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.