Road Tripping in Mojave National Preserve
by Superintendent Mike Gauthier and Deputy Superintendent Debra Hughson
Roads in Mojave National Preserve provide convenient routes between Palm Springs, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada, as well as between Interstates 40 and 15. They travel through some breathtaking landscapes which are popular for many travelers. The Preserve provides a sense of wonder and freedom for many who pass through it.
Unfortunately, for some drivers, it is seen as an opportunity to drive at high speeds on narrow, rural roads. Maximum speeds routinely exceed 100 plus miles per hour, creating a dangerous situation for other drivers and wildlife. Data suggest that on average about one human fatality and ten tortoise mortalities occur every year on roads in the preserve. On an interval of every few years or so, another desert bighorn sheep is struck and killed, while the daily toll on rabbits and other small animals subsidize raven overpopulations which in turn negatively impact their natural prey – juvenile desert tortoise.
An adult desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) on Ivanpah Road in Mojave National Preserve illustrates the incompatibility of this long-lived, slow reproducing animal and high-speed vehicular traffic. Photo: National Park Service
Because speed is such a problem in the Preserve, Mojave leadership is asking drivers to remember the phrase “Drive like a tortoise.” This phrase speaks as much to keeping everyone safe as it does to protecting wildlife that is impacted by the consequences of unsafe driving. The goal is to change behaviors of drivers to address this issue. Currently, the average speed on paved roads in the little over 65 mph where the posted speed limit is 55 mph. Significantly, almost 15% are going over 75 mph. A law enforcement officer would have to write 120 tickets per day to cite every driver going 20 mph over the posted speed limit on the average day. Fridays tend to see heavier northbound traffic, while on Sundays, the heavier traffic is southbound. On busy weekends, many will attempt to drive the preserve roads at speeds in excess of 90 mph, while hundreds more go faster than 75 mph.
The slightest lapse of attention while driving in the preserve can prove fatal. The driver of the gray pickup in the background dropped a wheel off the edge of the pavement into soft sand and over-corrected. The pickup rolled over into the oncoming lane, impacting the small car, whose driver did not survive.
Federal Land Transportation and Federal Highways Administration managers were the first to arrive at the scene. Photo: Mike Gautier
As one might imagine, there are human consequences for these behaviors. The result often ends in collisions, injury, and even fatalities for the speeders and fellow drivers on the road. Ironically, a contingent of Federal Highway Administration engineers and Federal Land Transportation Program project managers encountered such an event enroute to a highway safety meeting at the Kelso Depot. The issue got their attention, and things really started happening. A Road Safety Study was undertaken in 2022 that will be implemented this year, including better signage, rumble strips, and other safety improvements.
The impacts of excessive speeding and reckless driving go well beyond the risks to other drivers. Unsafe driving is also a huge risk for an endangered national treasure – the desert tortoise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published “Critical Habitat for the Desert Tortoise” on February 8, 1994, a few months before Congress created the Mojave National Preserve. A big part of the new preserve’s mission was to protect the tortoise. However, with current road and speeding conditions, tortoises will continue to be killed on the roads at unsustainable rates.
Relative desert tortoise habitat quality in Mojave National Preserve shows the overlap with paved roads. Both tend to follow the lower elevation, flat valleys.
With this point in mind, Mojave leadership is taking steps to protect these creatures. About 77% of the paved roads in the preserve are in tortoise habitat. Mojave staff are planning to construct five miles of tortoise barrier fencing as part of the rehabilitation of Cima Road in 2023. Lessons learned will be applied to future highway projects. Our models indicate that tortoise barrier fencing is required on at least 18-miles of Kelso Cima Road and 15-miles of South Kelbaker Road to prevent unsustainable tortoise mortalities.
The preserve’s road rehabilitation and deferred maintenance projects were also given highest priority for our region. Removal of asphalt from Morning Star Mine Road is planned as part of the FHWA’s Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program. We will be considering comments from the public and stakeholders who may, or may not, wish to maintain the Morning Star Mine Road as a higher speed, paved highway.
Road updates for Mojave National Preserve: 1) Cima Road will be closed until spring of 2024. 2) Improvement plans for Kelso-Cima and South Kelbaker Roads are moving forward. 3) North Kelbaker Road will remain in a passable condition until Cima Road is completed. 4) The washed-out section at 17-mile point will then be rebuilt in a more storm-resistant fashion.
In the latter half of this decade, you might expect lengthy road closures of the north-south routes while these roads are rebuilt. Once reopened they will be much safer and designed to enhance tortoise habitat connectivity while keeping tortoises off the pavement. Travelers on the new north-south shortcut through the preserve will experience a safer drive and perhaps a high likelihood of meeting a park ranger if not respecting the posted speed limits. The traveler on the new preserve roads might also notice a new fee structure and the ubiquity of the “Drive Like a Tortoise” motto. Commercial vehicles should expect to be stopped and cited when they are in violation of Preserve regulations.
One of the multimedia graphics that is now public domain. Land managers, NGOs, and cooperating associations like the Western National Parks Association are encouraged to distribute and promote.
The Drive-Like-a-TortoiseTM campaign is a multimedia initiative to help visitors in the Preserve understand the risks to themselves and desert wildlife caused by reckless speeding. The signs and messaging are being distributed and displayed across the Arizona, California, and Nevada desert region. Multiple agencies are starting to display the yellow diamond signs, and cooperating associations are encouraged to market and amplify the messages to an even larger community. The creativity and messaging are within the public domain and may be shared and distributed to a broader community beyond Mojave National Preserve. We are hopeful that other agencies, partners, and landowners will promote this important public safety message.
Remember, the secret to a long life is a slow life. Drive Like A Tortoise: Slowly, Safely, Tortoisely.
Mike Gauthier is the superintendent of Mojave National Preserve. He started his career in the NPS at Olympic National Park in 1985, and has in numerous other park as well in several administrative positions in Washington DC. He is the author of Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide and is currently the acting superintendent at Lake Mead NRA.
Debra Hughson is the deputy superintendent at Mojave National Preserve. She started at the preserve in 2001, first as Science Advisor and then for the past nine years as Chief of Science and Resource Stewardship. Debra holds a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Science with a dissertation in Hydrology at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.