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Death Valley Roundup: Burros, A Marijuana Farm Bust And More

Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons

It’s no surprise that it’s hot in Death Valley. It got its name for a reason — temperatures this week hit a record-breaking 127 degrees.

But there’s more than just the heat to talk about.

Recently, there’s been a marijuana bust, a hiker fatality, and good news for Scotty’s Castle, which was damaged by flooding.

Hiker's Death

According to Abby Wines, management assistant at Death Valley National Park, they don't know much about the man who died except that he was 57 years old and from Huntington Beach, California.

Wines said he was hiking alone in the Panamint Valley in the western side of the park. The park service says he slipped and fell on loose rocks. He didn't fall off a cliff but hurt his head and shortly afterward succumb to the elements.

“It’s hard to know, but we definitely suspect that heat may have played a role with him slipping in the first place. When someone is overheated, that tends to add to confusion and they’re not as coordinated as they would be otherwise,” she said.

Wines said they warn people not to hike in lower elevations in the summer because of the extreme heat. They believe where the hiker was starting it was 115 degrees that day.

Devil's Hole Pupfish

The final man charged in connection with vandalism at Devil's Hole two years ago recently pled guilty. 

Two other men involved already pled guilty and were fined. The third man is facing stiffer penalties because he is a convicted felon who was in possession of a firearm.

In 2016, the three men tried to break through the fence surrounding Devil's Hole, which is part of the park but not within its boundaries. 

Devil's Hole is a cave filled with water and is the only home to the Devil's Hole pupfish, a critically endangered species.

After trying to break through the fence and then trying to shoot off the locks, the three men climbed over the fence, got into the water and one even skinny dipped.

“I don’t know their motive, but there was alcohol involved,” Wines said. “There may not have been a lot of motive.”

The men were charged with destruction of government property and violating the Endangered Species Act.

Marijuana Growing Operation

The park service recently found and destroyed a marijuana growing operation within the park's boundaries near Hanaupah Canyon where there is a springs that was used to water the plants.

Wines said the operation was actually found by two hikers who spotted three men with agriculture equipment.

“Their first assumption when they saw these three men was they must be working on a project for the park," she said. "So they went up to them and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ And one of them said, ‘We’re growing marijuana. You won’t tell the cops will you?’” 

Needless to say, the hikers did alert the park service to where the marijuana was being grown.

Wines pointed out that while recreational marijuana is legal in both Nevada and California it is not legal to tear up native plants inside a national park, spray the area with pesticide and plant 4,000 marijuana plants.

She believes the latest grow operation was the fourth or fifth marijuana growing operation that has been busted.

Scotty's Castle

The historic home built in the 1920s that has been dubbed Scotty's Castle was damaged by flooding three years ago, but progress is being made to restore it, along with the road to it, a visitor center and several outbuildings.

“First, there is no more mud in the castle, so that’s a good thing,” Wines said.

The castle itself had water damage but didn't get filled with mud. The building known as the Hacienda had four feet of mud and rocks in it.

The process to repair and restore the area is a lengthy and costly one, Wines said. It will take about $50 million to repair everything. And before repairs can go forward, the park service has to consult with several different stakeholders to follow both environmental and historic preservation laws.

The repair to the road to Scotty's Castle will start in September. The castle is expected to reopen in 2020.

Burro Roundup

Like Southern Nevada, non-native burros live inside Death Valley National Park. The burros were originally left by prospectors looking for mining opportunities decades ago.

Wines said since the park service's mission includes protecting the natural environment getting the burros out is important.

“One of our goals is to not have any non-native species in the park, which includes burros," she said.

Wines said the burros compete with native species like bighorn sheep and desert tortoise for water and food. The park service estimates about 4,000 burros live in the park, and they're working with a donkey rescue group to remove 2,500 of those animals.

The plan is to round up the burros, test them for diseases and tame them so they can be adopted out.

Off Roading

People who believe they can drive their trucks or SUVs wherever they want in Death Valley continue to be "huge problem," Wines said.

“They see on TV that you can drive off roads in deserts in the West and they think it’s okay anywhere,” she said.

She said the people they have caught off-roading don't understand they're doing damage because they just see a vast emptiness. But if the tracks aren't removed, they'll harden and be visible for years.

Wines said people come to Death Valley to see a pristine wilderness.

“They don’t come here to see that Billy Bob-whoever decided to do donuts over there. And that might be what they notice,” she said.

One place that is the most damaged is perhaps one of the most well-known places in the park, Race Track Playa. The playa is home to the famous moving rocks. The rocks move when ice and wind come together to push the rocks along the desert floor.

The tracks from those moving rocks stay there for decades but now they're accompanied by the tracks of a truck that drove across the playa.

Abby Wines, management assistant, Death Valley National Park

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.