Any communication with the media needs to be respectful and to the point.
They need to know that we are here, but our comments must be focused and respectful. This is crucial at all times.
Any aggressive responses to the media's apparently "biased" articles about evil off-roaders does nothing but support the notion that we are all destructive.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled thread...

Happy typing...

kris.
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