Protecting Our Desert and Defying The Odds: Art Basulto, Barstow Field Office Park Ranger

Kate Miyamoto, Public Affairs Specialist, California Desert District

Story by Kate Miyamoto, Public Affairs Specialist, California Desert District

Art Basulto leads a group of kids on a desert hike.

The first thing you notice when you meet Art Basulto, are his eyes. Art’s eyes are dark brown, warm and welcoming, with deep smile lines radiating from the outer corners. If eyes are the window to the soul, Art’s eyes seem to say he has lived many lives in his 64 years.

If you are lucky enough to meet Art, you are meeting one of the Bureau of Land Management’s treasures. He has worked for the BLM for 23 years, mostly as a park ranger in the Barstow Field Office. On paper, a park ranger educates the public about natural and cultural resources, recreation opportunities, maintains recreation sites and areas, conducts patrols and safety inspections, installs signs and markers and monitors conditions of natural resources. Art does all these things while blazing his own path and approaching his job as a park ranger with fierce passion, enthusiasm and gratitude, intangibles never found in a job description. As lucky as the BLM is to have Art, Art feels equally as lucky to work for the agency that manages roughly 250 million acres of public lands in the United States.

The eldest of 10 siblings, Art’s childhood in east Los Angeles wasn’t easy. With a father in and out of prison and an unstable home life, Art passed through 18 foster homes, lived in a station wagon in the park and bounced in and out of the education system. In high school, he found a passion and talent for track and field but gave up on college to take care of his siblings. After school, Art found himself on the streets of LA, floundering for a passion to put his mind and energy into, something to care deeply about.

Art talks about pivotal moments in his life. One of those moments was meeting his wife, Viola, at a wedding in the California desert. Art fell in love with Viola, her family, their fresh homemade tortillas and the California desert. Art talks about his late wife of 44 years with much love and gratitude. “I’m not a fool,” states Art, “when things are good, you know.”

Art and Viola married in 1978 and he left Los Angeles for the desert, settling in Barstow. He heard through friends and family in the area that some of the best jobs were with the government. Determined to change his life, he hitchhiked to Fort Irwin seeking a job with the Department of Defense. After being turned down once, Art persisted and eventually was hired.

His first job with DOD was working on a live fire range. Military members would come from across the U.S. to engage in simulated wars and battle. Art’s job was to set up the targets for simulations, often setting up more than 3,000. He also repaired targets for the next simulation and completed damage assessments. One afternoon, after a simulated war, Art had to call in an unexploded ordinance for inspection. Two soldiers came out to complete the task and the bomb exploded, injuring both soldiers badly. Art rushed to their aide and flagged down the rescue helicopter, but he was never the same.

Art experienced a pivotal moment he believes led him to work for the BLM. On a hot day in the desert, Art was sleeping under the only shade around, a flatbed truck. Lying on his backpack, trying to rest and avoid the sun and heat, he heard scratches. Art’s eyes flew open, just feet away marched a desert tortoise. He had never seen a tortoise as a young man living in LA, and now one was two feet from his face.

Art Basulto shows a tortoise to a group of kids at a fair booth.

The tortoise let out a big sigh and laid to rest next to Art. He felt respect for this resilient animal as they shared the shade. “I didn’t want to lose what that tortoise taught me. I spent time hiking and running out in the desert, searching for the feeling that tortoise gave me.” His encounter with the desert tortoise gave Art a newfound respect for life.

While working for DOD, Art heard about the BLM’s mission to protect and manage public land through colleagues. His first experience with the BLM was volunteering where he met BLM staff and was encouraged to apply for a temporary maintenance job in the Barstow Field Office. He got the job and after a few months of working in maintenance, he learned about a park ranger position. However, the position required a degree. Art didn’t have a high school diploma and was told growing up he had a learning disability and ADHD, but he accepted the challenge and started school.

School was hard. But with the encouragement of the Barstow Field Manager at the time, Roxy Trost, and support he felt from the BLM, he persevered. He strived to be something better and to lead by example, pouring his passion into the bureau and in turn the BLM gave back to him.  

And Art gave it his all. He started teaching youth programs at the BLM’s Desert Discovery Center in Barstow showcasing snakes, fossils, rocks and plants from the desert. Through it all, Art shared his own story and passed along his love for the desert. Some of those interactions with youth led to gainful BLM employment for at least three of his proteges once they were older.

Art Basulto shows a lizard to a group of kids at a fair booth.

Art’s favorite part of his job, as a BLM park ranger, is educating the public and passing along his knowledge of the Bureau and the California desert. If you see Art interact with a child, his whole face lights up. It is entrancing to watch him share his deep knowledge of the BLM and the desert with children and adults alike. Art has literally talked to thousands of kids throughout his career, and he says if he made an impact on one child, out of those thousands, it would be worth it. He hopes every interaction leaves a lasting impression, like the feeling he felt when he stared into the eyes of the desert tortoise that day.

“I tell people I pulled off the impossible,” said Art. “Based on my personal experience, I knew that education is important, and I wanted my children to have opportunities I did not have. Thanks to the BLM, I was able to send my children to prestigious colleges, without my career here, that would not have been possible,” said Art. 

With all the obstacles he faced in life; he kept pushing forward. Art approaches his job with the same passion and love as he did 23 years ago. He could have retired years ago, but feels he still has so much more left to give, wanting to pass along as much of his expertise as possible.

Art’s wealth of knowledge could inspire anyone to look closer at the fragile desert ground beneath them and discover its wonders. He is a true testament to forging your own path with tenacity and compassion. Art’s contributions to the education and conservation of California’s desert habitat, including that of the threatened desert tortoise, remain invaluable.

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