Nevada Part 2

I was going to continue my celebration of Nevada by listing some of the unique and hidden places of the Silver State that I have visited. But then it happened: bulldozers in my own backyard. So Basin & Range Watch has been busy fighting a painfully local project that subtracts yet more of the beauty of the Nevada desert. This led me to reflect in a more philosophical manner why I hold this place so dear, this desert, this Great Basin, and deserts in general.


Living in a chunk of rural Nevada now for 12 years I know it well. Wandering beyond the fenceline from my old ranch house I could potentially walk across 20 or 30 miles of creosote hills and flats, perhaps crossing one or two old distant dirt tracks and numerous animal trails, then hit the boundary of the vast Death Valley National Park with designated wilderness and rugged mountains to explore endlessly. I valued this expanse of wild nature, largely uncut and relatively pristine, this viewshed that allowed my imagination to go back in time to a world less populated and less built upon. Just a hint of a former age.


I could stand in my yard and look out to hills and ridges and clouds undisturbed to the horizon, not a sign of civilization — a reason I moved here and gave up so many amenities and comforts of urban life.


But then it happened.


A new transmission line was proposed on Bureau of Land Management land and originally also right through private parcels. At least not a large high-capacity line, yet taller than anything in the area, to increase communications for the military air range to the north and east. Many local residents including Basin & Range Watch volunteers, attended public meetings and discussed the project with agency personnel. Maps were drawn and redrawn, to try to minimize the impacts of this new development in a wild desert and get it out of private parcels. Existing transmission lines with existing roads were suggested as alternate routes.


But to no avail. The project was approved, as so many are despite public outcry, and then we watched the dust plumes rise in our backyard desert from a large tractor-dozer pushing through the creosote and cactus. Long tractor-trailer trucks hauled out the poles, and ridgelines were cut in so that the trucks could maneuver. Dozens of support vehicles drove back and forth kicking up more dirt, and helicopters are scheduled to finish the job of pulling the lines through.


An entirely new well-graded dirt road was created overnight where none was before. The area was previously remote from access and little visited except by kit foxes, sage sparrows, and golden eagles. Archaeological sites and artifacts are stunning in this place, so long hidden from collectors and wheeled vehicles. There are lithic scatters, house rings, petroglyphs, geoglyphs, hunting blinds, and ancient trails. A person willing to hike out there with water could visit them and marvel, but no road disturbed their preservation through the millennia.


Now off-roaders use the new transmission road as an access to the open desert. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good four-wheel drive road myself and often take my 4×4 on explorations up remote dirt roads. But there were already plenty of roads crawling out into the hills and ravines here. Why did we need yet another one?


The wildlife biologist A. Starker Leopold, son of conservationist Aldo Leopold, said in 1949, “Must there be a cow on every hill, a road in every valley?” He had just visited a natural wilderness in Mexico that was doomed to development.


There is a value to civilization I think, a value to agricultural areas that feed us and recreational lands that we can escape to. And equally a value to reasonable areas of landscape free from the fragmentation of towering transmission lines, roads with the roar of engines, metal and cement concoctions littering the view of the purple sunset horizon. Landscapes where only horned lizards and harvester ants dwell, where the only largescale movements are dust devils whirling across sandy washes. Where the silence makes you remember everything you had forgotten.


The last five years or so has seen this story play out many, many times, with the push for energy development on public lands and the consequent hemming in of rural communities. I can think of several large-scale “green” transmission projects that have caused the formation of activist groups in opposition. I now know exactly how they feel.


I look west towards the mountain range that forms the horizon, out across miles of Mojave Desert scrub alive with the clicking of creosote grasshoppers and nighthawks winging about in the dusk sky. Formerly there was a serene view of naturally rounded hills and valleys to frame the setting New Moon crescent and nearby planet Venus; now there are transmission line poles starkly standing across the entire view, up the hills and over to remind me that there are vanishingly few areas of natural world left that are not intruded upon by outside developers looking for some sort of power or profit. Let a few places not see the bulldozer, I wish.









Nevada: Part 1

So close to coastal cities, yet an age apart, the Great Basin has always fascinated me. Having grown up in coastal California, something drew me inland and away from the crowds, and finally settling in the state of Nevada was a fulfillment of a life’s goal. Why Nevada? Most people conjure up images of a barren wasteland, atomic testing, gambling, the worst kind of open-pit mining.

There are places with names like Blue Wing Playa and Catnip Mountain, towns like Dufurrena and Manhattan (a ghost town). Secrets of the sagebrush that go unnoticed by most city inhabitants.

Being in Nevada is often like being back 50 years in time. Life is slower here, there are less people. I’m not talking about the trending population centers like Vegas and Reno, but the huge extent of open land, most of it federally managed and most of it barely visited by anyone but antelope. Vast vistas from rugged mountaintops where not a sign of humanity can be detected, endless acres of saltbush, sagebrush, pinyon-juniper, and sky island conifer forests.

I decided when I first explored Nevada that it would take many lifetimes to reach every mountain range and walk into it. Decades later that still holds true. Each one is different: some are shear limestone razor-edge ridges lacking trees; others are lush with aspen groves, icy streams, and mountain meadows rife with wildflowers all summer long. A few remind me of miniature Sierra Nevadas complete with granitic cliffs, U-shaped glacial valleys, and alpine lakes. Some are covered in bluebunch wheatgrass and bristlecone pine with summer monsoon thundershowers bathing them.

The rule of the road when driving into the outback on the dirt track network is always carry two spare tires, gallons of water, and forget about relying on cell coverage. I have never been in a state where so many  basins and wide valleys are connected to the outside world with the merest of a dirt road. And sometimes impassable with mud after a snowy melt-off. There have been times when I was relieved to finally reach the comfort of the “Loneliest Highway” — Interstate 50 that cuts across central Nevada.

I’ll share more secrets of Nevada for desert lovers in coming posts.

–Laura Cunningham

Dark-phase Swainson's hawk in Fish Lake Valley, Nevada.

Swainson’s hawks

Swainson’s hawks (Buteo swainsoni) make incredible migrations annually from the Pampas of Argentina to breed in the western US, Mexico, and Canada. They hunt grasshoppers, dragonflies, rodents, reptiles, and small birds in grasslands, deserts, and agricultural fields. Commonly these hawks nest in cottonwood trees and other lone trees or river groves. This photo shows a dark color phase individual in Fish Lake Valley, Nevada, taking advantage of an elm tree perch overlooking alfalfa fields where the hunting is good. Other individuals may be light-colored with cream bellies or reddish feathers.

Dark-phase Swainson’s hawk in Fish Lake Valley, Nevada.

In California these raptors have suffered a plunge in population due to habitat removal — they like to nest in riparian groves along rivers, vegetation which has been highly modified and removed in the age of dams, dikes, and levies in the Central Valley. They are beginning to make a comeback, yet threats continue to be thrown in their way.

Large transmission lines and 400-plus-foot wind turbines are being increasingly built in the very mountain passes through which these birds migrate. Developers are supposed to mitigate and compensate for potential collision deaths and habitat removal, yet the details are still fuzzy and we have heard rumors that not all mitigation measures and compensatory land acquisition promises have been met.

There was a time when thousands of these hawks flew in groups along the desert mountain fringes of southern California on their northward routes up to the fertile plains and rivers of central California. I have seen small groups, less than a dozen or single individuals flying over West Mojave creosote during spring and fall. At Borrego Springs, volunteers sometimes count hundreds in gregarious “kettles” flying through on migration.

This spring nearly 500 Swainson’s hawks took a detour together and rode the winds up the Colorado River to stop near Boulder City in southern Nevada to land on yuccas and desert scrub, feasting on an outbreak of grasshoppers hatched from winter rains in that spot. They somehow know where to go to find the buffets on their way to nesting territories. Let’s hope we can stay out of their way.


How It All Started

Sitting at a table in spring 2008 with a bunch of government folks — Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, county reps — I did not predict what I would learn about the future of the desert. It changed my life as an activist.

The meeting was a rather sleepy inter-agency cooperative get-together concerning the management of the Amargosa toad (Bufo nelsoni), a species endemic to a mere 12-mile stretch of the Amargosa River in southern Nevada in the midst of the arid Mojave Desert. Numbers were low after recent surveys and twice environmentalists had petitioned the federal government to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. Both times the Fish and Wildlife Service denied the requests, directing all interested stakeholders to instead work towards conservation measures on the ground that would keep the toad off the endangered species list. I was an interested stakeholder since I live in the area and know the toads well.

The BLM manager from Tonopah explained to us the various threats to the toad — water diversions, development of housing tracts, invasive species like bass and catfish dumped into the waterways the toads breed in (they eat the eggs and tadpoles), and a few other minor problems. Ways to improve the toad breeding pools were hammered out. The meeting wrapped up, and then almost as a side note, the BLM manager told us:

“There is another issue I’d like to make you aware of….”

He spread a large map across the table. We all stood up and gathered closer to see it. Large blocks of desert in the Amargosa Valley were delineated. Tens of thousands of acres were marked out in black-line polygons.

“We’ve got a bunch of companies putting in plans and applications for Right-of-Ways for solar power plants, really big solar plants” he said. “They want to pump groundwater and it might impact the watershed and toad habitat upstream.”

The group was silent for a moment. None of us had seen development this large in the midst of vast relatively undisturbed desert ecosystems. And next to Death Valley National Park. We asked many questions, seeking to understand this new danger to the Amargosa toad. And to the desert in general.

Large-scale solar project under construction.

I had started Basin and Range Watch with friends earlier that year as an informal website to track desert issues. We had no intention of becoming a non-profit or growing membership. It was supposed to be a fun volunteer project and I had planned to put up a bunch of pages on places to hike in the Great Basin, maybe an identification guide to shrubs of Death Valley, a spring wildflower tracker, bird-watching calendars, photo galleries showing the beauty of the desert. Plus a few pages on conservation issues such as gold mine expansions or an off-highway-vehicle race that crossed a wetland.

All that paled now as I pondered this new perspective of industrialists on a large scale moving deep into the wilds of the Mojave. Places that seemed on the edge of the known world and far from urban threats were now the bullseye for massive development covering entire valleys with metal, glass, and pavement.

The first time I explored the Mojave Desert was in 1985 on a field trip with university biologists. Back then the area felt extremely remote and unvisited, almost dangerous. A safari into an arid lonely wonderland. I learned the biodiversity was higher than I expected, and the interesting human history a testament to survival in a stark and enchanting land. I wanted to continue to explore and uncover the secrets of the desert in the years to come.

The prospect of huge swaths of this primeval desert going under the bulldozer was thus a shock. So many secrets remain to explore. My colleagues and I discussed the need to redirect this push for renewable energy development from the raw desert to locations that would not impact so many wildflower fields, tall green yuccas, tortoises, kit foxes, black-throated sparrows, pupfish, bighorn sheep, and local towns. There must be better ways to go about locating green energy. There must be a plan to follow.

That turned out to be a mighty big job: tracking solar, wind, and transmission projects on public lands, writing comment letters, trying to participate in the agency process, seeking to educate people. I’m not sure we have succeeded in saving much desert after four years, but if no one tries, then the situation might be worse I tell myself. And my goal of local desert activism untried and unspoken.