Surprise Canyon

“Whoever named Surprise Canyon got it right. Mere miles from bone-dry Death Valley, the canyon cradles two unexpected jewels: a gushing mountain stream and what's left of a once-bustling silver mining town.”

–Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press, Dec 18, 2006

This description highlights what is special about Surprise Canyon, nestled deep within the Panamint Mountains. Surprise Canyon is a haven for people and wildlife, with its cascading waterfalls, towering cottonwoods, and lush willows that are home to desert bighorn sheep, endangered birds, and rare species found nowhere else in the world. The stream traveling through the canyon begins in Death Valley National Park and flows through an area of critical environmental concern and wilderness managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

In 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the Bureau of Land Management for violations of the Endangered Species Act because the agency had failed to evaluate the impact of off-road vehicle use and other management policies on endangered wildlife. As a result of a 2001 settlement and consent decree, the agency closed several sensitive areas to vehicles, including Surprise Canyon, in order to protect the spring-fed creek flowing through the canyon and the habitat and wildlife it supports; soon after, the National Park Service closed the upper portion of the canyon to vehicles. In 2008, the Interior Board of Land Appeals denied an attempt by extreme off-road enthusiasts to regain access to Surprise Canyon, allowing the area to continue its remarkable recovery — evidenced by thriving vegetation and the return of such endangered species as the Inyo California towhee after decades of absence.

Previous off-road vehicle use caused serious damage to the canyon. In the 1990s, highly modified four-wheel-drive vehicles began to scale its walls. The drivers cut down plants and trees, filled in portions of the streambed with rocks, and used winches to pull vehicles up near-vertical waterfalls. A number of vehicles overturned when trying to negotiate the waterfalls and other steep terrain, dumping oil and other pollution into the stream.

Because Surprise Canyon is narrow and constrained through much of its length, it's impossible to resume off-road vehicle use without causing substantial adverse impacts to the creek, the wilderness character of the area, important water resources, and other natural values.

Thus, the fight to protect Surprise Canyon continues. Off-road interests have purchased inholdings on old mining claims in Death Valley National Park with the intention of using their ownership of those lands to seek motorized access to the canyon. As of yet, they've been unsuccessful at gaining access in this manner. The Bureau of Land Management is in the process of doing an environmental analysis to determine whether to open the creek to off-road vehicle use. Surprise Canyon is on a path to natural restoration. Allowing damaging off-road vehicle activity to return to the canyon would set recovery back by decades, so the Center continues watchdogging to ensure this area's protection.
Photo by Daniel Patterson