The Mojave is one of the major rivers in southern California, though very few people are even aware of its existence. Prior to the uplift of the Transverse Ranges (i.e. San Bernardino Mtns.), it flowed south into the Los Angeles Basin to the Pacific, but over the past few million years it has instead watered one of the most arid portions of the Mojave Desert. Today, its origins are the rushing brooks of the northern San Bernardino Mtns., which converge and are alternately above or below ground north past Barstow and east to Baker, where the river disappears permanently beneath the sand. Along its middle length, from Victorville north to Helendale, the riparian vegetation along the river reaches its apex, supporting a wide band of bottomland Fremont Cottonwood-willow woodland for about 15 miles. It is surrounded on the west by bluffs and arid desert, and on the east by agricultural land (alfalfa, cattle). Aside from an exceptionally rich few hundred acres within Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville, the river and its habitat is in private ownership, subject to the whims of ranchers and the San Bernardino County Flood Control District, both of which regularly bulldoze and alter large stretches of the floodplain. Still, the lowland riparian habitat here is some of the finest in southern California. Another important area of the highway lies well downstream, about 20 miles east of Barstow. Here, Camp Cady Wildlife Area (DFG) protects about 1500 acres of riparian woodland, accessible off Harvard Rd.
Located about halfway between the Lower Colorado River and the southern Sierras, the middle stretch of the Mojave has probably always provided a vital link for migratory birds moving north out of Mexico. Today, it is notable for hosting one of the largest population of Brown-crested Flycatchers in the state (at least 10 pairs along the Victorville Helendale stretch alone), as well as at least a dozen pairs of Summer Tanagers, second only to the Kern River Preserve. From long-term banding and mid-summer surveys (S. Meyers, unpubl. data), several pairs of Bell's Vireo, probably of the Least race, has recently been found summering near Victorville, and the river remains one of the westernmost nesting sites for Vermilion Flycatcher in the U.S. The habitat north of Victorville, if managed properly, could support several pairs of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, for which there are only scattered records. Tricolored Blackbird maintains one of its rare desert breeding areas near Camp Cady.
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The unprotected section of the Mojave, from Victorville to Helendale, is a river that has been pushed to the brink, but it's not too late. Once flowing across a broad floodplain, the water has recently been channelized using earthen levees that artificially speed its flow and may be contributing to the slow death of the riparian woodland outside the levee walls. Large areas are apparently being logged by current managers, possibly for misguided flood control purposes (pers. obs.). Unauthorized OHV use is common here, and probably contributes to frequent fires in the riparian woodland. Still, enough side channels and old oxbows remain mesic enough to support tall, shady riparian forest with almost entirely native understory that even includes abundant native wildflowers such as Indian Paintbrush. A concerted effort to acquire and manage river-bottom land (e.g. with levee setbacks and possibly riparian plantings) and offer conservation easements/incentives to local landowners, similar to that undertaken along the South Fork Kern River, is necessary for saving this fascinating and intact system.
Aside from an exceptionally rich few hundred acres within Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville, the river and its habitat is in private ownership, subject to the whims of ranchers and the San Bernardino County Flood Control District. Another important area of the highway lies well downstream, about 20 miles east of Barstow. Here, Camp Cady Wildlife Area (DFG) protects about 1500 acres of riparian woodland, accessible off Harvard Rd.