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Vandalism at Providence Mountains Could Have Been Avoided

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The Visitor Center at Providence Mountains SRA, November 2008 | Annette Rojas photo

Lovers of California's desert State Parks were dismayed last month when the LA Times' Louis Sahagun reported a spate of serious vandalism at the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area (SRA). At least four times in recent months, vandals broke into the isolated park -- one of six desert State Parks slated for indefinite closure by Governor Jerry Brown -- and stole equipment, smashed windows and display cases left in the SRA's Visitor's Center, and stripped copper wiring from conduits running from service buildings to the lighting system in the celebrated Mitchell Caverns.

The SRA, shuttered for some months before the release of the parks closure list due to deferred maintenance and the retirement of two rangers, is one of the most remote holdings in the State Parks inventory. Surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve, fifteen and a half miles off Interstate 40 at the end of Essex Road, the 5,900-acre SRA is the kind of place you don't go unless you mean to.

The SRA and the Providence Mountains that contain it are a classic desert "sky island," an oasis of diverse plant life made possible by the relatively cooler temperatures and greater moisture atop many desert mountain ranges. The range's summit, Edgar Peak, tops out at 7,162 feet above sea level -- high enough above the searing desert floor to support live oaks and manzanitas. Below the summit, a veritable botanic garden of Mojave upland plants thrives, from barrel cactus and Mojave yucca to pinyon and juniper.

But most of the visitors the SRA hosted before its closure came for the caves. The MItchell Caverns, so-named for erstwhile owner-promoter Jack Mitchell, are a set of three solution caves in the Providence Mountains' abundant limestone. One cave, Winding Stair Cavern, is challenging even for advanced spelunkers, but the El Pakiva and Tecopa caves have been open to the general run of tourists since around 1934, when Jack Mitchell first started leading tours. The Mitchells sold the land to the State Parks in the mid-1950s, and park rangers have led tours since then. Before the SRA closed in 2011, a few groups of tourists a day would follow guides up and down metal staircases through the caverns on tours lasting about an hour and a half. It was a popular tour, and a respite from the summer desert heat.

It may be a very long time before the public can enjoy the caves again, or the small but impossibly scenic campground nearby. On February 5, San Bernardino sheriff's deputies arrested Christopher Alvarado, 48, of Azusa and Trisha Sutton, 36, of Covina at a desert campsite near the SRA after responding to a call that trespassers were on the SRA grounds. Officers reported the pair had stolen property and burglary tools in their campsite. The two were booked on suspicion of burglary and related charges, as well as possession of illegal drugs. Whether it was Alvarado and Sutton who vandalized the SRA or someone else, at least $100,000 in repairs will be necessary to restore the park's facilities to the point where they were before the vandalism. At that point the state would still need to budget for a new water supply and continued staffing before reopening the SRA.

Most people who frequent the California State Parks have one or two parks that they hold dearest, and though it's hard to choose Providence Mountains may well be mine. I've spent many hours there hiking, staying in the small campground, and following gamely along on cave tours. There are few better places in the Mojave for watching sunsets.

Clipper Mountains at sunset from the Providence Mountains SRA campground | Chris Clarke photo

I had one of the oddest experiences in my life at the Providence Mountains Visitor Center, in fact. I was visiting in 2008 with my now-fianceé, looking at the exhibits whose display cases have since been trashed by the vandals, and she let out a sudden gasp. Then so did I. By way of explaining what prompted our gasps a few facts will be helpful:

  1. The caves were used as shelter by large, now extinct mammals such as the Shasta ground sloth, the remains of which have been found there.
  2. My friend Carl Buell, a talented paleontological illustrator, once painted a scene which included a Shasta ground sloth, my late dog Zeke, and myself looking out over the Pleistocene Mojave Desert.
  3. That image comes up high in most Google searches for "Shasta Ground Sloth."

So it isn't all that surprising that a State Park Ranger looking for available images of Shasta ground sloths to include in interpretive displays might find Carl's painting, and as that painting includes a human being painted to scale it makes sense that that ranger might include it to give a sense of how big the sloths were.
Still, the oddness of looking at a display of paleontological exhibits and finding yourself included there can hardly be exaggerated.

The Photoshopped image from the Providence Mountains Visitor Center paleontological display, using images by Carl Buell

Whether inside the Visitor Center or outside, no one is going to have unusual experiences at the Providence Mountains SRA for the foreseeable future, as the State Department of Parks and Recreation struggles even just to step up security at the gate, let alone commit to repairing the damage done by vandals and by the ravages of time. Even just assessing the scale of the vandalism is a daunting task. Though State Parks staff told the LA Times' Louis Sahagun that they haven't seen damage to the caverns themselves, a thorough damage count will likely need to wait until the caves' lighting system can be rewired.

An obvious route forward might be for the National Parks Service to assume responsibility for the SRA, as the Mojave National Preserve completely surrounds the property. Supporters of other parks on the closure list have been working out similar arrangements, either with NPS or with other agencies or NGOs. The Mojave National Preserve's Chief of Interpretation Linda Slater tells me that for their part, Preserve rangers have tried to keep a closer eye on the SRA since the break-in. "We've got 1.6 million acres of our own to look after, and we don't have enough rangers to cover our own land the way we really want to. But we're doing what we can." Slater points out that taking on management of the Providence Mountains would add a significant amount to the Preserve's operating expenses, and that money would have to come from somewhere.

In the meantime, the closure has effectively cut off access to some of the most attractive hiking areas in the Preserve: the SRA was the trailhead of choice for hikers wanting to get to the high peaks in the Providence Mountains.

As it turns out, all this could have been avoided if not for political grandstanding by Representative Jerry Lewis (R-San Bernardino). In the years following the establishment of the Mojave Preserve by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (CDPA), The NPS and California's Division of Parks and Recreation were actually in negotiation to transfer the SRA to Preserve management. Lewis, whose currently sprawling district includes the Preserve, was an opponent of the CDPA due to wilderness provisions in the bill, and due to perceived threats to the lifestyles of people living in the newly created Preserve.

In 1996 Lewis inserted language into that year's House Appropriations Bill cutting the Preserve's annual budget to $1.00, a move that briefly made him a conservative icon. The exuberantly right-wing 104th Congress was only too happy to approve his amendment. Strapped for cash, the Preserve was unable to continue pursuit of a land transfer to the NPS, and the Providence Mountains SRA stayed in State hands.

Lewis's district has changed considerably in the last year, being redrawn in the last round of redistricting with a more heavily urban, potentially liberal electoral base. In January of this year, likely as a result of the greater likelihood of losing his seat, Lewis announced his retirement from Congress.

Many factors contributed to the closing and subsequent vandalism of the Providence Mountains SRA, from the outrageous culpability of the vandals to the sweeping anti-tax sentiment among voters on initiatives over the last 40 years, to the park's general remoteness and lack of support among Californians. But if you're looking for one person to blame for the whole mess, Jerry Lewis is as good a person as any to pick. After 33 years in Congress you might hope for a legacy more inspiring than making sure the only limestone cave in the State Parks system is closed to the public for as long as a generation.

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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