September 6, 2012

Range Wardens preserve desert, historical landmarks

Story and photos by Cpl. Aaron Diamant
Desert Warrior Staff
A sea of rusted, antique food cans can be found near the Fortuna Mine on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, remnants of the Gold Rush era, when the mine had more residents than the city of Yuma. The station’s Range Wardens constructed a self-guided tour of the area, with paths and informational signs along the way. “It’s a great place to bring the family,” said Warden Del Maslen, who helped construct the tour route.

It’s hard to say exactly what the station’s Range Wardens do every day, because one day for them rarely resembles any other.

Their job is complex, intricate and vital to maintaining the Barry M. Goldwater Range, one of the military’s premier aviation training ranges and home to pristine desert valleys, mountains, flora and fauna.

Officially titled U.S. Conservation Law Enforcement Officers, the Wardens are part friendly park ranger, part law enforcement officer, part conservationist and generally a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the range. They all dabble in history, archaeology, game preservation, science and tracking both humans and animals.

Of the 1,081 square miles that make up the Goldwater Range, pursuant to the Sikes Act of 1960, the vast majority of areas are open and available to public use, provided visitors possess an entry permit.

The Range Wardens use four wheel drive trucks to navigate the alternating rough, steep and sandy terrain of the Barry M. Goldwater Range, including new Ford Raptor pickups. Their older patrol vehicles are white, while the new ones are black, but both are still in use. The Wardens fulfill both a law enforcement role on the range, insuring visitors have permits and do not violate any laws or range regulations, but also serve to conserve the ranges varied natural and historic resources.

To this day, many people still visit the area, especially during the winter months when the weather is more agreeable to the average person. The Wardens are there to not only ensure the visitors obey the law, but to help them out in case of emergency, or if their vehicle breaks down.

“Most of the range doesn’t have cell phone coverage,” said Ron Pearce, station Range Management Director. “If you break down, get lost or fall in a mine, you are largely on your own until a Warden shows up.”

Visitors may be able to take in the natural beauty of the range, but should be aware of both the natural dangers, and the dangers of recreating near military operations.

“We have the ethos that we train as we fight,” said Pearce. “So, we have a responsibility to protect what we have so we will be able to train in a natural desert environment. If the natural environment out there gets destroyed, it’s destroyed for several lifetimes. It’s a harsh environment; you can’t just replant it like you can a field in the Midwest. It’s hard to rehabilitate the desert.”

While the range is specifically designated for military training and offers visitors a chance to see Marines training in the field, the Wardens ensure the safety of the visitors along with the needs of the military.

“This area is set aside for military training, but we also want to be good stewards to the public and keep the area a pristine natural environment,” said Del Maslen, station Range Warden. “There are several wonderful areas for hiking and camping throughout this area.”

“For centuries, people have lived and transited through this area,” said Maslen as he walked along an ancient Indian foot trail, still visible winding through the mountains and valleys of the Gila Mountains. “There are artifacts all over the place, mostly pottery shards and other small stuff, but there are archaeological sites and both historic and prehistoric fossils here.”

There are several designated archaeological sites on the range, containing pottery shards and artifacts well over 1,500 years old. Removing any artifacts from these sites is a federal crime, and something the Range Wardens take very seriously.

“I often wonder what we’ll leave behind,” pondered Maslen. “What will people think of us hundreds of years from now based on what we’ve left behind?”

A trip to the range’s Fortuna Mine is a peek into the Gold Rush-era, where the only thing outnumbering the mine’s and dig sites are the stars in the sky. The Wardens erected educational signs to inform visitors about the remnants of the buildings and an insight into what life was like in the Sonoran Desert in the early 1800s. The Wardens also erected fences around some of the mines, to keep people at a safe distance. Some of the mines are so large, deep and steep; falling into one of them would surely cause an extended underground stay.

The Wardens spend some of their time researching what they find on the range, not only to better educate themselves, but to share that knowledge with the visitors they interact with on the range.

Spending a day on the range with Maslen is like opening a Barry M. Goldwater Range history book.

“At one time, the Fortuna Mine had more people than Yuma,” said Maslen. “They had their own general store, they piped in water all the way from the Gila River, and they had their own post office.”

The range is still home to Sonoran Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, Kit Fox, Gray Fox, Coyote, and several species of reptiles and amphibians. Some of them are only found on the range, meaning the Wardens are tasked with ensuring the safety of their habitat. Some of the off-limits areas on the range aren’t just for the visitor’s safety, but also that of the natural inhabitants.

There are even a few oases on the range. Known as ‘tanks’ these natural points collect water and were a stopping point for travelers in the early days of the American West, as well as native peoples long before them. Today, they are popular among the range’s many visitors and the wildlife who call the range home.

“The Tinajas Altas are a good place to spot Bighorn Sheep in the morning,” said Maslen. “If you get here just before sunrise with your best camera and tripod, you’ll see them wandering toward the tanks and get some great photos of them.”

It seems like it would take a veritable army of wardens to accomplish all of their tasks, but that would be far from accurate. There are four, and that’s double what they started with in 2001.

The Goldwater Range used to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, who basically viewed the Marine Corps as renters. In 2000, management transferred to the Marine Corps and the Air Force, who manage the east side of the range. One of the requirements of the transfer was the military must provide the same level of service and public access as BLM, including resource protection and law enforcement. The station’s Range Wardens do both, with the aid of archaeologists and other specialists.

The name ‘Range Warden’ was selected for them because they were similar to the Game Wardens on other Marine Corps instillations, but the Goldwater Range lacked the big game animals the other bases were known for.

The Wardens attend the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, in Glencoe, Ga., just like every other federal agent. The Wardens are also dual-badged as deputy officers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allowing them to enforce federal wildlife statutes.

“The Wardens live up to our statutory responsibility under the Sikes Act, which makes the Department of Defense responsible for protecting the natural resources on our ranges’ said Ron Pearce, station range management director. These gentlemen have specialized training and equipment to investigate and enforce the protection of the natural and historic resources out there.”

With the Wardens on the job, there is sure to be a Barry M. Goldwater Range for both military use and public recreation for generations to come.

Reminders that the Barry M. Goldwater Range is an active military range are everywhere, including this missile tail section and antique anti-aircraft gun tank. For safety reasons, visitors should never touch any ordnance they find on the range. Some of the ordnance has been there since World War II, when the range was used to teach bomber crews how to fire defensive machine guns at towed target aircraft.

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