Joshua Tree National Park
Hairy Desert Sunflowers at Joshua Tree National Park
was named a national monument in 1936, created to preserve this special place where two deserts meet. Originally, the proposed name was Desert Plants National Park, to honor the wide diversity of plants from the Mojave and the Colorado deserts found here.
This land has been occupied by humans for thousands of years, and thanks to its protected status, the artifacts of the earliest settlers are protected as national treasures instead of winding up on the fireplace mantle of a private home.
To a hurried traveler, the desert may look like a wasteland devoid of life forms, yet it is actually brimming with life. There are herds of bighorn sheep that can be spotted on the rocky hillsides of desert canyons, and bobcats and mountain lions that are usually detected by the tracks they leave behind. Joshua Tree is home to the threatened desert tortoise and has six different species of rattlesnakes.
Joshua Tree lies astride a major bird flyway, and every year the call goes out for volunteers to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count. Springtime brings an incredible variety of birds on their way north, and we know summer is here with the appearance of the turkey vultures.
Clockwise from top left: Big Horn Sheep, Yearling Mountain Lion, Desert Tortoises
We fell in love with this magical place when we stepped outside on a clear winter morning in 1989 and could hear the wind whistle through the wings of a raven. There is a stillness and serenity in this isolated landscape that we have found nowhere else. Like many others, we were alarmed at talk of turning the Eagle Mountain Mine into a gigantic landfill for use by the residents of Los Angeles.
Please follow below the fold for the rest of the story.
Click to enlarge
Last week the local radio station, Z107.7, Morongo Basin Broadcasting, reported:
A 28-year legal battle over the use of the former Kaiser Eagle Mountain Iron Mine property is over. United States District Judge Robert Timlin ruled December 18 that the 2,846 acres of land be returned to the public, setting aside a planned land exchange and any further development plans for the area surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National park. The judge also ruled that former railroad properties be turned over to the BLM.
Henry Kaiser was probably best known for his innovative method of shipbuilding that allowed the United States to build Liberty Ships
faster than the German U-boats could sink them. Never content to only control one part of an enterprise, Kaiser opened the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana
at the end of 1942. In 1948 he opened the Eagle Mountain Mine to provide iron ore for the steel mill in Fontana.
Those were the glory days of Kaiser Steel, founded by Henry J. Kaiser to provide steel for his wartime shipbuilding efforts. Historian Mark S. Foster called Kaiser Steel the "linchpin" of the powerful Kaiser industrial empire that included businesses in aluminum, cement, electronics, automobile manufacturing and health care.
Click on image to enlarge
Congress carved out the Eagle Mountain mine from the Joshua Tree National Monument in 1950. The mine operated until the early 1980s, when the Fontana steel mill closed, a victim of Japanese steelmakers' low-cost imports. The mine sat idle for a while, as Kaiser Steel filed for bankruptcy in 1987 and came out as Kaiser Ventures in the 1990s.
Kaiser Ventures wanted to use the mine as a massive garbage dump for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. The intent was to ship trash 150 miles east of Los Angeles via rail. In order to accommodate the proposed sale, Kaiser worked a deal with the Bureau of Land Management to swap land along its railroad between the mine and the Salton Sea to the south, for land surrounding the mine.
The proposed use of land adjacent to the park as a landfill was fiercely contested by environmentalists who filed multiple lawsuits to stop the project. The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles found an alternate smaller site in Imperial County and the plan was dropped in 2013.
One of the activists is Donna Charpied, executive director of the Desert Protection Society, who lives in Desert Center, near the ghost town of Eagle Mountain. Her organization and the National Parks Conservation Association were the lead plaintiffs in the 1999 lawsuit that challenged the BLM land swap. According to the Desert Sun:
But conservation groups have long criticized the exchange, saying that it was carried out illegally and that federal land managers got the worse end of the deal. They’ve also argued that the exchange is no longer necessary now that the landfill plan has been scrapped.
Satellite view of Eagle Mountain Mine - Click to enlarge
There are still plans afoot for a hydroelectric plant (yes, hydroelectricity from a desert) it is doubtful that Kaiser's remaining land is adequate for that project. The Eagle Crest Energy Company received Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval last year for a project that would pump water from the desert aquifer to one of the mine pits where it would generate electricity as it is released into a lower mine pit. Its future is uncertain, but it is known that it would face even fiercer resistance than the landfill proposal.
Kaiser could choose to sell the property to other mining operators who could re-open it.
Hanging over that debate are accusations that Kaiser has kept control of the property by colluding with mining regulators. Those concerns have been raised not only by local activists but also by former state mining officials.
"When you look at a map, you see Joshua Tree National Park, and it looks like somebody stuck their thumb in it," said Jim Pompy, who led California's Office of Mine Reclamation in 2011 and 2012. "That's Eagle Mountain mine, and that land was taken out. It seems like when that land is no longer mined, it should go back."
One of the regulators who oversaw Kaiser's request for mine reactivation in 2012, Thomas P. Ferrero,
is currently under investigation by the state for allegedly falsifying the state mine inspection of the Eagle Mountain Mine that allowed it to be taken off the abandoned list.
Conservationists like Donna Charpied would like to see the land revert back to the National Park. When asked for a comment on acquiring the land Park Superintendent David Smith said:
“There are benefits to having those lands protected by the National Park Service, The wildlife corridor is important to Big Horn Sheep and the mine itself is of historical value, illustrating the historical and cultural affects of the Kaiser Mine.”
As far as the former Eagle Mountain lands becoming part of Joshua Tree National Park, Smith deferred, saying, “The decision whether or not to bring those lands into the park is a decision that will be made in Washington, D.C.”