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In The Southern California Desert, Residents Grow Weary Of High Speed Rail


High-Speed rail is moving slowly in California. Voters approved a bullet train linking San Francisco and Los Angeles back in 2008. Since then, there have been challenges - cost overruns, lawsuits, political opposition. In Southern California, one section of the train would cross mountains, fault zones and something maybe even more daunting - cowboy country. Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: When he left Kentucky for California 30 years ago, rodeo cowboy and stuntman Dale Gibson settled here on a piece of land about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

DALE GIBSON: Come on, Gunny...

HILLARD: Gibson and his wife board and train horses at their ranch.

GIBSON: We all consider this our little jewel over here - to literally be in the city limits but to have a view like this - the mountains, the huge sycamore trees.

HILLARD: A river that runs year-round is nearby, and so are the San Gabriel Mountains.

GIBSON: And it'll look really bad with a high-speed rail running across there.

HILLARD: Gibson points past a field to a hilltop.

GIBSON: Look from that hilltop there, and then punch into those beautiful mountains over there and tunnel for - two tunnels for - I think it's 13 miles. It goes upwards of 200 miles an hour, I've heard. So imagine riding along on your horse and an airplane trying to land on you. It's - in a nutshell, it will ruin this whole area.

HILLARD: Gibson echoes the concerns of horse owners and ranchers who find themselves in the middle of the bullet train's working blueprint for the section of rail running from Burbank to Palmdale and LA County's high desert. The three routes currently being studied would include elevated surface and underground tracks that would involve tunneling through and under mountains, forests and ranchland.

LISA MARIE ALLEY: Unfortunately, you know, this project is going to have impacts. However, we're working hard with those communities to have the fewest impacts, and where we are, we're looking at ways to mitigate those.

HILLARD: California High-Speed Rail Authority Spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley says there's a fine balance.

ALLEY: Between meeting the needs of our growing population and preparing for the future and also respecting the communities that have long been in these areas.

HILLARD: Continuing 20 miles northeast is the small town of Acton where feed stores outnumber grocery stores.

ZENA HOWARD: People love it out here.

HILLARD: Zena Howard owns The Tack Stable that sells everything from boots to secondhand saddles. She says many of the longtime residents are concerned that their homes could be in the path of eminent domain.

HOWARD: Your home and the place you have your animals and people that you grew up with and your kids grew up together - and they quite possibly might lose their home. That's devastating.

HILLARD: The wind had just picked up when I stopped by Blum Ranch. Ray and Elizabeth Billet, 82 and 81 respectively, live in the same stone and handcrafted house built by Elizabeth's grandfather.

ELIZABETH BILLET: It's special because you can see the stars at night. And when there are wildflowers - there a few this year - we always enjoy them. We just enjoy nature.

HILLARD: And people still come here for their lilacs, peaches and honey. Ray says one of the proposed train routes cuts through the corner of their land, and they're worried about their water wells.

RAY BILLET: But you can't get these people to understand you. They don't understand.

DARIN READMOND: This barn holds four horses.

HILLARD: Cattle rancher Darin Readmond land has been in his family for more than three decades. He's not against progress, he says, but he thinks the train comes at a high cost. He and his neighbors, the small farmers and horse people - they enjoy this way of life.

READMOND: And I think people aren't going to want to sacrifice that. And if they really start putting their foot down like this, it's really going to happen. I think they're going to have a big fight.

HILLARD: Readmond says this area may not be that far from Los Angeles, but the spirit here is still a little bit of the old West. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gloria Hillard