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Farmers keep up long fight against dump at national park

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. -- From their trailer in the middle of the desert, Larry and Donna Charpied two-finger typed the first lawsuit they filed to stop Los Angeles County from putting one of the nation's biggest dumps on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. And won.

That was nearly 20 years and more than a half-dozen lawsuits and appeals ago. The two jojoba farmers are still railing against the landfill proposed for the site of an abandoned mine just 2 miles from one of the state's most famous natural treasures. They have been joined by national environmental groups as the case heads for the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

"They're the unofficial park guardians," said friend and novelist Deanne Stillman, whose "Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango" was published this year. "Why should there be a mega dump for LA's refuse next to one of the crown jewels of the nation's park system?"

Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures first broached the idea of turning the site of its former Eagle Mountain iron-ore pits into a garbage dump in 1987. The county agreed to buy the property for $41 million once the lawsuits were resolved. Officials want to send about 20,000 tons of Los Angeles garbage per day by rail and truck for the next century.

The Charpieds have devoted countless hours to the legal battle. It has taken an economic and social toll on their lives and, at times, strained their marriage.

Their hatred for Kaiser, which they call "the polluters," is palpable and seems to have only deepened with time. So has their resolve.

"If that dump comes to fruition, civil disobedience will kick in," vowed Donna Charpied, who at 5-foot-3 is hardly imposing. "People will be lying on the railroad tracks."

This devotion to their beliefs is what brought them to the desert .

In their 20s, the couple lived in Santa Barbara, regularly protesting offshore oil drilling and the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. Eventually, they decided to take their commitment a step further.

In 1981, they moved to an 8-foot-by-28-foot trailer on a dusty patch of land in Desert Center, Riverside -- more than an hour's drive from the nearest grocery store. Over time, they grew to appreciate the quiet isolation of the desert's harsh wilderness. Their little farm is surrounded by views of the sunburned mountains and arid canyons of Joshua Tree National Park, where thorny trees reach into an expansive blue sky.

"To look at the night skies, you'll never see so many stars in your life," she said. "You can see for 100 miles into Arizona from our farm."

As farmers, the plan was to build a house and raise a modest jojoba crop.

Oil pressed from the beans of this hardy desert plant is used in everything from shampoo to machinery. The Charpieds, who believe jojoba has greater potential as an alternative fuel source, harvest the beans by hand in the middle of summer when temperatures climb above 120 degrees.

But their six relatively uneventful years as farmers were interrupted in 1987 when Kaiser proposed turning Eagle Mountain into a landfill. That plan received federal endorsement when Congress set aside 1.4 million acres of land under the Desert Protection Act in 1994, but designated Eagle Mountain as an appropriate site for a landfill.

Without enough money for a lawyer, the Charpieds sued using a how-to book on filing lawsuits and an old Smith-Corona typewriter. A San Diego judge ruled in their favor and found that the analysis of the dump's environmental impacts on the area was flawed. That lawsuit was appealed and the two sides have been fighting in court ever since, the Charpieds aided by conservation groups and grants.

"Everyone thought, 'Holy cow, that must be pretty bad if a couple of sod busters won,' " said Donna Charpied.

The legal battle has consumed the Charpieds' lives. In the 25 years they have lived in the desert, they have barely made a footprint in the soft sand they're so fiercely protecting. They still live on the same 10 acres at the end of a winding road in their 1954 Airstream vehicle .

The Charpieds say the landfill will be an open wound in the unspoiled desert landscape. They and other conservationists fear the dump will pollute the water supply and the trash will lure ravens that prey on the endangered desert tortoise.

"These [Kaiser] people are evil," said Larry Charpied. "All they want to do is make money."

Terry Cook, executive vice president and general counsel for Kaiser, is more measured when he talks about the Charpieds, whom he calls "worthy opponents."

He said the company has done a good deal to mitigate the environmental concerns, including agreeing to double-line the landfill to prevent the garbage from leaching into the water supply. The landfill will create jobs, and for every ton of waste, money will be donated to the park service and Riverside County, he said.

Last fall, the couple received news they hoped would finally quash the proposed landfill. A federal judge ruled that Kaiser failed to consider all the potential environmental consequences of the landfill. Kaiser has appealed and the case is expected to be heard sometime next year.

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