Published February 10 on the Hi-Desert Star website:
Land under attack is critical to wild animals
By Russell DrakeWhen wildlife resource advocate Pat Flanagan told the Yucca Valley Town Council last October that Section 11, a square mile of town-owned desert, deserved protection as a “wildlife highway” between the San Bernardino Mountains and the eastern Mojave, council members unanimously approved placement of signs banning off-road vehicles and illegal trash dumpers.
But before the edict could be carried out, some unknowns ripped Section 11 right up the gut. Within days following a gentle evening rain Dec. 12, while the ground was still wet, two heavy, wide-tracked vehicles entered Section 11 where the chaparrosa wash crosses Sage Avenue on its way to an intersection with Pipes Canyon Wash, part of the network of “wildlife highways” critical to animal mobility.
Flattening brush and a myriad of desert plants on both sides of the wash and up the middle, the big machines laid down a trail of mayhem to an intersection with an ugly scar formed by ORV tracks slicing diagonally across Section 11 from near the corner of Highway 247 and New Horizons Road, to the northeast corner of Aberdeen Drive and Sage Avenue.
The drivers exited Section 11 with a wild ride across a barren mesa struggling to recover from an August 1995 burn that left hundreds of whitened Joshua tree skeletons in its wake.
Who were the mysterious drivers? Were they off-roaders sending a message to those who would limit their access to wildlands? Where they a sheriff’s posse of four-by-fours chasing fleeing dirt bikers? Or could they have been only joy riders impetuously turning into the desert for a quick high?
Recreational driving can be expensive. “One four-wheel-drive vehicle can do $40,000 to $50,000 in damage to the desert in a single day,” says David Bainbridge, associate professor of business at Alliant International University in San Diego. Dr. Bainbridge has written a book on the subject.
Desert ecologist Jeffrey E. Lovich of the U.S Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., says repairing ORV damage in the Colorado and Mojave deserts alone could exceed $1 billion and “take many years.”
Seemingly an insignificant patch on the vast Mojave checkerboard, Section 11 is becoming a significant player, if not a superstar, in the battle to save the desert from recreational ORV holocaust and other mindless assaults on defenseless land.
“Section 11 is part of something bigger,” observes Joshua Tree National Park chief ecologist Michael Vamstad.
In recognition of its key location, Section 11 is outlined in red on a “linkage design” map used by Stephanie Weigel, a regional land use planner with the Morongo Basin Open Space Group, to study ways in which humans and wildlife can coexist on the shrinking Mojave Desert.
The new type of map was prepared by Kristeen Penrod of Southcoast Wildlands and funded by The Wildlands Conservancy.
As the term “linkage design” suggests, the map shows the connectivity of wildlife corridors (highways) between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Bullion Mountains behind the Twentynine Palms Marine base.
One early morning last summer, Dawn Noble, who has lived on the border of Section 11 since 1970, saw a veritable herd of coyotes, numbering an estimated of 20 to 30 animals consisting equally of adults and half-grown pups, crossing the beleaguered desert outpost, an encouraging sign that it still serves as a key link in the chain of wild-animal highways.
In an effort to preserve this function, the town expects in weeks to complete the installation of signs banning off-road vehicles and trash dumping, according to Deputy Town Manager Shane Stueckle.