A dry stream bed at the base of the Avawatz Mountains.
Lost Sheep Springs in the Avawatz Mountains.  (BLM/Jerry Magee)

Spring-Loaded Wilderness Inventory in the California Desert Conservation Area

By Jerry Magee


When the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 gave BLM its wilderness mandate, the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) was singled out to prepare a comprehensive land use plan, complete with wilderness inventory and study, within 4 years of enactment.  Our efforts to establish procedures in advance of any national wilderness guidance included researching the existing programs of the three agencies with 12 years of experience in all aspects of the wilderness program:  the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Forest Service.  We even attended Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) workshops and interviewed personnel to learn what worked and didn’t work as they inventoried and studied their lands.

Many of the initial concepts for BLM’s wilderness inventory were tested during the CDCA inventory.  For example, does a 2-mile road extending into a 50,000-acre unit preclude it from being “roadless”?  Some were adamant that it did, but we asked, “If you bulldoze the road clear through to the other side, thereby cutting it into two 25,000-acre units, would they now be roadless?”  This extreme notion is what we called making “wilderness with bulldozers.”  We proceeded under the assumption that we could draw the boundary around the outside of such spur roads and that we could also carve out any unnatural features (e.g., mining sites) near the edges of the units.

I offered the word “cherrystem” for this practice, having just returned from a visit to my hometown where I attended a public meeting to support development of a bike trail on an abandoned railroad right-of-way.  I learned that environmental advocates opposed the trail on the grounds that cities were circumventing antisprawl regulations by annexing linear rights-of-way to become contiguous with desirable satellite communities.  They called the practice “cherrystemming,” as the linear “stems” allowed annexation of the “cherry” at the other end.  Although excluding the CDCA road spurs, often with some form of development at the end, was somewhat the reverse of the cherrystem concept, this term quickly became part of BLM’s wilderness inventory terminology.

Armed with our newly established inventory procedures, four teams of two BLM specialists would set out on Monday morning to inventory vast swaths of the 25-million-acre California Desert.  The first vehicle breakdown would usually occur by Wednesday, and it became a contest of which vehicle could limp back under its own power by Friday.  On one such occasion, we were training two new employees while assessing the Avawatz Mountains just south of then Death Valley National Monument.  Our maps showed a route leading to “Lost Sheep Springs,” and from a distance, we saw a promising dark spot up where the bajada met the base of the mountains.  We followed a likely route that turned into a grueling crawl.  The route abruptly ended at the mouth of a canyon, where I proceeded to initiate our standard “thousand-point turn” maneuver.  One of the trainees, retired Air Force Major Bob O’Brien, began shouting “there’s the springs!”  We got out of the vehicle only to discover Bob proudly pointing to some rusty bed springs.  Back in the vehicle, I again threw it into reverse . . . and the rig refused to budge.  We circled the carcass several times looking for obstacles before Bob asked if it was normal for the back end to sit directly on the tire.  We had broken our leaf springs.

Five hours later, our entire 5-gallon water supply was gone, but with the aid of headlights and road flares, we were rescued by a couple of field geologists who thought they had retired to their Barstow hotel for the night.  As I began to transfer our equipment to the rescue vehicle, our other trainee, a long-out-of-cigarettes chain-smoker, complained about this unnecessary precaution in such a remote area.  But when we returned the next day with a tow truck out of Fort Irwin, we found a note on the windshield saying, “Hello BLM. We’re keeping an eye on you.”  Aside from spooking us on the spot, we learned three valuable lessons from this experience:  (1) do your work well—you’re always under public scrutiny, (2) place names can be misleading—the “Lost” in “Lost Sheep Springs” could refer to the springs rather than the sheep, and (3) maps can be inaccurate or outdated—a blind search for a Lost Anything Springs may lead to Rusty Bed Springs and ultimately Broken Leaf Springs.

Jerry Magee is the Oregon/Washington wilderness and NLCS program lead.  He conducted BLM’s first-ever wilderness inventories for the California Desert Plan (1976-79).  In 1984, he led BLM’s statewide wilderness environmental impact statement for Oregon.  In the late 1990s, he served on DOI’s planning oversight team for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.