OX Ranch Then and Now

Written by Sergio Ortiz


The OX ranch in the Mojave Desert has experienced grazing from non-native livestock for the past 150 years.

The presence of livestock can be traced back to the earliest Euro-American settlers who brought cattle to the area.

According to the Ranching History in the Mojave Preserve, Blackburn and Briggs along with other investors created the Rock Springs Land & Cattle company in 1894. (“Ranching History in the Mojave Preserve”)

Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity for growth with the construction of a railroad system and began raising cattle in hopes of expanding business.

A drought that lasted from 1920 to 1928 killed most of the cattle and led to the collapse of Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company.

Between 1928 and 1931, the million-acre ranch was divided into three separate ranches; Kessler Springs Ranch, Ox Ranch, and Valley View Ranch.

Ox Ranch which, consists of 400,000 acres, 100,000 acres more than Kessler Springs and Valley View Ranch.

In 1934, The Taylor Grazing Act required ranchers to put up fences and multiple water sources.

Ranching in the area is believed to have created many of the Preserves landscapes in Joshua Tree and Lanfair Valley.

OX Ranch was bought out by the Mojave National Preserve in 2000 and is administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

OX Ranch has changed a lot over the years, from a cattle company to a national park. These changes have impacted many aspects of the Preserve and another change might be coming to OX ranch.

Plans to create a permanent residence for artists, including photographers, painters, poets, and sculptors will soon become a reality. These artists will bring new perspectives and again putt the ranch back on the spotlight.

Black Rock Symposium January 20, 2017

Statistics can help us form a mental image about a subject, but they never capture the beauty and magic of a desert landscape.

Statistics work, instead, on the analytical part of our mind.

Such are some of the numbers associated with the Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park.

Three Park Service officials gave a statistical view of these national treasures January 20 as part of the first of the year Black Rock Symposium, an event chaired by Jeff Cummings, superintendent and president of the Copper Bell Center.

The presentation can soon be viewed on the Desert Institute’s YouTube site https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmyynPx64IpzOAq8V6uSxUA

Todd Suess, Mojave National Preserve Superintendent

The Preserve’s Superintendent, Todd Suess, noted his responsibility covers 1.6 million acres, and an added 20,000 acres incorporating the Castle Mountains.

Suess noted the Preserve was created in 1994 and has not seen a dramatic increase in the number of visitors compared to the two nearby national parks, one to the South and the other to the north.

Suess noted that the Preserve has 165 miles of paved roads which were “inherited” from San Bernardino County two years ago, but that he has only a three-person road crew to maintain them.

There are also 68 miles of maintained dirt roads, and he must watch over in the Preserve with only a $6.5 million annual budget.

He also emphasized that the Preserve has one major issue that his employees must concern themselves; many visitors “unfortunately” use the Preserve as a short cut to Las Vegas.

“It really isn’t that much of a time savings,” he said. “It only cuts off about 10 minutes.” He added that he wished people, hell bent on getting to Las Vegas, would take another route, either stay on the 15 or 40 because the average speed on Preserve roads by autos headed for Vegas is 80 mph. Some travelers have been clocked at 100 mph, he said.

To the south of the Preserve, and in contrast to the Preserve’s rather static visitor numbers is Joshua Tree National Park.

In 1990 JTNP Superintendent David Smith reported had about one million visitors. Now that number has swelled to 2.5 million, creating a problem he referred to as “carrying capacity,” or the number of people who can see and tour the Park without leaving a damaging effect on the environment.

Kelso Depot Visitor Center

He added that he encouraged people to go to the Preserve and enjoy the raw desert vistas there.

He noted that the Park once served as home to some 15 different Native American tribes, and their former presence is only hinted at today.

Statistics about money, our normal way of measuring life, also were shared.  He and the other NPS officials said that the federal lands are an “economic engine” for the community, with somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of all visitors to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley making a trip to the Park as part of their itinerary.

The Park is only half the size of the Preserve, with some 800,000 acres, slightly smaller than the state of Delaware, he noted.

Statistics concerning Death Valley National Park also were shared by Death Valley National Park Resource Division Chief Josh Hoines. He focused on a series of storms that washed out highways and caused heavy damage to Scotty’s Castle, damages that require some $48 million to restore the famous landmark.

His responsibility covers 3.4 million acres, with 1200 miles of roads, 23 different mountain ranges. Some 1.3 million visitors visit Death Valley every year, he reported.

There was one thing upon which all three park officials agreed — the Kelso train depot in the middle of the Preserve is the “best visitor center” in the Southern California desert, a man-made wonder everyone should see and tour.

We all should slow down when heading for this national treasure, and enjoy the vast desert on our way there, or to other spots.

‘Our Usual Hike’ by Sally Molini

There’s plenty of room for poetry in the Mojave National Preserve.


‘Our usual hike’ was initially published in Atlanta Review.


Sally Molini is a writer and freelance editor whose work has appeared in various journals, including Denver Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Diagram, LIT, and Southern Poetry Review.

She lives in Nebraska near Heron Haven, a spring-fed wetlands sanctuary and one of the last ox-bow wetlands of Big Papillion Creek.

‘Our usual hike’

of getting lost
in the right spot, not hard
with rock formations like these,
nature deeper than I can think,
full of cliff-edge spells
and green tipsy splendor.
We turn in early,
whiskey in our tea,
pinyon ridge for a bed,
Coleman lamp as poky nightlight.

Not sleepy, you set up
the camera, bottomless cup
through which you tipple the world —
even shadow and scrub seem to pose
for your lens, ancient flecks of mica
signaling to the nosy stars
our turn to shine.

Perseid Meteor Shower

Catch A Falling Star (with Your Camera)

Perseid Meteor Shower

(Photo by Babek Tafreshi/SSPL/Getty Images)

One of the hottest meteor showers ever will streak across the skies on August 11/12. What makes this so special is that astronomers expect an outburst of Perseid meteors! In non-astronomy terms, an outburst means 200 meteors per hour and that is double the norm.

Meteors will be visible in the evening of August 11th, but much better after the moon sets at 12:30 AM plus or minus depending on your location. So if the outburst occurs before dawn, the moon won’t be in the way. If it should occur earlier, the viewing will be shortchanged but it’s a long night and well worth hanging out until pre-dawn because astronomers forecast that meteors will continue to streak across the sky until then. Also, note that the Perseid shower rises gradually to a peak, and then abruptly falls off. In a typical year, the Perseid meteors start to fly at mid-to-late evening from northerly latitudes but the biggest showers usually occur after midnight until predawn.

There are many dark sky locations in our National Parks to view and photograph this shower. At National Park Photographic Expeditions (www.npppemasterclass.com) we will set up camp at the Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve but the Hole in the Wall and Mid Hills Campgrounds are also excellent spots. We’ve noted that on previous photographic expeditions, the Kelso Sand Dunes is an easy and great location to view the Milky Way with an unobstructed southern sky. However, to see the maximum number of meteors, we’ll be watching and photographing towards the northwest when the radiant point, in the constellation Perseus, is overhead. At that time the shower could be spectacular in the hours before dawn.

Photographing the Perseid Meteor Shower

The main ingredients for successful meteor shower photography is persistence, patience, and take many, many images because this process is more like time-lapse work. Like lightning strikes, you will never know where or when a meteor is going to streak across the sky. Thus, take as many images as possible throughout the evening with a wide-angle lens on your camera. I recommend leaving the camera in the same position during the night which will allow you to process the resulting images for a short time-lapse clip in addition to the still images you can capture. This also allows you to stack these images in Photoshop for a star and meteor trails look.

Tips for great meteor shower images.

Perseid meteor showerUse a good sturdy tripod. I also recommend a ball head, which allows you to achieve compositional precision.

Focus to infinity. This can be somewhat tricky in the dark, so pre-focus the lens when the sun is up or focus during the moonlight period. You can also focus on the moon or a bright star, or use your camera’s live-view function. Whatever you do, do not use Auto Focus because setting an accurate infinity focus is critical.

You will need a wired cable release. Invest in the best for this tool.

Use the highest ISO possible relative to noise. Set your camera to the widest aperture the lens will allow, and the highest ISO that generates the least amount of noise. I use F2.8, 16-35, L zoom, on my Canon 5D mark III with excellent results at ISO 2000 at 15-25 seconds. If you have an f/1.4 lens, that’s even better as it will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO and thus less noise.

Use the 500 rule to find the right exposure time. Divide 500 by the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure (in Seconds) Before Stars Start to “Trail”. For example, a 16 mm focal length divided by 500 = 31.25 seconds of exposure and 24 mm would be 20.8 seconds. This is a good starting point but bracketing times can be useful. When you have an exposure time that works, put the camera on continuous drive mode, and then lock the button down on the cable release.

Make sure you have several fully charged batteries on hand. You will be shooting many images with long exposure and that means a big drain on power resources. Several fully charged batteries will be useful.

Face northwest to northeast depending upon any possible light pollution on the horizon. From experience, I have found that positioning the camera to the north and away from the Milky Way gives me the blackest skies at this time of year and setting the camera slightly off center of the radiant point works best to capture longer meteor streaks. I have used the radiant point as a reference in the past and found that meteors were coming straight at the camera for shorter duration shots.

This is the time to use a fast 32 to 64 GB flash card. It’s best if you can capture the entire night on one card with a fast write speed so that your camera can empty the cache and continue to take images without pausing.

Get your composition established before dark. Your meteor story will be far more compelling if you use a foreground composition consisting of any object that gives the viewer a sense of earth space depth. Items such as trees, rocks, and sand dunes will provide a tight Figure/Ground relationship. However, meteor images should be sky dominant, which is why I use a wide-angle lens. I can always crop for effect later.

Post-Production in Adobe Lightroom will take good images to great. I’ll post some tips on how to do this in the next blog.

So get out there, have fun, and catch a falling star with your camera.

If you have photographed the Perseid Meteor Shower, we would love to see your results. Send us a message!


Original Post: http://www.nppemasterclass.com/perseid-meteor-shower/

Foundation Seminar at Samy’s Camera

nps_mnpaf_logoTodd Suess, Superintendent of Mojave National Preserve, and I, President of the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation have partnered with Samy’s Camera to present a great evening seminar for photographers who want to qualify and apply for an Artist in Residence grant. We are joined by current and previous artists and will provide you with in-depth slides of Mojave National Preserve, application details, and information about the work of the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation. This program is free but seating is limited so you must register in advance. Here are the details from Samy’s Camera.

Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation Seminar – LA


samys-logo[2]Samys Camera Photo School LA
475 South Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

samysPhotoSchool_FinalClick here to register:

Course Details

Date: February 25
Time: 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Cost: Donation

Singing sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers are all found in the 1.6 million acres that make up the Mojave National Preserve located between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Bob Killen, the President of the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation and Todd Seuss, the superintendent for Mojave National Preserve will visit Samy’s Photo School for a 90 minute presentation, virtually transporting us to Mojave’s majestic canyons, mountains, mesas, long-abandoned mines and rock-walled military outposts.

America’s early railroads used art prints to promote rail travel to national parks. This and other western scenic art awakened a nation to the beauty in our national parks. During their presentation, Bob and Todd will also talk about Mojave’s Artists in Residence Program, including how to apply to be an Artist in Residence.

Artists are invited to become part of this tradition through Mojave National Preserve’s Artist in Residence program.  Selected artists will discover and interpret Mojave’s landscape through their own creative projects and will become a conduit for promoting an understanding of the Mojave in new and unique ways.

Artists in Residence from past years will be at the presentation to discuss their desert experiences and share the art work they have created. The presentation will wrap up with an opportunity for questions from the audience.

Powerful Results with Masks and Blending Modes

Scanner manufacturers in the 1950s, the engineers behind the construction of such devices for the manipulation of photographic negatives, knew a lot about light.

They took the frequencies of three of the primary colors of the rainbow — red, green, and blue — and made bitmap representations of them, grayscale images, running from pure black to pure white, and everything in between.

These became masks that could be used to limit, shape, and control the light passing through the photographer’s negative.

It allowed the scanner workers to enhance negatives just like the photographers of old who also used masks, often cutting them out of construction paper, to control the amount of light that passed from a projector, through a negative, before landing onto the print paper.

Ken-Cook by Tom Lowe

‘Ken Cook’ © Tom Lowe

Just ask Ken Cook, the present Artist in Residence about the power of blending modes.

He artistically applied a blend mode, another powerful set of tools in Adobe Photoshop, to a duplicate layer of his original Raw image. He then applied a Gaussian blur to the layer, and finally the blend mode “divide”, to create some outstanding prints from the thousands of images he took over a year of the same rock formation near the Preserve’s Midland Hills campground.

Visit the Desert Light Gallery until the end of March to see his creations. 

Back to the scanner makers. Their use of these frequencies gave the operators the ability to create greater contrasts and color shifts. Their masks were empowering. 

Today, most photographers don’t use high-end scanners, but instead the previously mentioned desktop publishing tool: Photoshop. This Adobe product includes those same three frequencies for our use, but they are called “channels” instead of frequencies.

You say, “so what? I just want to take my picture and put it up on Facebook.”

I understand. You are like someone who wants a delicious cake or pie, and travels to the bakery to buy a ready-made product. You are not into purchasing yeast, flower, eggs, milk, flavorings, sugar, and baking your own pie, or your own cake, to your own individual taste.

If you want to do some of your own “baking,” like Ken Cook with his photography, your own creative expression, then you want to learn how to make masks and use Photoshop’s blending modes.

_MG_5987 Original steam engine comes to Kelso


Take a look at the Raw file I took of a steam engine at the Kelso train depot in Mojave National Preserve. Out of the camera it’s dull, there is virtually no sky, and everything else is just dull.

_MG_5987 Steam engine comes to Kelso

Use of masks

Here is the same image where I used masks created from the red, green, and blue channels to brighten, lighten, and make-more-appealing, at least to my eye, the sky and colors of the train station.

There is now so much detail in the sky. The yellow of the station is so much brighter.

That information was in my original digital camera Raw file, but hidden, waiting to be brought out to my own taste.

And what do I get for my trouble?

A feeling of self expression, like Cook has done with his exhibit, something beyond words, and an image that conveys my interpretation of a steam locomotive visiting the Kelso depot. 

Jim Smart
Vice President

It Was a Cold and Stormy Night

It was “a cold and stormy night” when I crawled out of my summer sleeping bag about 7 p.m. one winter evening. I knew I would freeze if I didn’t get to a heated motel room. I brought the wrong sleeping bag and I had parked near Kessler Peak and camped and planned to wait for sunrise to take more images as part of my artist-in-residency.

_MG_5929 Roy's morning light-Recovered

[1] Roy’s Morning Light

The only thing is, there was no residence to work from, so I usually drove 184-miles miles round trip each day from my home in Joshua Tree, leaving at 4 a.m. to catch first light, sometimes passing through Amboy at the right time to catch the morning glow at Roy’s, the once famous hangout for movie stars who used the motel, gas station, and supplies while making Hollywood film productions in the 30s, 40s and 50s. [1]

Nearby Baker beckoned, and I slithered behind the steering wheel and made my way to Highway 40, hoping the roads would not become impassable.

Soon, I was nestled up to an electric wall heater, sleeping fitfully.

I live for the morning light, but for me it lasts usually but a few minutes, maybe 10 to 15.

But when gray skies abound, the “window” for shooting photographs gets extended. Snow and fog expand the shoot time, and make for even lighting, with dark objects only a few F-stops away from brightly lit areas.

It was almost 5 a.m. and I was off for a return trip to the summit.

A drizzling snow continued to fall. I parked along the roadway and waited, peering out the window of my SUV, searching for enough light to take some photographs.



Unlike most fine art photographers, I often work without a tripod. I know their value — I once drove 300 miles to buy a used one for nearly $800. I was in Montana, in Glacier National Park, and I had been told where Ansel Adams had captured one of his famous photographs.

Pretending to be Ansel, I had to have one to “duplicate his image” for my collection [2].

I usually work like a sports photographer, moving up and down the side of the football field, or basketball arena, for the perfect shot. Soon I was racing about amongst the rocks looking for the spot to capture a composition that changes in color and hue so quickly as the morning light spreads across the sky.

Meg tests with strobes after Harvey Stein course


This morning I first had to shoot from an open car window. Too much falling snow. If you look carefully you can see the snowflakes coming down in this image. [3].

I took this one perched inside the car, through an open window. This image never made my show; it’s too “flat”, lacks three-dimensionality.

Thirty minutes later I was out of the car, racing about, on a quest to find another “perfect” spot.


Here is one of the photos that became part of my show in 2009 in the Kelso Desert Light Gallery. [4] I worked for hours in post-production to make the emerald greens on the right side of the image predominate, to create contrast between the pathway and the boulders.

The rock textures were a challenge in post. Today I would use the Clarity tool in Adobe Camera Raw to bring out the scratchy, pebbly surface.

We don’t have forest greens in Mojave National Preserve, but we do have a taste of them in the Joshua Trees, and many other majestic scenes deserving artistic interpretations, snow or no snow.

Jim Smart
Vice President

Film, Hole in the Wall, and Kelso Depot

[1] New Ektar Film - Hole in the Wall

[1] New Ektar Film – Hole in the Wall

A friend mentioned yesterday that young people today are content to visit Hole in the Wall in Mojave National Preserve virtually, rather than by driving to the spot and hiking about. Imagine what a powerful sense seeing is. We can see something on a touch screen and have that substitute for an actual experience.

Of course, I believe that photography can inspire us, remind us, encourage us, and give us the experience of beauty and majesty, but when I can go to Hole in the Wall and tramp about, that’s REALLY a great experience.

Visits to our national parks have gone up and down over the decades. I remember in the 60s when the Flower Generation exploded out of the cities and into the parks by the millions. Chemistry drove them to it.

[2] Old, original Hole in the Wall

[2] Old, original Hole in the Wall

Film – yes f-i-l-m – captures light using chemistry, the emulsions concocted by greats at Kodak and Fuji and other film manufacturers. Today, such captures for most is done by the application of math, algorithms, but films still offer some hidden delights, and, say many experts, a greater dynamic range.

So what is dynamic range, and why is it important? Dynamic range translates into a cameras’ ability to capture light, and approximate what we see with the human eye. It’s said that we see about 20 F-stops, but high-end digital cameras capture only 10 F-stops. That’s why we must choose to shoot for the “highlights” or the “shadows.” We can’t have both.

[3] Kelso Station

[3] Kelso Station

I read the other day that Kodak’s Ektar film has a 20-percent greater dynamic range than any high-end digital camera. Don’t even talk about a cellphone for comparison. Twenty percent – that means it should come close to capturing 12 F-stops. That’s a lot. In fact, it’s huge.

Here is an image captured the other day at Hole in the Wall using Ektar. [1] Compare it to one I shot six years ago while an artist-in-resident in the Preserve. [2] Vibrant, warm, lovely, I think, the Ektar photo.

[4] Barker Dam

[4] Barker Dam

And here’s one demonstrating what Ektar can do to capture the beauty of the Kelso Depot in the morning light. [3] I remember when I first came upon the depot in the late 90s, before it had been refurbished and made into the remarkable spot that it is today. When I drove past the Kelso Dunes from the old Route 66 and came upon the station, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it, as we said in the 60s, “blew my mind.”

[5] Pastel view from front yard

[5] Pastel view from backyard

It still does, a chance to get transported back in history to the 1920s when giant steam engines huffed between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City along the Cima grade. The railroad had to stack locomotives at Kelso to get the engine power to pull the grade, one of the steepest along the route.

But Ektar is my topic, and I have included a recent photo of Barker Dam, in the Joshua Tree National Park, near my home [4], and another from my backyard of a recent sunset. [5]. The dam has not had any water in it for five years – we are in a drought, remember. It provides an amazing panoply of color, bright oranges and greens.

Ektar is one of my favorite recent discoveries. And I am glad I found it and use it today.

Jim Smart
Vice President

A Vision Comes to Life

Tonopah and Tidewater_WEBIt was just a dream, a fuzzy vision in early 2011, one that I shared with Linda Slater, who was the Chief, Resource Interpretation & Outreach for Mojave National Preserve at the time. We talked about how great it would be to have a permanent residence for artists while executing their Artists in Residence grants and the many things we could do to support the sales of their art and to create a much broader awareness about the peace and solitude of Mojave National Preserve and its magical light.

It was a slow go, one filled with starts and stops.

For me cancer came and fortunately was cured, the recession required more business focus robbing me of project time, and donor regulations changed. Linda endured a government shut down or two, budget cuts, and in the end a transfer to Death Valley National Park where she serves in the same role today.

Five years later and the dream of developing a Friends Group to finance a permanent home for our artists has come to life. Today I can say:

“Welcome to Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation, an official National Park Service Friends Group dedicated to the Artists in Residence program, The Desert Light Gallery, and the restoration of Kousch Homestead, soon to be our permanent home.”

_X5C3242-EditWe have accomplished much in this last year; completed a National Park Service Friends Group contract, the IRS not-for-profit application, and established our web site which celebrates the art, artists, and helps raise funds for restoration construction and other projects. There is a lot of work to do and many dollars to be raised, but we have an amazing board of directors and a wide circle of friends that can help achieve our $300,000 goal for restoration.

I’m also proud of the fact that this is an incredible public private partnership between the National Park Service, Mojave Artists and all of our friends and supporters. We do not use taxpayer dollars and we are not involved in grant programs. It is a true army of citizen volunteers spending their time and money on the work and place they love with supportive professionals in the National Park Service and at Mojave National Preserve in particular. In my view that is how our government and its citizens should partner and perhaps we are setting an example for others.

In 2016 we will move forward with a major Kousch Restoration fundraising effort and expand the number of artists who can exhibit at the Desert Light Gallery. We seek emerging growth and accomplished career artists who can bring new visions, enjoyment and education to the public when they visit the Desert Light Gallery in person or online. Our work plan calls for gallery improvements and to reach out to exceptional curators who can help elevate the work of our artists.

Box 7And of course there is much more and you will learn about those activities on this blog, through email communications, and from great articles in the Desert Light Magazine which debuts in January. Moreover, this is a guest blog and opportunity to read and learn from our artists, National Park Service Leaders, and other experts in the arts and public lands management.

Until then, visit the web site in total and subscribe to The Desert Light Magazine. And if you can help with a tax deductible donation, I thank you in advance on behalf of our board, artists, other supporters, and the National Park Service.

Bob Killen
Bob Killen