Thursday, February 28, 2008

Interview with Donna Charpied--Part I: Organic Jojoba Farmer to Protector of Joshua Tree National Park

In 2005, I met Donna and her husband Laurence at a reception at the Twentynine Palms home of Huell Howser, host of the PBS series California's Gold. That afternoon, the Joshua Tree National Park Association honored the couple with the 2005 Minerva Hoyt Desert Conservation Award for their work in desert conservation, specifically for leading the fight to prevent the building of the world's largest garbage dump inside a thumb-shaped stretch of desert in the Eagle Mountains on the southeastern border of Joshua Tree National Park.

The Charpieds (LaRonna Jojoba Company) are the world's first Certified Organic jojoba growers and processors. For the last 21 years they have campaigned against the Eagle Mountain dump.

(map of Joshua Tree National Park)

Allison: Donna, how did you get involved in environmental causes?

Donna: I grew up in Pittsburgh near the steel mills. I remember walking to Catholic school wearing my uniform. By the time I got to school, it was covered with soot. Later, for a short time, I took a job as a steelworker. I wore my "Ecology Now" tee-shirt to work. When we were in our twenties, my husband Larry and I lived in Santa Barbara. He was a graduate of UCSB and worked with the developmentally disabled. I worked in the medical field in a variety of capacities. We got involved protesting offshore oil drilling, LNG plants, and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.

Allison: How did you become a jojoba farmer?

Donna: It dawned on us that we cannot protest these industries unless we have a viable, sustainable alternative. In 1981, a friend of ours in Carpinteria was growing jojoba seedlings. We found out that the jojoba plant could be processed and used in many products in place of sperm whale oil. We decided we wanted to go to the desert and grow jojoba, a renewable energy source, so we bought ten acres of land in Eagle Mountain in the Chuckwalla Valley. It's way out there, 75 miles east of Palm Springs near Desert Center and Joshua Tree National Park.

Allison: What's it like to run a jojoba farm?

Donna: It's hard work, especially at harvest time--handpicking seeds, culling, pressing, and bottling--but I love the work, being outdoors. We use organic fertilizer with no pesticides or herbicides, and we plant native flowers down the rows to attract lizards and bugs instead of using conventional pesticides.

Allison: How is it living so far out of the city?

Donna: It's beautiful. I can see 100 miles to Arizona from my farm. Our home out here is a 1954 Airstream trailer. The grocery store is 60 miles away. For 18 months we had no water or electricity, and had to dig for a well. We studied thousands of jojoba plants in the surrounding mountains and (what was then) Joshua Tree National Monument. Jojoba is native only to the deserts of Arizona, California, and Mexico. After observing tens of thousand of plants, we selected 16-20 plants conducive to reproducing. Our goal is to supply the grower with proven high yielding cultivars that will eventually get our country off its knees to foreign oil czars and U.S. oil companies.

Allison: Then what happened at Eagle Mountain?

Donna: In 1950, due to pressure from mining interests, Congress reduced the southeast corner of Joshua Tree National Monument by 265,340 acres for mineral exploration. In 1952, Congress granted lands to Henry Kaiser for a campsite and mill site consisting of 465 acres in the Eagle Mountains, and a 52 mile right-of-way to build a railroad to haul iron ore through the desert to the Southern Pacific line at Ferrum Junction (near the Salton Sea), then onto Kaiser's steel mill where the ore was made into steel.

Congress placed a condition on the grant that said in part: "if these lands and rights of way are not used for a continuous period of seven years for mining, the land reverts back to the public." That was 25 years ago!

At its peak, the population of the Eagle Mountain mining community swelled to 4,000.
By 1983, because of competition from foreign steel interests, Kaiser Steel Corporation filed for bankruptcy. They emerged from bankruptcy in 1987 with a plan to build a private prison. Also, in 1987, Kaiser formed the Mine Reclamation Corporation in San Diego and proposed to the Bureau of Land Management a land swap.

The swap includes 3,481 acres of pristine, unused virgin canyons surrounding the old mine site, one half-mile from the park's border, to be used for a dump. In return, Kaiser would give the public 2,486 acres consisting of 10 separate parcels, each bisected by a deactivated railroad that would be activated with the land exchange to cart L.A.'s trash to the doorstep of Joshua Tree National Park. Included in the deal was permission to operate a rail line through the new tracts of federal land with one purpose: to transport 20,00 tons of trash a day from Los Angeles to the Eagle Mountain dump.

Kaiser Ventures, based in Ontario--who I call the polluters--is a former iron ore mining interest in the area. The only reason Congress granted Kaiser the land and rights of way to begin with was to develop the steel industry on the West Coast. Kaiser did just that with the mine at Eagle Mountain and the steel mill in Fontana. Today the mill is a race track, and no mining has taken place since 1983 when Kaiser filed bankruptcy.

In 1987, Kaiser made plans to build a dump to service Southern California, with a pittance going to Riverside County, who along with BLM had to grant approvals. The dump would be the world's largest, and would process 40 million pounds of garbage a day for 117 years. Right in our backyard, at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. In 2000, the sanitation districts of Los Angeles County bought the dump for $41 million dollars. The money has been placed in an escrow account, pending litigation outcome.

Allison: How would a landfill--or garbage dump--effect Joshua Tree National Park?

Donna: There are a myriad of impacts to our majestic park. Once degradation is detected, it is impossible to reverse the damage. The land around the old mines is fragile and fractured so that polluted ground water would leak out. Mounds of garbage would grow to three hundred feet high. Air pollution and ozone from Los Angeles is already damaging the park.One of the significant impacts, even with mitigation, is air pollution.

A garbage dump would stink, blow litter into wilderness areas, cause light and noise pollution, result in an irretrievable loss of natural resources, damage habitat and desert critters, and begin the eutrophication process that will render the park unrecognizable to future generations.

(In addition, garbage at the landfill would attract ravens indigenous to the area who would prey on the endangered desert tortoise).

Next post: Part II: The Charpieds' Fight to Save Eagle Mountain

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