You are here

Death Valley Showdown


Devasurprisecny_copy    There's a unique side canyon that spills out of Death Valley National Park that's surprisingly lush with cottonwoods, willows, daisies and even waterfalls. It's a place so unique in this otherwise parched landscape that it's known simply, but succinctly, as Surprise Canyon.
    While the head of the canyon is within the park's borders, thanks to an extension Congress approved in 1994, the lower portion cascades down U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. Once upon a time, Surprise Canyon led miners into the hills around Panamint City.
    Off-roaders "discovered" the canyon in the late 1980s and, through a mix of winches and rock piles, coaxed their rigs up the canyon, climbing four waterfalls in the process. Well, along the way to having a good ol' time these boys rolled a couple of their rigs, dumped oil, gas and who knows what else, and generally chewed up the landscape.
    Six years ago conservation groups sued the BLM over this "fun," charging that the agency had failed to evaluate the impacts on Surprise Canyon and its flora and fauna. In 2001, the BLM closed the route through Surprise Canyon to motorized travel. A year later the Park Service closed the upper section.
    Today, though, lawyers are back in court, jockeying to see whether Surprise Canyon will remain closed or be reopened to four-wheelers.

    "The public shouldn't be forced to see Surprise Canyon's tremendous natural values destroyed by a handful of off-road vehicle users, especially when there are so many off-roading opportunities available elsewhere in the Mojave desert," says Howard Gross, program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association that has joined other conservation groups to fight a bid by off-roaders to gain access to the canyon.
    The off-roaders' lawsuit, filed last month, contends in part that the canyon's sheer walls and creek-bed are in actuality a "constructed highway" that they have a right to under a Civil War-era statute known today simply as R.S. 2477. Under that statute, initially created to further western expansion, some states, counties and off-road groups have claimed that washes, two-tracks, even hiking trails are "highways" that they are entitled to travel.
    "In many cases, off-road interests have viewed R.S. 2477 as a way to undermine effective protection of wildlife habitat, wilderness and other values of public lands," says Mary Wells of the California Wilderness Coalition that has joined NPCA, The Wilderness Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in a bid to intervene in the lawsuit the off-roaders brought against the BLM.
    Chris Kassar, a wildlife biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, says preserving the canyon and its riparian qualities "is critical to the recovery of the Inyo California Towhee and the conservation of other imperiled species such as the Panamint Alligator Lizard. Allowing off-roaders back into Surprise Canyon will set back recovery by decades by increasing soil erosion and polluting the waters of the creek."


What you forget to mention is critical data such as: There are several canyons that Congress protected, but Congress specifically refused to protect this within the national park. Congress specifically recognized the road when making Death Valley national park. This is this is so far from "the public" the only public who ever see it are on 4wd vehicles.

There is no road in Surprise Cyn. You could not even attempt it even with a tough 4x4. The only vehicles that could try it, and do huge damage to the stream, are super modified jeeps, etc. Even more than half of them flip and can't make it. Keeping vehicles out of Surprise Cyn. is a no brainer to anyone who's ever been there.

Complete no-brainer. There are already plenty of areas for off-roaders and 4wd enthusiasts to pursue their passion. Surprise Cyn. should be off limits to motorized traffic.

You failed to mention that the "off-roaders" that filed the lawsuit are landowners in Panamint City that have been denied legal easement to their land.

You are so wrong. The 1994 Desert Protection Act cherrystemmed the Surprise Canyon Road into the wilderness area it created. Look at any map and you will see Surprise Canyon Road marked as a road, surrounded by wilderness. The road was open for seven years after the act was passed, having been closed only in 2001. The Desert Protection Act closed many roads that had previously been open to 4WD vehicles, such as Happy Canyon, Hall Canyon and Lemoigne Canyon, but left Surprise Canyon open and it should remain that way.

Mr. Patterson, you claim there is lots of lands, But you don't mention that the organization you head sues to close each of these areas. You managed to get Death Valley national Park, which is good. But didn't get this cherry stem, because Congress disagrees with you. You and your litigation organization has sued or lobbied to close every area of public lands open to motorized recreation in California. From The various national forests to BLM land to Glamis, Dumont Dunes, etc. You claim that we endanger the tortoises, yet National Park Service study says otherwise. You sue to close desert canyons falsely claiming we threaten tortoises in rocky canyons which is NOT tortoise habitat. It is suicide for tortoises to go to rocky canyons. They live protected in the dirt and sand. I saw the fox news report where the only illegal motorized activity was your vehicle parked on non-motorized land, and your group getting tickets for illegally parking motorized vehicles. Stop being a hypocrite, and be honest in both your writting and your lawsuits.

There is no doubt that there was and is a road through Surprise Canyon. One only needs to look at the town of Panamint City to realize this is true, as there are no other roads that lead into or out of that mineing ghost town. Maintenance of this road has been prevented by the outrageous colusion of the Ridgecrest BLM office personel, and the anti-human use organizations such as the CBD, PEER and the Wilderness Society. Those of us who have been to the area realize that this lack of maintenance has resulted in an overgrown difficult road. It should be resurrected, maintained and used by people-the animals and plants have more than enough space.

It might surprise you guys to realize this, but human beings are capable of using wilderness areas *even when those areas do not have roads*. Some of us know how to use our own two legs instead of relying on loud, destructive machines everywhere we go. You might try walking somewhere sometime; you'll live longer.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments