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.]

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 protectsnakevalley.com.

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:


No. Just… No.

Via Larry Hogue and DesertBlog:

California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park, a resource-rich and stunningly beautiful park in the El Paso Mountains of the Mojave Desert, is now threatened with becoming yet another ORV-ruined landscape. These desert canyon-lands, which were supposed to receive “maximum protection” when they were transferred to State Parks in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s 1994 Desert Protection Act, are about to become ground zero in a face-off between traditional park users and off-road interests.

I’ve written about Red Rock Canyon a few times. It’s a beautiful place. It needs to be left alone.

Larry has more info.

US National Park Meme

I call the Mojave National Preserve “The Park” as often as not, but I’m painfully aware that it isn’t one. The difference between “Preserve” and “Park” status? Hunting is allowed in National Preserves. Letting hunters shoot things in the Preserve was a compromise reached in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act that pacified a key constituency opposed to Park status for what had been the East Mojave Scenic Area.

(Did you know that you can shoot all the coyotes you want in the preserve, any time of year, if you have a valid license? That’s not specific to the Preserve: it’s California law. Still. There are pumas in the Preserve, including at least one who skulks around Cima Dome, but given their relative numbers coyotes still function as the top predator in the Preserve. Yet it’s legal to kill them all if you can. This hardly strikes me as sensible management, and I imagine Preserve staff would likely agree were their hands not tied. I can understand shooting one if she’s trying to raid your lamb pen — it’s not a feasible solution long-term, but I can understand the impulse. But what kind of sick person would stalk and shoot coyotes for fun? A sane society would keep tabs on people like that, the way we do now with convicted sex offenders.)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. There are plenty of full-fledged US National Parks where hunting isn’t allowed: 58 of them, in fact. A list of them, cut-n-pasted from Wikipedia, is below the fold. In the spirit of those “crazy things you’ve done in your life” memes, I’ve bolded those I’ve visited. Feel free to do the same in comments, (though just deleting the ones you haven’t visited might be easier!) or on your own blog, and let us know you’ve done it. Don’t see one in the list you know you’ve visited? It’s probably a National Preserve or a National Monument, or one of the dozen or so other categories of Park Service unit. Perhaps even a National Forest. Non-US residents can participate by telling us about some of the fine parks outside the belly of the beast. And yes, this list reflects a certain amount of assumption of privilege in that travel costs money and time, and if you’ve been unable to do the Parks Tour thing, feel free to tell us about a local place you like, NP, National Monument, State Park, or otherwise.

Bonus question: what’s the next National Park you’d like to visit?

Oh, and it’s not a meme unless you tap people for it, so I’m pointing at Rana, Sherwood, RonArvind,  and Dave.

Continue reading

Beauty

north ridge of Teutonia Peak

It is raining, a little. The wind off the little storm front brings the temperature down to a positively comfortable level. It’s almost cool. Not even 80°, and the scent of wet juniper and rock hangs in the air.

How long has it been since I’d climbed Teutonia Peak? Probably that day I was here with Matthew in the wake of the Hackberry Fire, which would put it at the last few days of July in 2005. More than three years. It was eleven years ago I first made this little hike, three miles out and back at most unless you bushwhack around the west face of Teutonia the way I did that first day, and I don’t remember even once noticing, hiking back down from the saddle beneath the summit, how just utterly beautiful the north ridge is. Perhaps it’s the slanting, cloud-filtered light, or the temperate air after an oven summer. Maybe it’s that juniper tang in my nostrils or the slow ebb of the heartbreak that’s preoccupied me these last months. Maybe I’ve noticed it before and just forgot.

Whatever it is, the sight is a fixative. I am suddenly embedded in the moment, a fly in desert amber. The clichéd sensation déjà vu has a lesser-known complement, jamais vu, the sudden feeling that one has never before seen the thing beheld. The sundered rock before me seems wholly unfamiliar, a spectacular surround entirely new.

And of course I recall earlier visits, hiking down into the rocks there with Sharon eleven years ago, clambering over fall after dry fall, marveling at the coffee ferns and lush moss in a desolate desert canyon. Alone a few years later, I dropped down into one of those little defiles before me there between the boulders and found a stripe of wet sand. There was a bighorn sheep hoofprint in the middle of the sand. I watched it fill with seeping wet, my hair standing on end: the print could not have been more than a few minutes old. I do remember being here, and yet I am wholly certain I have never been here before. I am split in two, two selves momentarily occupying the same space.

There is Ephedra growing here, and Echinocereus. The ground is covered in bright quartz gravel. I walk along the little trail, picking my way down the slope. My heart is full and I am content and yet I know this feeling will pass, will become one more memory of past happiness. I regret that for a moment. It is one more ache in an uncountable string of aches, this desire to take this spasmodic stroke of beauty and preserve it in some metaphorical solvent, to fold myself somehow into the landscape and never leave.

Pinyon jays raise a tumult in the Joshua trees. I watch a small flock of them work their way south along the base of the hill. I have no idea what they’re looking for. The closest piñon pines I know of are a dozen miles away, in the Mid-Hills. And are they even there anymore? I took a quick look last year, my first visit to the Hackberry burn since the fire went out, and I couldn’t look closely enough to tell whether any of the pines I’d known had survived. There were a few stands of juniper still living, islands in a charcoal sea.

There was a day I had wanted to become that landscape too, to forever grasp the moment and the smell of sagebrush, the tail of the fat coyote trotting across the rutted dirt of Wild Horse Canyon Road, the loud jays in the piñons and the long view north toward Teutonia and Kessler Peaks, and of all those things I longed to become that day the view still remains. A wall of fire took all the rest, turned sagebrush to smoke and coyote to calcinated ash. Though the jays were likely among the few animals that could outrun the front — at its worst, on June 26, 2005, it advanced five miles in an hour and a half — the trees they fed on were somewhat less able to run away. An animal may escape, but an animal is nothing without the habitat that feeds it, houses it, envelops it as a fossil cast contains its mold. There are piñons in the New York Mountains, the Clark Range, in the McCulloughs; settlement camps for Mid-Hills refugee jays.

Had I become that landscape, my heart would be char and smoke today. Instead I watched from 400 miles away, heart breaking by increment with each bit of bad news, a week that is, in the clear light of retrospect, the commencement of that long slide that culminated in the dissolution of my home and family. Distinct from the incinerated landscape, I survived with no visible scars.

That separation saved my skin, but that separation was as inevitable as breathing. By its very nature self-awareness implies a separation between self and not-self.  Beauty, a transaction between the perceiver and the perceived, could not exist without that separation. It is the obverse of longing’s coin.

Mastamho, the Mojave culture hero, after he summoned Coyote to bring fire for his father’s funeral pyre, after he created the Colorado River, after he apportioned the land and sent the various peoples — the Yavapai, Hualapai and Havasupai, the Chemehuevi, the Kumeyaay and Quechan and Ahamakav — each to their own places, after all his labors, he was tired. He became a fish eagle, according to the story, and now flies back and forth above the river he freed from the sand with his staff. In the process he relinquished his memory, his identity. One cannot merge with the landscape without making a similar though certainly far more prosaic sacrifice.

What would be the point? All is as it should be. I am that part of the desert grown aware of itself, these walls as natural as the chollas’ gloriole of spines. We long the way coyotes howl and ravens quark and datura blossoms clasp themselves closed until the night arrives. And this mountain too will burn, and preventably so. One beloved landscape after another will be lost, and we mourn, and we resolve to fight the next looming loss as inevitably, and as inevitably we will long for the staggering chaotic beauty that replaces them.