Reprinted with permission from the Inyo Register
March 13, 2007
Residents gathered to talk about new management plan discuss what makes the Hills so near and dear in first place
By Jon Klusmire
If the biggest problem facing the future of the Alabama Hills is figuring out a simple process that will allow a young couple to hold a wedding in a scenic setting, creating a community vision for the hills will be as easy as walking down a rose pedal-covered dirt trail.
As it is, the first formal meeting convened to discuss the community’s preferences concerning rules and regulations in the Alabama Hills was pretty much a touchy-feely little love-fest.
Everyone in the audience in the VFW Hall in Lone Pine, including the young couple wanting to get married somewhere in the hills (no kidding, and yes someone suggested “Ambush Canyon”), professed their undying love for the Alabamas, and named particular areas, opportunities or activities that drove their passion for the area.
And, unlike many public-lands meetings, there was little friction or tension running through the audience, since it was, for the most part, the same cast of characters that has been driving volunteer and civic affairs in Lone Pine for years.
Plus, compared to more-contentious land use and public-land management issues in Inyo County, there aren’t huge, heartburn-causing problems lurking in the Alabama Hills that could potentially shatter the relationship between residents, visitors, the Bureau of Land Management and commercial users such as film companies.
“There’s no crisis” or pattern of destructive uses or problems in the Alabama Hills, noted Bill Dunkelberger, manager of the BLM Bishop office, which manages the 39,000 acres that make up the BLM’s portion of the Alabama Hills.
“It’s just time for us to be pro-active, work together and create a long-term vision” for the area, he said. As for what could come out of the community planning effort, “the sky’s the limit,” said Dunkelberger.
The BLM currently has a set of rules and regulations for using the Alabama Hills. But those guidelines have evolved over the years to address certain issues or concerns.
The general idea behind creating a “community stewardship strategy” is for the community and BLM to review the current rules and regulations and come up with a single document that contains the specific, specialized management plan for the Alabama Hills that is tailored to protect the land and the people’s right to use the land.
Putting together a special set of rules for the Alabamas isn’t exactly a new idea, so no one was surprised by the BLM’s move to start the process. For the past three years or so, there have been rounds of informal talks, parking-lot conferences and tailgate brainstorming sessions between BLM managers and the numerous residents who use the Alabamas for everything from rock climbing to sight-seeing to guiding movie-lovers to film locations to leading movie makers to places to shoot on location.
The BLM and the community “have been dating for the past three years,” said Chris Langley, Inyo County Film commissioner. The more formalized effort to gather input from the entire community and compile rules and regulations specific to the unique uses and resources of the Hills marks a more serious phase of the relationship between the two, he noted.
Jim Jennings, of the BLM almost blushed when he asked the group to take part in little “touchy-feely” exercise to kick off the deepening relationship. Jennings asked the group to close their eyes and imagine or visualize the things they love about the Alabama Hills.
The silent meditation was interspersed with the sounds from the yoga class in the adjoining room, but the group seemed to have no trouble getting in touch with what makes people have a crush on the Alabama Hills.
The first and most-often repeated comment from members of the group was “leave it alone.”
Unfortunately, the popular recreation spot is not being left alone by local residents and visitors, not to mention the commercial crush of television and movie crews.
The number of different “uses” people enjoy in the Alabamas is wide-ranging, noted Fifth District Supervisor Richard Cervantes. He said that during one of those impromptu meetings, several people tried to list all the activities that take place in the hills. They came up with at least 60, ranging from the mundane (driving around the area’s dirt roads) to the surprising (nude sunbathing, the best locations for which were not revealed).
The group then listed what it thought might be good additions or ideas for a community based management plan for the Hills. The list was long, and included more camping, less room for RVs, a good road inventory, paying special attention to the area’s arches and limiting off-highway vehicle cruising. (Fun fact: Doug Thompson, of the Whitney Portal Store, said there are about 119 rock arches in the Alabamas, and there are organized groups that not only track and count arches, but also try to help protect them.)
The group also listed what it loved about the Hills, whether it was the sunlight and shadows, the wildlife, the ability to drive around the area, the ability to walk around the area, or the general serenity, quiet and solitude. They wanted to keep all of those qualities.
But the audience was also fairly adamant about continuing to be able to access and use the Alabama Hills, for everything from a quiet walk to a photo outing to camping and dirt-road cruising.
Or, as Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce Director Kathleen New said, the idea is to be able to “exploit the Hills responsibly.”
In addition, the BLM and the group didn’t want to run out the movie and television production companies which use the Hills.
Langley noted that the area “gets a tremendous amount of use” from the Hollywood set, “and from time to time, they can do a great deal of damage.”
Langley and the Lone Pine Film Festival created a “Don’t Crush the Brush” campaign, complete with a cute little button, to try and explain the concept of not driving around off existing roads and, well, crushing brush, during a shoot.
Langley said, for the most part, most production companies are aware of and sensitive to those land use and resource concerns, but it’s hard to always have someone on hand to watch and make sure no brush was crushed in the making of a commercial or film shoot.
Film crews are not the only group that might benefit from a general education effort explaining the rules in place in the Alabamas, and the wild land ethics that should guide behaviors and inject respect for the land.
Robert Frickel said the old, abandoned Forest Service kiosk alongside Whitney Portal Road might be a good spot for a volunteer-staffed information booth. Langley noted the Film Festival leased the abandoned pack station buildings alongside the road, and maybe those buildings could be used for some “drive-by education” that makes a few quick points.
It was also suggested that volunteers, in the vein of campground hosts, could be stationed at the busier “intersections” and hand out maps and other information.
Jennings said that educating the public with even simple, one-page outlines of rules, regulations and expectations has worked well in other sites managed by the BLM.
The key to getting the community management plan heading in the right direction, he added, is coming up with a solid mission statement, or vision statement that could be used to guide the process.
Paul Payne, of Lone Pine, put all the touchy-feely, vision statement stuff into a more concise statement: “Let’s get everyone at the table and get started.”
The group’s optimism about taking a fairly well-managed situation at the Alabama Hills and being able to improve on it was summed up by Lone Pine resident and long-time water watch-dog and wildlife advocate Mike Prather: “This is a challenge, but it’s much easier than others” Inyo County communities have faced. “We can work it out.”
Starting to work on working it out is what’s going to start happening on a regular basis.
The next meeting of the group will take place March 20, at 6 p.m. and the first item on the agenda will be a review of the existing, and fairly extensive set of BLM rules and regulations governing the Alabama Hills.
And yes, there are rules about holding a wedding, since weddings are not generally allowed in the Alabama Hills. An application needs to be submitted, some spots might be off limits, port-a-potties might need to be imported, carpooling might be mandated and it’s unlikely that an all-night “reception,” with or without a keg and bonfire, would be allowed.
The young lovers seeking the BLM’s blessing for their blessed marriage day were told of those rules and asked to apply.
Of course, a smart aleck in the group pointed out that it would be quicker to merely claim the wedding was a documentary film, which would speed the permit process.
- Inyo Register, 3/13/07