Tag Archives: Parks

Protect Gold Butte

Most of you have never heard of it, but northeast of Las Vegas, in one of the least-visited parts of the continental United States, a desert treasure in Nevada needs your support.

I visited Gold Butte for the first time in 1997. I was just passing through, heading for a tiny outpost in the Arizona Strip called Pakoon Springs, which later became part of the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. A fire there had damaged a Joshua tree forest some years before, and I wanted to take a look at the recovery so far. My old truck carried me up over the slopes of Virgin Peak and across the state line, where I took some photos that turned out to be abysmally fuzzy. Joshua tree near Pakoon Springs, AZ (The fire had burned patches of the landscape, but not all of it. Much of it looked intact. In this shot, taken facing eastward into the Arizona Strip, the long ridge in the background is the Grand Wash Cliffs escarpment. The notch in the Cliffs toward the right? That’s the downstream end of a rather famous natural landscape feature. )

My old truck was a four-cylinder 2WD, so my relief at not getting stuck in the Pakoon’s washes was considerable, and I headed back across the line into Gold Butte to explore the Whitney Pockets area for a little while. I’ve always meant to get back to Virgin Peak and do some hiking, like these folks did:

It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been. It’s wild, wide, open, and spacious. Gold Butte is a botanical, geological, and archaeological treasure. It’s priceless habitat for desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. It’s also within a couple hours’ drive from two fast-growing cities — the metastasopolis of Las Vegas, and the smaller but even more enthusiastically desert-defacing St. George, Utah — and the almost-city of Mesquite NV. As a result, those who use the desert as a blank slate across which to scratch their grubby fingernails pose a significant and increasing threat to the landscape:

And unlike the Pakoon and other adjacent lands across the Arizona line in the Parashant NM, Gold Butte is essentially unprotected.

Nevada environmentalists and land managers are working with local elected officials to change that. Last year Representative Shelley Berkley introduced HR 7132, a bill that would have given Gold Butte National Conservation Area status, like the Red Rock Canyon area on the other side of Las Vegas. The NCA would have covered 362,177 acres, with 200,000 more acres of BLM and Park Service lands in the area declared wilderness. The bill did not pass, and must be reintroduced in this theoretically more receptive Congress.

The Nevada Wilderness Project has an action site where you can find ways to help them protect Gold Butte, from writing letters to sharing your hard-earned cash.  The Friends of Gold Butte has a website and a companion blog where you can stay informed, and if you’re in the area, there are events listed in which you can take part.

And if you’re not a local, you can still let people know Gold Butte exists. It’s one of the last best places, a forgotten puzzle piece in the Grand Canyon biome, and it deserves protection.

At Grand Canyon, water battle rages anew

Via Lee Allison, a relatively thorough story in the Arizona Republic about the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam, and science and the environment being disregarded for considerations of political and electrical power.

Nearly a year after the federal government flooded the Grand Canyon in a test of resource restoration, questions persist about whether the agency in charge watered down the experiment to protect power providers and ignored high-level critics of the operation.

The allegations resurfaced with a January memo written by the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, who accused his bosses of disregarding science in preparing for the flood designed to reverse some of the damaging effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the canyon and on the Colorado River. He also described the environmental review of the experiment as one of the worst he’s seen.

Conservation groups say the Interior Department tailored the experiment, a four-day flush of water from Lake Powell down the Colorado River, to appease providers whose power is generated by Glen Canyon Dam. The providers have long complained about the money lost whenever changes are made in the way water is released from the dam.

The episode further feeds a long-simmering feud between environmentalists and power interests and raises the issue yet again of whether a dam and a fragile riparian ecosystem can coexist.

Read the rest: it’s good. Then check out the Grand Canyon Trust’s website for background.

Desert Pavement

lava desert pavement

This wind is a tide. Plant your footsoles on the earth: the wind will scour the sand out from underneath, send you toppling backward into the holes it digs beneath your heels. It is relentless. It is patient. Sandgrain after wind-driven sandgrain blasts the surface, wearing down rock, dislodging in turn other grains of sand.

Outside the desert, plants hold the soil in place with a net of roots. Atop this lava flow only the most resolute of plants survive, the red-spined Ferocactus and gray Atriplex hymenelytra, Mojave yuccas a few decades old and wizened. They stay far apart. Between them the surface of the earth is bare, a few wisps of annual grasses the only adornment, and those blown away nearly as readily as the sand.

The tide-wind digs out holes beneath each rock. Each pebble, each fist-sized crag of basalt moves in the wind. A little to the left; the wind carries away sand beneath it to the right. The rock tilts into the new-dug hole, and the wind scours the open sand on the other side. Each rock grinds itself into the soil. The wind works hardest on those that still rise above their neighbors. Sand smooths away the sharp lines, the corners and apices.

Each year or two the rains come and spend themselves against the earth. Where rain hits sand it flings it upward, roughens the soil so that the wind can work it. Where rain hits rock the rock absorbs the blow.

Wind and rain favor the rock. At length the desert paves itself, a tight and fragile skin, small rocks interlocking each one with its neighbors. All else is stripped away. Anything the wind can scour, anything the rain can drown is stripped away.

Last week I stood serene atop an old lava flow in the company of Atriplex and Ferocactus. I envied them their tenure. I envied them their tenacity. I would have stayed there with them permanently, were it possible: stayed to watch the winters pass into springs, to watch the rocks smooth and dwindle under the stream of sand.

It struck me then that for all their armor, for all their bristling spines and thorns and bitter saponin glycosides, the plants were vulnerable. Had my feet grown roots into the lava, had I sunk taps into the desert to sip a quart a month and watch the sun, I would have been as vulnerable. I would have watched helpless as the Sahara mustard filled the spaces between the yuccas, dried and caught fire. I would have watched the brome tinge the earth a deeper red. I would have watched ten thousand sunsets and a storm of new industry scathing the desert wilderness. Though I cannot stay here with them I can at least move to defend them, I thought, and then there in that desiccated place came a sodden realization: because I can, I must.

Bit by bit it gets stripped away, all of it. All that I was stripped slow away by the tide wind, and what is left? This desert and my obligation to it, our only armor the coals of old fires long ago gone cold and black, a paved and broken skin to parry the wind.

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.jpg

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.

seep.jpg

It flows over the wall, one drop per minute.

drip.jpg

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.

lowercyn.jpg

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