Posted on Tuesday, December 16 @ 10:07:10 PST
Scientists say Desert Act limits them

Some researchers say they are the unintended victims of bureaucratic regulations.

By Mark Muckenfuss

Roland Brady used to study geological faults in the Mojave Desert, work that he hoped would lead to a better understanding of earthquakes and help to build structures more resistant to the shaking of the ground.

No more.

Student Sam Meshkinfam, left, holds a Side Blotched lizard at Zzyzx while Dale Fernandez takes a picture. Douglas Tames is at right. Photo by Terry Pierson.

With passage of the Desert Protection Act in 1993 and its implementation the following year, the Cal State Fresno professor says he found himself hamstrung by new regulations and restrictions. The act set aside large areas of Bureau of Land Management territory and regions of Death Valley as wilderness. It also created the Mojave National Preserve, much of it designated as wilderness.

Mechanized equipment is banned in wilderness areas. The prohibition applies not only to off-road vehicles - making it impractical for scientists to trek for miles with heavy research supplies or simply access remote areas on foot - but even things such as a tape recorder that might be placed in a study zone to gather data.

After several years of knocking his head against a bureaucratic wall, Brady gave up. He and some other researchers say they are unintended victims of a law that unfairly pits science and environmental preservation against each other.

Ironically, they add, some of the research might have directly contributed to better management of those very regions. The work in question provides information on widely ranging issues such as:

Monitoring invasive species.

Classifying plants and animals.

Determining the safety of storing nuclear waste in the Nevada desert, which has been a hot-button issue for the past decade.

'Ghastly complicated'

"It has become ghastly complicated," Brady says, referring to wilderness restrictions. "To give up 15 years of work was really frustrating."

Brian Wernicke, a Caltech professor of earth sciences, used to do most of his geological study in areas of Death Valley that became wilderness with passage of the act. Since that time, he says, 90 percent of his research there has been eliminated.

Barbara John, a geology professor at the University of Wyoming, says there has been a marked drop in scientific study in the eastern Mojave.

"There was a lot of work that went on in the '80s," John says. "A lot of that research halted because of the closures."

Photo by Terry Pierson.

Officials disagree

Employees with the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, and the National Park Service do acknowledge some access restrictions linked to the act.

In general, though, they say such limitations haven't caused problems.

"We don't allow any off-road use. Most researchers understand that," says Larry Wayland, a spokesman for the Mojave National Preserve.

Chris Roholt, wilderness coordinator for the BLM's California Desert District, says he hasn't seen evidence of a decline in scientific studies.

"I've heard the same thing," he says, referring to the researchers' claims, "but I've never seen any written proposals that have been turned down."

Scientists, such as Wernicke, point out that unless they can reach a verbal agreement with wilderness officials, they don't go to the trouble of writing a proposal.

Roholt said his office can't provide a comparison of how many studies were done annually in the region before passage of the act, as opposed to the number currently under way. Much of the administrative process is decentralized, making it difficult to compile such data. And tracking down denied requests is difficult, he says.

Access is key issue

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pushed hard to get the act passed. Her spokesman Howard Gantman said he hasn't heard any objections from scientists.

"One of the goals ... was to promote its use for scientific research," Gantman said. "We would be very interested in hearing these complaints."

Access is the main problem, according to researchers criticizing the situation. Restrictions on gathering samples is also a hindrance, they add, but it's the inability to drive into remote areas, even on existing roads that are now closed, that has hampered them most.

Unlike other wilderness locales, the desert presents unique challenges: Water sources are limited or non-existent in many vast stretches, so people entering these areas must pack in not only their scientific equipment but also their water, limiting the range and duration of their stay to how much they can carry.

The result of decreased research, Wernicke says, will be a decline in information on the very resource trying to be protected.

"We're not learning about the seismic hazard of the Death Valley Fault," he adds, something that could directly affect suitability for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Wernicke also worries about aborted studies of vegetation and animals in the region.

Until three months ago, Dick Anderson had worked as an environmentalist for Death Valley National Park. His 10-year stint included the transition following the Desert Protection Act. He says Wernicke has a point.

"As far as the seismic hazard, I think Brian's right on," says Anderson, who now works in the National Park Service's regional office in Anchorage, Alaska. The Death Valley Fault "does affect Yucca Mountain and, ultimately, the protection of the park."

In the area of biology, Anderson says, the park service is learning as much as it can.

"Those (concerns) are being addressed nationally by a big initiative in the park service to inventory and monitor everything, and we're doing that," he says. But, he also agrees with outside critics that current staffing levels in the park are inadequate to meet the task.

Where it exists, the conflict between science and wilderness is difficult to manage, Anderson says.

"It comes down to values, and values is a tough thing to work with," he adds. "It's kind of like two white-hat issues. There's no good guy and bad guy."

Photo by Terry Pierson.

No foreseeable change

While the scientists complaining about restrictions often cite access issues, they say they aren't suggesting a vehicular free-for-all. Many of the wilderness areas already have established roads, they note. It's just illegal to use them now.

I'm an advocate for the wilderness in the broad sense. (But) if a route was going to be closed, it should have been shown that the route had a negative impact. ... These routes for decades have been traveled by academic sorts like myself, looking for new species and interesting geology," says Rob Fulton, director of the Desert Studies Center in Zzyzx (southwest of Baker). He hosts research groups from around the world.

Not only has scientific exploration been hampered by wilderness closures, Fulton says, but inaccessible areas also are not being monitored for invasive species such as tamarisk trees and non-native wild bees.

Scientific concerns should have been addressed during formulation of the Desert Protection Act, Fulton says. But he blames scientists, including himself, for not taking a greater interest.

"Academics are notoriously unpolitical," he says. "We were assured they weren't targeting us and that we would be unaffected. That ain't quite the case and I don't think (the legislators) understood that."

Since the wilderness closures, Fulton says, he has experienced a 15 percent drop-off in the number of college classes using the area.

Some shrug off 'hardship'

But not all scientists are seeing a crisis.

South of Zzyzx, on the opposite side of the Mojave National Preserve, is the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, operated by UC Riverside. Director James Andre says he hasn't seen much of an impact due to wilderness designations.

"Probably 10 percent of our research has been steered elsewhere," Andre says. "Some areas are just tough to get into and that's a hardship the researchers have to bear."

Andre's concerns are that the park service may lack sufficient personnel to monitor the biology of the park and that there are no areas where only scientists have access.

"The research center here is a congressionally designated site," Andre says. Without some kind of restricted area, he adds, the research can be destroyed by a hiker who unknowingly tramps right through a study plot.

There are no provisions in the wilderness act allowing for such restricted areas; Congress must make any significant policy changes in administering wilderness zones. Fulton says the scientific community doesn't have the organization or the resources to tackle such a lobbying project.

For now, at least, the situation remains a struggle between the white hats.

Copyright 2003 The Press-Enterprise