Friday, February 7, 2014

The Politics Of Death Valley National Park And The Possible Death Of The Badwater Ultramarathon

Dale Matson

"It is exciting to return to the desert and continue to learn about the desert environment, diversity of the resources and incredible culture of the area. I look forward to joining the park team in advancing the stewardship vision for Death Valley National Park." Kathy Billings January 24th 2013

The Fresno Bee had an excellent article today that is reprinted from the Los Angeles Times on the Death Valley portion of the Badwater Ultramarathon being banned from the 2014 race by Kathy Billings. This 135-mile race from Death Valley to the Whitney Portal could be considered the worlds toughest foot race and the 100 participants are there by invitation only. This race has been conducted for the last 27 years without incident under strict race rules and governance. The current race director is Chris Kostman.

Kostman and supportive Inyo County officials met with Billings in December and offered concessions to reduce the impact of the race on Death Valley. “They also suggested immediate changes to reduce impact — including cutting Badwater support crews from six to four people and requiring them to operate in one car, instead of two. Inyo County administrator Kevin D. Carunchio told the Park Service that county workers could help speed up the safety review. Billings said she wasn't open to negotiation, meeting participants said.”,0,7299540.story#ixzz2sfJY0ChE.

Billing said that the reason for the ban is that a safety study needs to be conducted before any more events will be allowed. My first thought was, “Why wouldn’t they want to conduct the safety study during the run?” To explain the rationale for the shut down of the event, Billings offered a letter that included the following statement. “Recently, Death Valley National Park placed a temporary moratorium on issuing special use permits for sporting events within Death Valley while a safety assessment is conducted on these types of events. Over the past few years, numerous safety risks and issues have been observed by park staff and park visitors during sporting events on Death Valley roads. This past year, multiple near misses between event participants and park visitors in vehicles were observed.”
While Billings listed safety concerns and the need for a safety assessment, she offered no specific evidence other than statements like “numerous safety risks and issues” and “multiple near misses…. were observed”. I would ask, “How many citations were issued by park rangers and for what offenses related to the race?”

I believe there is a more important issue at play here below the surface and it has to do with Kathy Billings and her “vision” for Death Valley National Park. Her vision has to do with her understanding and implementation of the “Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship Plan” (July 2013). The selected impact ‘Plan D’ does affect running events in the park.

While Kathy Billings stated that safety is the key issue for the ‘moratorium’, I believe she is more concerned about how good a fit the ultramaraton is for Death Valley, which is designated as over 90% “Wilderness”, with all that entails in terms of use restrictions. Because Badwater is a footrace on paved highway, I see no threat even if support crews are added to the mix. They help ensure the safety of the runners. Actually, I can understand why the Tour of California was denied a day use permit for a bike race leg in Yosemite with all the logistics and narrow winding roads. Safety would be an issue in that case.

I am an ultra runner and an environmentalist. Part of my qualifications for entrance in the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run was a documented participation in trail maintenance. The WS 100 is run in the Granite Chief Wilderness area on single-track trails. The spirit of John Muir welcomes people into the wilderness so that they will be changed by the experience. The contemporary understanding is just the opposite. People are viewed a threat to the wilderness not partners in stewardship. A balanced understanding of the mix of people and wilderness needs to be restored. People who have been in the wilderness are the most informed and strongest defenders of the wilderness.


  1. Nice to see that 2015 participants will be running the original course again.
    Here's hoping Oswaldo Lopez has a good run and strong finish!

  2. Congratulations to Oswaldo Lopez who finished the 2015 race 2nd again with a time of 25:28.