Tribal Land Exchange Clouds Future of Palm Springs Trails

Trail warning sign in Section 36 | Creative Commons photo by Cobber99

Want to get people in the Coachella Valley stirred up in true "baseball bat to the hornets' nest" style? It's easy. Threaten our hiking trails.

With several dozen miles of hiking trail threading through the environs of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, including at least one world-class climb, the Valley is home to a whole lot of die-hard hikers. We take our trails very seriously. Shorten a popular but relatively unexciting trail by a half mile in the name of protecting the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, and Coachella Valley hikers will fight you -- going so far as to sue the state for access to sensitive bighorn population data.

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In fact, the newsworthy Bump and Grind Trail referred to above isn't the only local trail that's been closed to protect bighorn sheep. It just has a gate. Portions of a number of other area trails are technically closed during bighorn lambing season, including a stretch of the popular North Lykken Trail above downtown Palm Springs. But few hikers heed the closures and no one from the BLM is ready to enforce them -- in part due to other agency priorities and in part because if they started ticketing hikers, the bighorn scat would hit the alluvial fan. They're third rails, those trails.

So when news got out in 2010 that the BLM and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians were exploring the possibility of a land exchange in the hills around Palm Springs, and that the Agua Caliente stood to regain ownership of 9.3 miles of very popular trails, the dust flew.

The Agua Caliente, under the leadership of Chairman Richard Milanovich (who died this week after a long battle with cancer), have been notably entrepreneurial over the past few decades. Most of the Band's income comes from their two casinos and a bit of real estate development. Tribal land is checkerboarded throughout the area in one-mile sections, a legacy of the railroad land grant era. After many years of penury, the tribe now benefits significantly from having a casino and resort in downtown Palm Springs, about half of which downtown is actually on checkerboarded reservation lands.

For those who'd rather be getting fresh air than breathing second-hand smoke at the slot machines, though, the Agua Caliente's most prominent business venture is its management of the local Indian Canyons; Tahquitz Canyon just south of downtown, and the complex of canyons that run into the end of Palm Canyon a few miles further south. There's plenty of great hiking to be found in both places, and the Agua Caliente charge admission fees for entrance. Those fees don't seem to deter one-time visitors, but for locals who like to hike more than once a year, the fees are hefty enough -- ten to twelve bucks a visit -- that most only go there when they have out-of-town guests. Otherwise, locals who crave a glimpse of 60-foot Tahquitz Falls just sidestep the Cahuilla's tollbooth and hike up the South Lykken Trail to a vantage point 500 feet above the falls.

The land exchange, whose Environmental Assessment (EA) was released in July 2010, would transfer about nine square miles of BLM land to the Agua Caliente, in return for which the tribe would give the BLM a little over two square miles of tribal land east of Palm Canyon. The stated intent of the land exchange is to consolidate land management by consolidating ownership. The EA also mentions transfer of cultural sites back to tribal control as a benefit of the trade.

It's hard to argue with the moral claim the Agua Caliente have on the land at issue: they were rousted from most of their territory when, decimated by epidemics European settlers brought to North America, they were muscled aside first by the Spanish and then by the U.S. government. And in fact, of the nine square-mile sections proposed for transfer to the Agua Caliente, seven of them -- in the steep hills around southern Palm Canyon -- have brooked almost no complaint from locals. It's two sections in particular that have raised the loudest concerns: Section 16, directly uphill from downtown Palm Springs, and Section 36, which abuts the affluent golf-course developments at the mouth of Palm Canyon.

In addition to raising significant concerns over possible new development adjacent to existing resorts, Section 36's looming transfer raised eyebrows due to its being a nucleus on the network of trails in the western Santa Rosa Mountains. Significant portions of nine popular trails are in Section 36, and closure of those portions would render much of the network inaccessible. So would a restriction on the trails there, if the tribe decided to extend the day-use-permit only, 9-5 open hours policy it enforces at the Tahquitz and Indian canyons.

Skyline Trail sign | Chris Clarke photo
Section 16, for its part, holds 1.6 miles of the world-renowned Cactus To Clouds Trail, also known as the Skyline Trail. The Skyline Trail runs from the streets of downtown Palm Springs to the vicinity of the Palm Springs Aerial Tram's Mountain Station, with opportunity for further hiking to the summit of San Jacinto. It's a severely challenging hike of at least ten miles and 8,000 feet in elevation gain if you quit at the tram station. People die hiking it almost every year due to exposure to heat and dehydration in the lower elevations or cold and ice in the upper ones. In order to complete it safely, most hikers choose to go in months when the ice has melted from a series of chutes below the tram station. As valley temperatures can already climb dangerously high by mid-May, a safe hike generally requires starting well before sunrise.

When the EA for the land transfer was released, many hikers worried that the Agua Caliente might require permits for the Section 16 portion of the trail, which would make the climb impossible unless a hiker could buy her permit before 9:00 am on the day in question.

The Agua Caliente also ban both dogs and mountain bikes from the trails they manage, which has the relevant subgroups of the outdoor set worried should the tribe extend those bans to Section 36 trails. (Both dogs and bikes are already banned from the Skyline Trail.)

For the Agua Caliente's part, the tribe have officially denied that they plan to change the current management of those parts of the trail system they may receive. An FAQ on the Band's website reads, in part,

There's no way to determine today whether the Tribe, or the BLM, would in the future charge fees for access to the trails. The BLM doesn't presently charge fees for trail access, though it could. The Tribe would also have the right to charge access fees, although the feasibility of doing so with so many access points would make it difficult... The Tribe has a land management policy nearly identical to the BLM, and has an agreement with the agency to manage the trails in a like manner. Changing or curtailing public access to the trails is not feasible or practical at this time.

Though reassuring on the face of it, the qualifying language raised hackles in the Palm Springs hiking community. Some observers pointed out that it would take little more than a change in leadership to change the Band's objectives -- and that change looms closer now with Milanovich gone.

The Band also points out that the Skyline Trail corridor through Section 16 passes through important cultural and archaeological sites, the responsibility for whose protection should rightly rest with the tribe.

The Agua Caliente can be excused for hard feelings on this topic. During the late 1960s a swarm of young white people moved into Tahquitz Canyon more or less indefinitely, essentially invading a place the Agua Caliente had long held as sacred. The "hippies" defaced rock walls and cultural artifacts. Some of the damage is still visible. After the Woodstock Generation was evicted from the canyon with the help of the local constabulary, the Agua Caliente closed the canyon to all outsiders for 30 years. Trespassing continued nonetheless. Eventually, the tribe installed a visitors' center where admission is charged, and hired rangers to patrol the canyon. That finally sufficed to ensure visitors treated the canyon with the respect the Agua Caliente thought it was due. You can understand how protecting cultural sites might be a hot-button issue for the Cahuilla.

One issue has environmentalists outside the Palm Springs hiking community most concerned: once transferred to tribal control, the land is no longer public land, and is not as well protected by the National Environmental Policy Act. Janine Blaeloch, director of Seattle's Western Lands Project -- a group that monitors public land exchanges across the West -- pointed that out in Western Lands' November 2010 comments on the transfer's EA:

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process provides the best, usually last, chance for the public to weigh in on and influence whether particular public lands should be relinquished--and once the land is out of public hands, that opportunity is gone. This land trade entails a significant net loss of public land, and thus a net loss of public influence over its management.

An Environmental Assessment is a preliminary analysis mandated by NEPA of the potential environmental impact of a proposal. Relatively benign projects, as well as projects few people care about, can skate by to approval with only the EA completed. But if a project either has potential for seriously damaging the environment, or if there's significant controversy over the project, NEPA mandates that a full Environmental Impact Statement be prepared. After the firestorm of protest, the BLM decided to prepare a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the transfer.

Two scoping meetings will be held this month to gauge public sentiment in order to draft the draft EIS. The first will be held March 22 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at the Spa Hotel in Downtown Palm Springs, and the second on March 27 from 6:00-8:00 p.m at the BLM Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office at 1201 Bird Center Drive. The BLM is also accepting written comments, mailed to Field Manager, BLM Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office, 1201 Bird Center Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262, or e-mailed to AguaCalienteExchange@blm.gov. The deadline for written comments is April 27.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

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