A dirt bypass road around the Castle Dome Museum and Hull Mine attractions is now open within Kofa National Wildlife Refuge 40 miles north of Yuma, allowing outdoor enthusiasts to reach the interior of the refuge from the south without crossing property belonging to the two popular attractions.
The new road, like the old, is a rough, unpaved dirt and gravel path traversing desert terrain, and high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended, said Elaine Johnson, refuge complex manager for the Kofa, Imperial and Cibola national wildlife refuges.
“There’s a couple tight turns, and steep spots, and wash crossings. Pretty typical Kofa road, frankly,” she said.
Driving trailers is strongly discouraged, she said, and RVs are prohibited, or at least there’s no way one can get through there.
As with any change, it takes a little time to adjust, and as the weather has started to cool, a few more outdoorsy people have begun to trickle into the refuge, with some of them missing the new bypass and hitting the now permanently locked gate in front of the section of closed road.
Armstrong said he wants to get the word out to make sure people do use the newly created workaround, which starts two miles before you get to the museum. “The Castle Dome Road is no longer a through road, it dead-ends at my property, There is a bypass road, be respectful of the private property. Because a lot of people are probably going to miss it,” he said.
Armstrong said refuge officials did put a “dead end” sign on the front gate Wednesday to deter drivers, which should help.
Johnson said she’s a little surprised that’s happening. “I think people are just used to that and are not even seeing the sign. Even if they know there’s been some controversy and we’ve been working on a bypass road, they’re used to driving straight through and so they didn’t even look,” she said.
The bypass road was completed and opened late this summer, hopefully resolving years of conflict between Armstrong, Kofa officials and hunters, hikers and drivers wanting to go deeper into the refuge.
Armstrong owns mining claims at the edge of the refuge which predate its 1939 creation, and has been developing historical attractions since he and his anthropologist wife, Stephanie Armstrong, bought their first claim in 1993.
His land crosses Castle Dome Mine Road, which has been the main route into the refuge for Yuma residents, and a public easement for the road was never established through it.
The Armstrongs reconstructed Castle Dome City, an 1880s mining town that had stood on their property, and vehicles passed through on the way through McPherson Pass, to reach Castle Dome Peak, floral meadows, authorized hunting areas and more.
But Armstrong closed off the road briefly in 2016 and again in 2018, when the height of winter season traffic led to property damage and blowing dust affecting his customers.
In 2017 he offered to cover the cost of building a bypass around his land, but later complained refuge officials were dragging their feet on doing the required environmental assessment, while they blamed the staff’s workload and bureaucratic structure.
At the beginning of 2018 Armstrong opened the Hull Mine just north of the museum, featuring an underground cavern lined with florescent minerals. The additional activity, dust and other problems led to last March’s closure, infuriating outdoor sporting groups who maintain the road has been in use for so long he doesn’t actually have any right to close it.
Kofa officials and Armstrong then came to an agreement that he would allow drivers to use that road for one more winter, while refuge staff finished the environmental assessment. The relatively fast process of creating the road happened last summer.
“I’ve been on it a couple of times, and it’s great,” said Jon Fugate, past president of the Yuma Valley Rod and Gun Club. They basically used a route which was already there, they had to do work on a couple of crossings so vehicles could pass easily, and basically the bypass road is a road that was already there.”
Armstrong said having the Fish and Wildlife Service carve the road into the refuge ended up being a good thing. “They did us a favor. I would have built a better road, but then it would have been too good, you know what I mean?” he said.
But the bypass, whoever built it, seems to be the fix he thought it would be.
“It was the right solution because the museum is now separated from the refuge, and the refuge is separated from the museum, and those people don’t have to be confronted by going through private property and having someone tell them you can’t stop on the road, and then, they can do what they want, unmolested,” he said.
“And they have good access, so we don’t have to deal with people and the confusion, what are they doing here. It’s perfect.”
But of course, because nothing seems to be easy at Kofa, the bypass has created another issue; what to do about the 1.2 mile northern piece of the closed road, which leads to the other locked gate.
Armstrong wanted that road closed as well, to protect his property and the valuable historic artifacts it contains. But that idea generated 70 letters of opposition from the rod and gun club.
The hunters said this would cut off their access to campgrounds and valuable terrain, including a much-used site for “glassing,” or scanning the surroundings for game, often through binoculars or other visual aids.
Johnson said the refuge is preparing an addendum to the environmental impact report done for the bypass road to address this issue, and will open it for public comment once it’s completed in a couple of months.
She said Kofa staff is expecting their proposal will be to close the road to vehicle traffic about halfway, though visitors would still be able to walk the rest of the way.
She added, “there’s a lot of nuances to it that we’re in the process of getting worked out, but we’re hoping we can reach an agreement with the different interests.”
Armstrong said he’s fine with the road segment being closed about a half-mile away from the back gate, saying it should meet everyone’s needs.
“I’m 100 percent happy,” he said.
Fugate said the rod and gun club will support that, too, but with one caveat–they want Armstrong to state, in writing, that he won’t ever close the other two Kofa road segments for which he has power of attorney.
It’s not just about access for hunters, he said: “In my personal opinion, it really doesn’t matter what we use the road for. That road is open to the public, and the only reason Fish and Wildlife is going to go through the (environmental impact statement) process and close the road, because that’s what Armstrong wants.”