Shaping the San Bernardio’s High Desert

by Pat Flanagan

How a federal response to veterans’ needs for affordable land with clean air set a pattern for development that helps protect plant and animal biodiversity and carbon sequestration in the Mojave Desert.

Winter has arrived and it’s time to drive into the desert for some hiking, botanizing, and star gazing. Driving along the state and county roads, your eyes will restfully weave between mountain ranges, across dry lakes, and along sand dunes. These scenic resources are tied together by thousands of acres of evenly spaced creosote scrub, the commonest plant in the deserts of the southwest. The longer you drive the easier it is to accept that the California Desert is the largest intact ecosystem in the continental United States.

Adjacent to the roads as they move out from established communities will be the occasional single house (often small and melting into the desert) or ranches. For the most part the scattered residences are the result of the federal homestead acts and the Small Tract Act.

In the early 1930s, Paul Witmer, newly head of the Office of Land Management, Department of the Interior, in Los Angeles made a trip to the Twentynine Palms area to learn more about the desert dwellers who had filed on 160 or 320-acre desert homesteads. Under federal law homesteads were meant for agriculture but it was easy to see that this land was not being farmed nor was it adapted for farming. Witmer found many of the homesteaders were veterans happily recovering in the clean air while much of the hard work was done by their wives. After World War 1, Pasadena Doctor James B. Luckie began sending veterans to Twentynine Palms to heal their asthma, tuberculosis, and mustard-gas poisoned lungs in the clean dry air.

Homesteading made the move possible for many living on their government pensions. All that was required to “prove up” after the $18 filing fee was to live on the land, build a home, make improvements, and farm for 5 years. Witmer decided what was needed were smaller parcels that could be purchased for little money and that would not require the agricultural proving up. The property was to be improved with a building.

Witmer developed the Small Tract Act and spent years convincing the Federal Government to pass it. With passage, it became possible for any citizen to obtain certain surveyed federal lands for residence, recreation, or business purposes. The “baby homesteads” or as they were later called ‘jackrabbit homesteads,” were open to any citizen for residence, recreation, or business purposes. The tracts were usually 5 acres – 660 feet long by 330 feet wide. Starting July 1955, the property was to be improved with a building with at least 400 sq. feet of space. Fifty foot wide access roads were provided for the owners and utilities. These dirt roads are a visible pattern across the desert today, and they are maintained, if at all, by the property owners.


Jackrabbit Homestead cabin on Indian Trail, Desert heights, San Bernardino County.

Photo by Pat Flanagan

c. Figure 1 copy

By the start of 1955, the Five Acre Tract movement was established so firmly that about 25,000 permits had been issued. 1200 others were being processed by Mr. Witmer’s Bureau of Land Management in Los Angeles, and some 12,000 others were starting along the procedural route in federal offices.

Many thousands of homes had been built, much more than $1,000,000 of assessed valuation added to the tax rolls of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and many more homes were being started all the time.1

You can explore the land use pattern for San Bernardino County by visiting the county Parcel Map.  For example, land use pattern in Coyote Lake East Linkage above the HWY 62 label.

c. Figure 3 copy

The enthusiasm for the five-acre tracts drew people together to form neighborhoods which did not sit well with realtors who wanted to develop much denser housing tracts on smaller parcels. The people won out and set the land use pattern visible today. Not all parcels are 5-acres, some are larger and some smaller but the areas away from the town centers such as of Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, Landers, and Lucerne Valley are relatively open and the land is minimally disturbed.2 If you explore the referenced parcel map you will find that many of the parcels are still owned by the BLM and Southern California Edison.

Not all of the tracts have a house and rarely is the five acres fenced, usually only the land around the house and out buildings is fenced. Much of the land, although surveyed, is vacant and many cabins are falling down – a good place for wildlife to rest up out of the elements.

Today large tracts of desert land are being eyed for utility scale solar projects, resorts, and illegal marijuana grows. More broadly, California3 and governments worldwide have adopted the 30x30 initiative to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. California’s initiative seeks to protect and restore biodiversity, expand access to nature, and mitigate and build resilience to climate change. The California Desert is a major player in this initiative.

The California Desert makes up 27% percent of the State of California’s land area and, speaking of biodiversity, contains 38% of the native plant species within the state. In addition, the intact desert lands have sequestered 10% of the state’s carbon, all safely underground in the mycorrhizal fungi and caliche.4 Since the California Desert has the most protected land in the state you might think our problems are few. You would be incorrect. Protected lands, regardless of size, are islands and our diverse animals, both the endangered and common, need room to live in and roam between the islands. Habitat connectivity is critical to protecting the desert’s biodiversity, intact ecosystems, and the buried sequestered carbon.

From 2010 to 2012 the Morongo Basin Open Space Group, with the support of the Sonoran Institute, under the guidance of Stephanie Weigel, senior planner and GIS expert, developed the Morongo Basin Conservation Priorities Report: A strategy for preserving conservation values. The values studied were:

Protecting Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP); Protecting the Mission of the Marine Corp Air Ground Combat Center (Marine Base); Wildlife Connectivity and Habitat; Maintaining Community Identity; and Protecting Community Views and Treasures.5

Protecting the Park and the Marine Base requires that neither of these large mountainous areas becomes an island of biodiversity. Protection of the linkages is important to preserve the intact habitat for species living in and passing through the area between the Little San Bernardino Mountains (JTNP) and the Bullion Mountains (Marine Base). (See figure 2) The parcels acreage is mostly from 2.5 acres to 5 acres to 20 acres. The owners range from individuals and trusts to Southern California Edison, Frontier Inc., and the Bureau of Land Management. With the exception of the cleared housing areas, the vegetation is generally pristine. I can tell this because when the wind blows the land is stable – dust rises only from the dirt roads and disturbed areas.

Thanks to Paul Witmer and the BLM for taking care that our veterans could have the clean air they needed. Now let us carry on to preserve the desert’s contribution to the 30 by 30 initiative.

Map of Morongo Basin Wildlife Linkage Design Branches.

Credit: Morongo Basin Conservation Priorities Report

c. Figure 2 copy

Pat Flanagan has been a resident of Desert Heights for 20 years. She is a board member of the Morongo Basin conservation Association, and is on the Technical advisory Committee for the Mojave Desert Resource conservation District.


1) Ed Ainsworth. Five Acres of Heaven. Copyright 1955 by Col. E.B. Moore.

2) You can explore the land use pattern for San Bernardino County by visiting the county Parcel Map By zooming in and tapping on a parcel you will get information: owner, size, assessed value, zoning etc. This map was useful when tracking down the owners of land with illegal marijuana grows.


4) Robin Kobaly. The Desert Under Our Feet. Desert Report. March 2019.

5) The Report can be found