There are two sides to every story.
Four years ago the Bureau of Land Management locked the gate to Little Ash Springs north of Alamo for what was described as a couple of weeks due to a crumbling wall on a manmade pool. It remains closed.
Recently, the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke told the Las Vegas newspaper, “This is exactly why the federal government needs to clean up our act. I’m not in the business of locking the public out.”
He added, “We need to work with local communities and be better neighbors …”
Speaking of neighbors, Joe and Andrea Barker own the 13-acre tract adjacent to and downstream from the 1-acre BLM-controlled Little Ash Springs. Their property is known as Big Ash Springs and has 50 springs feeding 94-degree water into meandering shallow rivulets that are home to two endangered species — the White River springfish and the Pahranagat roundtail chub found only in the Ash Springs system.
During a recent interview in their home atop a rocky outcropping overlooking the springs, Joe Barker said, “We thought that we might be able to manage some opening of this Little Ash Springs, but I think as time has gone on we, I guess, we’d prefer that it stay closed. And I think our view is that it is the headwaters of the protected species and the government should be the one protecting them.”
He said it seems unfair that private property owners, owning the vast majority of those springs, are really the ones protecting the endangered species.
The couple recalled that one Memorial Day there were 300 people at the site, though there are only two vault toilets. He said after such use the area would be strewn with trash — including bottles, beer cans, diapers, tampons and more. Andrea Barker added, “We’ve actually watched the water go from crystal clear to murky by 10 o’clock in the morning.”
The couple said the BLM told them the agency was not in the business of running recreational facilities.
Joe Barker, an aerospace industry retiree who bought Big Ash Springs 13 years ago, said when he bought the property he had contemplated opening a cafe with the springs as a visual and recreational amenity. At one time he said he and his wife presented the BLM with a plan that included Little Ash Springs and the BLM officials discussed letting them run Little Ash as a part of their venue, but shortly after a meeting, the plan was withdrawn without explanation.
A group calling itself Friends of Pahranagat Valley has called for construction on the Little Ash Springs site of four manmade “soak” pools, boardwalks and bridges, a toll booth for an entry fee, additional parking, pavilions, volleyball pit and basketball court, expanded toilet facilities and hiring two or more employees to monitor the site. The group’s website suggested that federal grants and fundraising in the community could pay for the additions, though the Interior Department is actually tightening its budget.
Joe Barker said it would be best if the water from pools where people soak could be purified of bacteria and viruses before being released downstream, but the BLM told him the agency has no water rights and thus can’t legally divert the water.
He said there is still a possibility he might try to develop some kind of recreational facility on his property but he would probably need to treat the water coming in and going out for safety safe and to make it easier to obtain liability insurance.
But there is still the hurdle of how to deal with the endangered species. “The question was, What’s good enough (protection)? And they can’t answer that question. … You get different answers at different times,” Joe Barker complained while noting fish count has recovered since the BLM closed Little Ash Springs.
Andrea Barker said the problem in the past was that it was not properly managed. “It was overused. Sometimes you would have several hundred people up there and two vault toilets,” she said. “People understand that the water is overused and would come and pour an entire gallon of bleach in it before they go swimming.”
Additionally, there were gangs who painted graffiti on nearby buildings, blaring music, religious services with blaring horns and even voodoo rituals, after which one woman told the Barkers there were more headless chickens than she could count.
Joe Barker said the site had become so dangerous locals stopped going there.
As Zinke said, perhaps the BLM needs to be better neighbors.
A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.