Death Valley Wilderness Protected by Creative Corporate Merger

Nov 01, 2011, 06:30 ET from The Wilderness Land Trust

CARBONDALE, Colo., Nov. 1, 2011  /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Wilderness Land Trust recently completed a complex corporate merger resulting in the donation of a 2,450-acre property in the Death Valley Wilderness Study Area to the Bureau of Land Management.   The donation was made possible through a grant from the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation's Preserving Wild California Program and will help clear the way for the designation of the Death Valley Wilderness Area with the proposed passage of Senator Dianne Feinstein's sponsored Desert Protection Act.

"This is one more step to protect California's pristine desert, another private donation to our great public lands. I want to thank the Kerckhoff family, The Resources Legacy Fund Foundation and the Wilderness Land Trust for their generosity. This donation falls within the boundaries of land to be permanently preserved by my California Desert Protection Act, which is currently pending before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee," Senator Feinstein said.

The property was the sole asset of the Avawatz Salt and Gypsum Company formed by one of Los Angeles most active founding families in 1912.  When the Kerckhoff family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1800s, there was no shortage of wilderness and natural resources in California, and the family took advantage of those natural resources to help form the Pacific Light and Power Company, the Kerckhoff-Cuzner Lumber Company, and participate in the development of Beverly Hills.  

Los Angeles was going through a building boom in 1912, and the Kerckhoff family and a group of investors thought they had the critical property to serve that growth.  Kerckhoff and his investors were attracted to the gypsum as the prime ingredient in cement and wall plaster.  

Kerckhoff sold stock to investors who believed in his ability to bring gypsum out of the remote Avawatz Mountains to the bungalows of Los Angeles and Pasadena.  A key component to the plan was the formation of the Amargosa Railway Company which planned to build a rail line over the sixteen miles from the mine to the main railroad line for delivery to Los Angeles.

The corporation spent large sums on engineering reports, soil samples, surveys, and the railroad.  But then World War I began in 1914 and made it difficult for the company to secure financing for its ambitious plans.  Without the completion of the crucial railroad, the activity of the corporation was put on hold, and it remained mostly stagnant for the next one hundred years.

While the family-maintained records of the Avawatz Salt and Gypsum Company are extensive, a visitor today to the Death Valley Wilderness Study Area would be hard pressed to differentiate the Avawatz property from the surrounding wilderness.  It is harsh country, a baked landscape of craggy peaks, weathered into rock skeletons guarding the salt and gypsum flats.  The Avawatz Salt and Gypsum Company filed mineral claims and made some minor scars on the landscape, but the magnificent desert has outlasted those brief human efforts, enduring as it changes on a timeline that humans can't comprehend.

"This area's vast, rugged terrain is not only home to two protected species, the desert tortoise and the desert big horn sheep, but its remote rugged mountains and canyons offer outstanding opportunities for backpacking, hiking, and solitude," said Monica Argandona of the California Wilderness Coalition.  "We are very grateful to the Wilderness Land Trust and the Kerckhoff family for this land donation. Their work, along with Senator Feinstein's legislation, ensures that this area will not be mined or developed ever again."

The Wilderness Land Trust specializes in these types of acquisitions in wilderness where, as the 1964 Wilderness Act states, "Man himself is a visitor who does not remain."  The Trust approached the heirs of the Kerckhoff family about purchasing the Avawatz property to add to the Death Valley Wilderness Study Area, but the family was adamant that they would only sell the Avawatz Salt and Gypsum Company rather than the land separately.  

This request presented a complex problem for The Wilderness Land Trust: how to purchase a company in which so many of the shareholders were deceased or unable to be located because of the long passage of time.  The solution involved creating a new company called Avawatz Acquisition Corporation and then merging the two companies so the Trust could work with the majority of shareholders still living.  

"The Trust never intended to purchase a corporation," said Reid Haughey, President, "But the flexibility to structure the deal to meet the family's wishes shows the Trust's determination to protect wilderness.  We saw this property as a once in a generation opportunity to secure the Death Valley and Avawatz Mountains Wilderness Areas, and we are very thankful to the family for choosing conservation rather than exploring other development options.  We know the corporation has been in the family for close to one hundred years, and we believe this solution is a perfect legacy to the family's history in southern California."

With the corporate transaction completed, the Trust, as the main shareholder of the new corporation, directed the corporation to donate the property to the Bureau of Land Management for an addition to the Death Valley Wilderness Study Area.

"This is a spectacular piece of land with incredible vistas and lush riparian areas," said Roxie Trost, manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Barstow Field Office.  "This donation includes historic mining areas and Sheep Creek Springs, which supports a population of endemic toads and is used by Bighorn Sheep.   We are thrilled to add this donation to the public lands for the enjoyment of future generations."

Visitors to the potential new wilderness areas will now be able to access the Avawatz property and not worry about private property signs or potential energy development.   A hundred years from now future generations may look back on 2011, like we now look back at 1912.  It's hard to know what the population of Los Angeles will be or what resources will be critical to the year 2111 economy, but we now know that the Death Valley Wilderness will be preserved, outlasting us all in its mystery and natural grace.

The Wilderness Land Trust
The Wilderness Land Trust is a small, highly specialized nonprofit organization established to buy and protect wilderness land. Since it was founded in 1992, the non-profit organization has preserved more than 344 parcels comprising of more than 31,000 acres of wilderness inholdings in 76 designated and proposed wilderness areas. The Wilderness Land Trust, a 501 (c)(3) organization, has offices in California, Colorado and Washington State.  For more information visit our website

The Wilderness Land Trust is a 1% for the Planet Non-Profit Partner.  Visit for more information.

Contact: Karin Evans, Administrative Director

SOURCE The Wilderness Land Trust