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."