Cliff McDonald, ramrod behind Desert Drinkers 4 Wildlife, passes

Cliff McDonald


Cliff McDonald, a long-time Needles and Mohave Valley resident died of a heart attack on Wednesday, Aug. 19, while celebrating his wife Toni’s birthday in Las Vegas. He was 71.

McDonald is well-known by the Southern California hunter-conservation community as the man who started and ran Desert Drinkers 4 Wildlife (formerly Water for Wildlife), restoring 194 wildlife drinkers and dozens of desert springs across the eastern Mojave Desert and in the Owens Valley over the past 14 years. All the work was done with a volunteer crew, sometimes numbering as many as 80 to work on the projects. Of those guzzlers, nearly 100 were completely non-functional before the restoration and more than half of the others were at best seasonal water sources before water tanks were pumped out, debris and sludge removed, tanks resealed, and water catchment aprons repaired. Today, all are functioning at 100 percent, again providing water for over 200 desert species.

“His passion for this work goes back to memories with his Dad in the 1960s and 70s,” said Frank Rorabaugh, one of McDonald’s many volunteer-friends, who also is the habitat chairman for the High Desert Chapter of Quail Forever. “He and his dad used to do a lot of trapping all over the desert that is now part of the [Mojave National] Preserve, and they would check their traps and then go quail hunting. His dad loved to quail hunt. I just think it was those really fond memories of hunting quail with his dad that led to this work.”


Those early years with family opened up a door to the outdoors that made McDonald a lifelong sportsman. Just in the week before he passed away, he was fishing for tuna with his two boys, Matt and Josh, on a sportboat out of San Diego (and had another trip planned a month later), and he was on a houseboat fishing trip with Toni. He had hunted deer and elk across the Southwest at least as often as he was drawn for tags, he fished in Costa Rica for 12 consecutive years, and had been to Africa twice. This year, after over a decade of applying, he was finally drawn for an Arizona Strip mule deer tag.

His efforts with Desert Drinkers 4 Wildlife earned McDonald two prestigious conservation awards. In 2008, he won both the Outdoor Writers Association of California’s Californian of the Year Award and the Golden Quail Award from Quail Unlimited. In 2015, he was a finalist in the Field & Stream Hero of Conservation Award.

McDonald was not just concerned about desert wildlife and conservation, he was also concerned about the decline of the outdoor heritage he loved so much. The steep drop in hunter numbers and the public’s lack of concern about protecting resources with on-the-ground conservation efforts led him to start the Mojave Preserve Youth Quail Hunt. The goal was simply to bring new sportsmen into the fold and continue the long conservation legacy. That youth hunt has been held the past nine years and introduced hundreds of youngster to the outdoors.

McDonald was also always on the front lines fighting against any efforts to restrict hunting or negatively impact desert water sources. For the past decade he had been battling with the Mojave National Preserve and Bureau of Land Management staffs to continue the simple restoration work on the guzzlers, developed springs, and historic windmills across the desert – water resources that are critical to wildlife survival in the Mojave.

“A friend said Cliff lived his life to the fullest and had no regrets,” wrote Toni McDonald to friends and family. “Most men only dreamed of doing what Cliff had experienced and what mountains Cliff climbed. He truly was a remarkable man, and he lived for two things – family and the outdoors.”

McDonald was born Oct. 15, 1948 and graduated from Bellflower High School in 1966. He attended Orange Coast College for two years before starting a career of boat building in Orange County. He met his wife of 41 years, Toni, while she was attending U.C. Irvine. The couple moved to Ramah, New Mexico in 1978 and he built their own house from the ground up. He traveled extensively while working for Coast to Coast Resorts. The pair settled in Needles to raise their two sons in the early 1980s and Cliff took a position with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and worked at the Needles check station starting in 1987 and retiring 19 years later.

He is survived by his wife, Toni; his two sons, Josh and his wife Shannon along with Matt and his wife Nicole. Cliff has four grandchildren, with each couple having two children. Josh’s children are Colton and Bennett, while Matt’s kids are Madison and Cody.

The McDonalds attended and were active in The Place for Grace church in Mohave Valley. Cliff and Toni had been selected to go back to Washington, D.C. this year to represent their church at Franklin Graham’s Prayer March 2020 held the end of September. Now the church will send a representative in Cliff’s honor.

A private memorial service will be held for McDonald Oct. 3 at his cabin in the desert on the Mojave Preserve.