Monthly Archives: January 2009


Low-key blog maintenance stuff: I’ve created a new membership type, “Moderator,” which is exactly like being a regular member with one exception: Moderators can edit or close other people’s comments.

I did this because every once in a while there are stray trollish comments that pop up, climate change denialists and right-wingers only looking to start comment fusterclucks. (To be distinguished from right-wingers looking to have actual conversations.) I’m not always around to nuke the trolls, and I know how tempting it can be to respond to people like that. I like the constructive conversations and disagreements we have around here and I suspect some of the rest of you do as well.

If you’re a regular around these parts with a good sense of the difference between honest disagreement and bad-faith trolling, not to mention the difference between actual comments and the new outbreak of individually crafted spam comments, and you wouldn’t mind making the occasional easy single click to send a comment into moderation, lemme know. Moderators will also be able to edit comments to fix broken links and such. Signing up implies no obligation on your part: it’s just a way of giving a few folks the ability to make constructive contributions that they probably already wish they could.

Creek Running North cob-loggers Theriomorph and Kat and Stephanie already have this special power and are welcome to use it if they like. (No obligation, of course.) Space Kitty’s been added to the list of moderators. Two or three more helpful people would be nice.

Interested? .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Using Google Earth, researchers find unmapped Mozambique wilderness

From Birdlife.Org:

<blockquote cite="

…scientists who recently discovered a hidden forest in Mozambique show the uncharted can still be under our noses. BirdLife were part of a team of scientists who used Google Earth to identify a remote patch of pristine forest. An expedition to the site discovered new species of butterfly and snake, along with seven Globally Threatened birds.

Things Environmentalists Get Wrong

In the spirit of self-criticism, here’s a non-exhaustive list of things people on the green side of the fence say, with all good intent, that are demonstrably wrong.

“We can protect the environment without jeopardizing economic growth.”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
“Population is not a problem. We have enough food to feed everyone well. It’s merely our current economic system, which distributes food inequitably, that is responsible for hunger. If we distribute food equably there will be enough to go around.”
“As Chief Seattle said, ‘How can you buy or sell the sky?’ [or] ‘This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.’  [or] ‘Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it.’ [or]  ‘I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.’ [or insert lyrical poetical environmental sentiment here.] ”
“Man [sic] is the only animal that hunts for sport.” (Alt: “…kills for pleasure.”)
“If the world were a village of 100 people: 6 of them would possess 59% of the wealth… (etc)”

Rebuttals are below the fold. Suggest your own in comments! This may turn into a sporadic series.

Continue reading

Mining Sacred Land

From Indianz:

A federal judge on Monday refused to grant a preliminary injunction against a gold mine in Nevada that would impact sacred Western Shoshone sites.

A group of tribal and environmental plaintiffs sued the Interior Department to block construction of one of the largest gold mines in the U.S. They want to protect Mount Tenabo, a sacred site.

But Judge Larry Hicks said tribal members will be able to access the site even if Barrick Gold Corporation of Canada proceeds with construction. He said his decision was based on precedent set by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the San Francisco Peaks case, which tribes are taking to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs include the South Fork Band Council of Western Shoshone, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, the Western Shoshone Defense Project and Great Basin Resource Watch.

(Via Wampum.)

In Hagen Canyon

It makes no sound. If it did the wind would mask it, keening through the sere canyon. Look the wrong way and your mouth fills with dust, with flecks of gravel. It is constant, the wind, and it raises whistles across the crenellated canyon walls. One must almost shout to be heard above the wind.

It does not shout. It does not whisper.

It does have a voice. There are times that voice is the loudest thing around. The skies open up, they glower, and a sheen grows on the cliffs. The whole valley gathers it and it rages, drowns the canyon floor, drowns the wind. It carves the rock like clay slip under a knife. It churns up bones, the remains of monsters dead 13 million years, and scatters them down toward the dry lake. Sometimes its voice is the world ending.

Today is a bright dry day in March, and the Hagen Canyon watershed is mute. Rain has not fallen for some weeks.

Hiking in the canyon is not as deadly as a few timid souls would claim:

How many of you desert riders have ever seen a hiker anywhere????  If you are on foot, you are going to die out there!

…but it is thirsty work. The sand in the bone-dry wash shifts beneath your feet, and walking uphill is strenuous enough as it is. The wash is braided, the ghosts of floods long past marked in old scours, fossil plunge pools.

It flows silent, unseen, an unremembered dream beneath the desert’s harsh waking surface.

Once the rock here flowed like water. It seared the grassland, incinerated the old river delta, killed everything in its path. It cooled and the earth healed over, built new lake above the old. Basalt is harder than the lakebed sediments. Its outcrops run for miles across the desert, cliffs of dark rock exposed as their mantling sediment is washed away. A basalt outcrop cuts this canyon in two, a sheer hundred-foot wall and narrow chokepoint separating lower canyon from upper.


Basalt is impervious to water. The chokepoint is a dam across the dry wash, and the Hagen Canyon Watershed—unseen, untasted save by those that live beneath two meters of sand—is forced to the surface. It finds the lowest point in the wall of basalt, a niche in the clifftop above a precarious sandy shelf.


It flows over the wall, one drop per minute.


Stand there long enough and you will see it carve the canyon deeper, the seep’s slow rasp and the flash flood’s scour in turn. Ten thousand years should do it.

The management of Red Rock State Park is weighing the possibility of opening more of its lands to those timid souls, like the one quoted above, who fear meeting the desert on its own terms, who cannot venture out into it without their gas-powered security blankets. Whether or not Hagen Canyon is open to them legally, they would come here. One would need to strain to hear the constant wind over their din. Their exhaust stench would mask the fragrance of sun-warmed basalt, the wind-driven smell of baking rabbitbrush fringing the wash at the base of this dry fall, stretching downhill and east toward the dry lake.


[To do something about it: go to Larry Hogue’s post here.]

Reminder: Carnival of the Arid, February 1

We’ve gotten quite a few wonderful submissions for the upcoming, first-ever Carnival of the Arid, which I’m already thinking of as a rousing success. But that doesn’t mean we’re full! Send me a link to your desert-related blog post by January 30 and you’ll almost certainly be included.

A note for the biogeographers: We’re accepting submissions about a couple places not usually classified as deserts, such as the Colorado Plateau and the Kalahari. If it’s a desert in the popular imagination, we’ll allow it.

To submit, leave a link either here or in comments at the original post, or email it to me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Found while searching for something else

Looking for “Sierra Club Desert Committee,” I find this page which has a list of unrestored open-pit mines in the California desert. With this photo:

is this accompanying text:

Molycor[p] Mine, San Bernardino County

Another non-gold open pit mine.  They mine “rare earths” near Clark Mountain by Mountain Pass off I-15.  In addition to the pit hazard, Molycor has released radioactive waste into nearby Ivanpah Dry Lake.

For those of you just joining us, I spent the summer breathing the dust off Ivanpah Dry Lake. I knew about the mine: it’s hard to miss. But I hadn’t heard about the radwaste dumping.  A bit more Googling brings us to Great Basin Resource Watch, which says:

In 1977, a major pipeline break spilled more than 2 million gallons of radioactive water onto public land on the Ivanpah Playa. Yet San Bernadino County recently approved Molycorp’s request to expand the mine and the company is in the process of getting the necessary operating permits. GBMW and other groups have appealed the county’s decision.

I head back there on Wednesday.


I wish they’d stop printing books I want to read

Cover of book

…especially given that I have no income.

This one sounds good:

Every scientific study confirms that global warming will cause the amount of water in the Colorado River to decline, yet because we already use every drop, there is none to spare. To fill reservoirs takes surplus water and there is no surplus. Within a couple of decades, the Colorado River system will have too little water to maintain two large reservoirs even half full, requiring us to sacrifice Lake Powell in favor of Lake Mead. But don’t expect to hear it from the US Bureau of Reclamation: it continues to deny the significance of global warming, promising that there will always be plenty of water in the Colorado River and its reservoirs, the moral and scientific equivalent of the promises of the Corps of Engineers that the levees would protect New Orleans. Why do we have federal water agencies that we cannot trust?

James Lawrence Powell, on his book Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West

Reviewing Dead Pool, The Salt Lake Tribune made the following observations:

For eight years under George W. Bush, the Bureau of Reclamation has refused to acknowledge the effects that global warming is having and will yet have on the Colorado, in spite of record temperatures and the recent 500-year drought that nearly brought Lake Powell to its knees. Instead, the bureau continues to use only data from the last century, the first half of which was one of the wettest periods in the known history of the Colorado. According to Bush’s BOR, in 2050 Lake Powell, which reflects the health of the river as a whole, will stand at 3,660 feet, just 40 feet below full pool.

Studies done by climate scientists suggest an entirely different future. Recent tree-ring studies have shown that the true multicentury average flow of the river is well below that used by the BOR. They also show periods when river flow, even without the effects of global warming, was lower than that experienced in our 500-year drought.

When one adds to this natural variability and drought-prone history even a conservative estimate of projected global warming effects, the results are devastating. Current estimates of how much the flow of the Colorado might be reduced range between 6 and 30 percent. Using just a 10-percent figure, and accepting the bureau’s own estimates of increased demand and new draws such as the Lake Powell pipeline, Powell gives a harrowing scenario in which Lake Powell drops to “dead pool” by 2022, rendering projects such as the pipeline useless almost as soon as they become operational.

But far scarier is the possibility that in this time frame the effects of the devastation of the Colorado due to overuse and reduced flow could well render life in today’s desert megacities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas impossible. What Powell’s book shows is that global warming is without any stretch of imagination capable of rendering life in western America unrecognizable not in our grandchildren’s lifetime but in ours.

I’m gonna have to work my review copy mojo, looks like. Hope I made sure to move my wand to the storage locker.

Owens Valley: The Sequel

[Updated 1/26: A warm welcome to the folks from LADWP stopping by. Feel free to join the discussion.]

Las Vegas is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the US. It’s in the middle of the Mojave, the driest desert in the US. Vegas gets the vast majority of its water from the Colorado River, which is not only oversubscribed — enough water is taken out of it that it no longer reaches the sea — but in the middle of an unprecedented drought that is very likely going to get far worse. There are even odds that Lake Mead will be dry by 2021, which means no water for Vegas.

The Las Vegas Sun has put together a fantastic multimedia piece on Las Vegas’ water future, featuring the usual blithe denials by industry and water utility flacks. A resort representative blandly says that casinos on The Strip account for “only eight percent” of Nevada’s water use, and a woman from the water utility rather angrily says that relying on conservation and limiting growth in the Vegas valley would be “irresponsible.”

Something’s gotta give, and the Sun’s video lets us know that Vegas’ city fathers and mothers expect said giving to be done by the Snake Valley, a desert oasis on the line between Nevada and Utah a couple hundred miles north. Snowmelt from Great Basin National Park, now feeding wetlands and local farmers’ fields, would be piped to Vegas to run Bellagio’s fountains.

Understandably, the folks who live in the Snake Valley are reluctant to go along with the plan, and you can find out more at their website at

To those of us in California who know a little history, the whole thing brings a bit of déjà vu. From the PBS documentary Cadillac Desert:


Tree Deaths Double in West

From the US Geological Survey:

Tree death rates have more than doubled over the last few decades in old-growth forests of the western United States, and the most probable cause of the worrisome trend is regional warming, according to a U.S. Geological Survey-led (USGS) study published in Science on January 23.

The study found that the increase in dying trees has been pervasive. Tree death rates have increased across a wide variety of forest types, at all elevations, in trees of all sizes, and in pines, firs, hemlocks, and other kinds of trees.

Regardless of the cause, higher tree death rates ultimately could lead to substantial changes in western forests, said Phil van Mantgem, a USGS scientist and co-leader of the research team.  Such changes, the team noted, can have cascading effects, such as by changing forest suitability for wildlife species. Additionally, increasing tree mortality rates mean that western forests could become net sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further speeding up the pace of global warming.

Obama administration reprieves wolf protection

A bit of promising news from the Obama administration after its first full workday:

With a new administration in charge, federal regulators Wednesday promised a second look at a recent decision to drop gray wolves in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains from the endangered list.

The Interior Department said it was withdrawing at least temporarily a rule announced last week changing the wolf’s status in both regions. The rule never formally took effect.

More here.


Here is a fine, very well-fed individual of the species Spermophilus variegatus, also known as the rock squirrel. This one happened to be working the crowd outside the El Tovar on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but the species ranges throughout the Southwestern states and Mexico, edging just barely into that part of the state of California that fronts the Colorado River, for instance my neighborhood here.

The rock squirrel is one of 18 or so Spermophilus species in the western part of North America. There are currently 42 species worldwide.  Spermophilus itself — the name means “seed lover” — is one of three genera of true ground squirrels, along with Ammospermophilus, the antelope squirrels of the desert Southwest, and Cynomys, popularly known as prairie dogs. Close relatives of the three genera include marmots and chipmunks. Taxonomists group ground squirrels, chipmunks and marmots into a “tribe” within the squirrel family called Marmotini, which sounds like something you’d find on the menu in a spaghetti joint in Bozeman, or maybe a mixture of gin and wheatgrass juice.

Anyway, there are Spermophilus of various species living everywhere in Western North America from the beaches of the Arctic Ocean to southern Mexico. Their appearances vary widely, with some looking very much like your basic tree squirrels, some — the golden-mantled ground squirrel, S. lateralis, for instance — looking like glorified chipmunks, the flickertails (S. richardsonii) essentially trimmed-down prairie dogs, and the thirteen-lined and Mexican ground squirrels (S. tridecemlineatus and S. mexicanus, and I bet you can guess which is which) looking like nothing I’ve ever seen.

I found myself facing down a Spemophilus day before yesterday up at Cima Dome. I didn’t get a chance to ask it to display its tail. A tail with short hair would have made it a round-tailed ground squirrel, S. tereticaudus. Rock squirrels have bushy tails like tree squirrels. On reflection, though, I’ve decided it was probably a rock squirrel. Round-tails are low-elevation denizens, from what I can tell, preferring warmer, sandy wastes like the one I nearly got the Jeep stuck in about two hours before I saw the squirrel. The squirrel and I were up a bit, at around 5,500 feet. Also — another clue — it was hanging out in a big pile of rocks.

Still, I was a little hesitant to make the call because my squirrel field guide, Tamara Hartson’s Squirrels of the West, has a range map for the rock squirrel that implied it was unlikely I’d find any Spermophilus variegatus near Cima Dome. I decided, though, that the maps in Hartson were — how do I put this kindly? — drawn without reliance on primary sources. The range map provided for the one other Spermophilus living in the Mojave Desert, Spermophilus mohavensis, was, well, inaccurate. It shows the Mojave ground squirrel as ranging south and east of Joshua Tree National Park, almost to the Colorado River at Blythe. The actual southeastern limit of the Mojave ground squirrel is pretty much the Mojave River. That’s about a 130-mile error, about a two-fold increase in the actual range of the species.

The southeastern limit of the Mohave ground squirrel’s range is, and not by coincidence, the northwestern limit of its closest relative, the round-tailed ground squirrel. To a first approximation, each species lives on its own side of the Mojave River and nobody fishes in the middle. This becomes a little confusing when you remember that while there is water flowing in the Mojave River, it mainly does that flowing beneath several feet of gravel and sand. There’s nothing in that riverbed, 364.5 days out of your typical 365, that would provide the kind of barrier to migration — and thus gene exchange —  that usually causes one species to diverge into two sibling species. A squirrel spotting a likely mate on the other side wouldn’t even have to get its feet wet to exchange some genes.

And in fact, there is a little bit of interbreeding going on along the river, which is a pretty romantic spot when you get right down to it, and squirrelologists have found a few hybrids between the two species here and there, mainly in disturbed areas where the typical behavior of each species may have been disrupted. The breakdown of the natural order of things has likely resulted in interspecies mating, and yet the Mormon church is strangely silent on the matter.

If there’s no barrier to the populations of squirrels meeting, and they can still interbreed, what was it that split the original species in two in the first place?

The Mojave River is still a possibility despite its current lack of, well, current. Before 6,000 years ago there was water flowing in the river, lots of it, running down off the slopes of the Pluvial-era San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, filling what are now dry washes and alkaline playas with water too broad for a squirrel to ford. There was a vast network of lakes and streams in the Mojave then, with water off the east side of the Sierra Nevada joining in from the northwest, filling Owens and Searles lakes and spilling over into the Panamint Valley and Lake Manly on the floor of Death Valley. For its part, the Mojave River filled immense lakes where Harper Lake is now, near Hinkley, and Coyote Lake, north of Yermo. Its main flow continued past them and cut a gorge now called Afton Canyon, filled up Soda and Silver Lakes near Baker, and ended up in Lake Manly as well.

It may be that there were other factors beside swollen rivers keeping the squirrels apart. The heart of the Mohave ground squirrel’s habitat in the northwestern Mojave, smack dab in the rainshadow of the Sierra, is thought to have remained somewhat arid during the Pluvial, and may have been a refugium of sorts where desert-adapted critters were able to escape competition from less-droughty species taking advantage of the wetter Mojave elsewhere. But when you map out the boundary between the ranges of the Mohave and round-tailed ground squirrels, it’s never farther than about 30 kilometers from the Pluvial Mojave River System waterline. Things dried up 6,000 years ago, so that’s a migration rate of about five meters a year, not unlikely given ground squirrel behavior as we see it today.

I love this kind of story so much. Who but a complete geek would take note of seemingly arbitrary boundaries between the ranges of two very similar squirrel species? The Mohave is a little more pink-gray than the round-tailed, and the underside of its tail is white where the round-tailed’s is solid cinnamon-colored; the first likes gravel and the second sand. These are differences all but invisible to the vast majority of people, especially in a genus as diversely-appearanced as Spermophilus.

But when you start paying attention to why the ranges of animals and plants and other living things are the way they are, when you start paying attention to how the arrangement of life on today’s Earth came to be the way it is, epics unfurl themselves before you. Caruthers Canyon, a valley near here full of incongruous oaks and manzanitas and other usually-coastal chaparral plants, reveals itself to be a redoubt, a place where hundreds of generations of plants have held on as mountain ranges rose, blocked the rain, made two hundred miles of desert between them and their nearest kin. Uninspiring, ratty rings of creosote bush become impossibly ancient matriarchs, already 5,000 years old or more when the First Dynasty struggled to power in Egypt.

And a vague line between the ranges of two drab species of burrowing rodent becomes mythic, Noachic, the heavens opening up, a millennia-long flood separating brother from brother, sister from sister, two histories diverging from a common root, one nation cleft into two and the two meeting again as strangers.

The desert is woven of these stories, and I could spent the rest of my life reading them and be content.