Kumeyaay Indian Mourning Ceremony for the loss of cultural and geographic habitat for Ocotillo Wind Express Project at Ocotillo, California, June 2012
In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
on the morning and following
morning of the long, split moon night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
sponsored by Kumeyaay Indians
who for centuries, along with
Quechan and other desert people
have called this desert home
and who mourn the desecration
of sacred desert land, the blading
of old growth Ocotillo and desert
floor and ceremonial places for
a 40-story-high wind farm zone
with blades that kill desert birds,
making circles that fly nowhere
and sluice the desert heart apart
into more broken pieces than two
In June, 2012, I attended an all-night Native American mourning ceremony near the tiny town of Ocotillo, CA – located east of San Diego, where mountain meets desert – in commemoration of the loss of sacred desert sites for the construction of a massive wind tower zone. To begin with, I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to the desert Indian tribes and leaders and bird singers/dancers for offering this highly sacred ceremony to the public, which was coordinated and sponsored by Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Tribal Chairman Anthony Pico; esteemed elders from other tribes, such as Preston Arrow-Weed, of the Quechan tribe, and his wife Helen, were also present and participated in the ceremony. I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to our desert Indian leaders and elders and singers and people for their tireless and enduring dedication to caring for the California desert. They are an inspiration beyond inspiration to all of us, and it is in their honor that I speak today.
In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
along the long highway
on my way to the ceremony
on the morning of the night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
for the eagles being killed,
for the turtles being killed,
for the tall Ocotillo being killed,
for all that is being sacrificed
in the name of renewable energy
in the name of “go green”
in the name of destroying things
and we’ve gathered to heal
the wounds in our desert hearts
to try to stop the bleeding
to try to staunch the wounds
on the sacred desert ground
and so, alone, I drove
taking nothing with me
on my car’s dashboard
and moving into my own
form of road grief and prayer
I was blessed by birds.
In June, 2012, I was a wreck. It felt like both my personal life and my beloved, lifelong homeland, the Mojave and other California deserts, were being torn apart. My only child, Tarah, had just left home for Ft. Lewis Washington, where she was drinking herself into a numbed stupor as a way to cope while my son-in-law Alex was on a year-long tour of Afghanistan with the Army. I was also reeling from the recent loss of my partner to suicide. My life was being jerked up and down by severe losses, and it had become more than I could bear; all of this paralleled the federal renewable energy land grab over desert lands I know intimately well, through my years, starting in childhood, of widely exploring, hiking, camping, exploring the California deserts, and later, working as a wildland firefighter for the BLM California Desert District.
In June, 2012
The first eagle
had landed in the center divider
of Interstate 60 in the Badlands,
and was waiting there
for me to arrive
and drive by.
He lifted slowly
when I approached,
then powered off
into the distant sky,
heavy with road kill.
In June, 2012, I was devastated to be experiencing, from an inside perspective, the onset of, metaphorically but actually pretty literal onset of heinous stage four cancer throughout the entire desert body. It was too much. I was grabbing onto hope beyond hope and trying to connect as my personal life in the desert – metaphorically and literally – was fragmented, falling apart, being destroyed, seemingly, by uncontrollable outside forces. For me, this is not “the other place” to go for kicks with somewhere else to go back to. This is home for me in the most profound and enduring and beloved way, and this is where my center is. Throughout my life, the desert has provided deep healing and inspiration and renewal no matter what challenges I’ve encountered in my life. The California and southwest deserts are also my academic and literary home; I’m a lifelong scholar and professor of desert literature, and also know the deserts intimately through the oral traditions and stories of the region’s indigenous peoples and a rich legacy of western and contemporary poetry and prose. But now, where was I to go?
And so I drove to the Mourning Ceremony in June, 2012, looking for much-needed community and healing within my own heart of hearts.
In June, 2012
the second eagle
was painted on the side of a big-rig
just a few miles down the road
on Interstate 10, huge.
It rode alongside me for miles,
with Santa Ana winds
gathering at our backs, larger
than life or windmills
And I passed the giant
blades of towers that behead
so many living things at the
hips and brow of the hills
of the open mouth
of the Colorado Desert
near Palm Springs
“This is not a protest,” Viejas Kumeyaay Chairman Anthony Pico made clear. Instead, he called for all of the hundreds of participants to come together in a time of “healing.” Viejas was one of several bands of the Kumeyaay nation represented; other San Diego bands included Barona, Sycuan, and Manzanita. Some traveled from out of state, such as those from the Navajo nation. Prayers were recited, followed by an all-night wake with ancient birdsongs and dancing to honor the generations of long ago whose consecrated ashes lie in the dust now being disturbed across the 12,500 acre Ocotillo Wind Express Project. Writer Miriam Rafferty, who attended, noted that “The mood was not one of anger, but of dignified resolve—a determination to unite all Indian nations and the public to understand the magnitude of what is being lost.”
In June, 2012
The third eagle
was a fine piece of art,
carved into the bolero tie
of Viejo Chairman
in ivory white, every
fine detail of feather
chiseled like wind hearts
against the chairman’s throat
and holding together hope
with powerful wings
battling the destruction
of wind farms on the
sacred desert floor, of
places we cannot replace
Many of my desert-based friends and associates also attended the June, 2012 ceremony; these are people who I admire greatly for their perseverance and dedication to advocating for the desert and encouraging others to do the same. It was greatly comforting for me to see so many of my desert defender friends there, and to share in the ceremony’s power with them. I’ve gathered feedback from some of them on what the June 2012 Mourning Ceremony near Ocotillo meant to them.
Pat Flanagan is a desert naturalist, educator and science curriculum writer; she attended the ceremony, and says, “Shortly after I arrived, Chairman Pico came up to me and gently told me to search within my heart for comfort and healing during the ceremony. Passing along the olla and the two baskets made with thoughtful caring hands full of memories – after they were given to me at the end of the ceremony during a giveaway – anchored me in the place and into the stream of the bird songs. And I am glad I do not have them. The gifts and the giving were what opened my heart to be a conduit for the blessings and comfort that had poured out through the long night.”
Longtime desert defender and advocate Tom Budlong, who was also there, says: ” The project is unnecessary, economically unjustifiable, a violation of our own rules in innumerable details, and most of all, disrespectful of our Native American population. We sacrifice this spot, sacred to the tribes & precious to all visitors, without being clever enough to use the vast rooftop acreage available where the power from this project will be used. It is indeed shameful. The wake was a powerful ceremony. We could learn a lot about respect from it.”
In June 2012
I’m telling you this story
because it’s true
because all three eagles
flew above our heads
while the men shook rattles
and sang bird songs
all night long from sunset
to dawn, because we all wept
on the hill by the medicine wheel
when it felt like the sun had died
Terry Frewin, dedicated desert activist who coordinates and hosts many of the Sierra Club desert committee meetings, was also there. He says, “The experience of the Kumeyaay Ceremony touched all the bases (it is World Series time). I was very humbled to be invited and acknowledged, and experienced a profound sense of sadness, as well as one of hopefulness, as I saw the variety of folks, young and old, honoring their heritage and ancestors. Simply put, the experience of the ceremony strengthened my commitment to keep doing the right thing for the desert.”
Morning, and mourning
In June 2012
the sun soon grew too warm
and the wind refused to howl
so I held a small, handmade
basket in my hands
that was gifted to me
after it was gifted
to someone else
a small basket, so empty,
and so full of bird songs
Ruth Nolan, M.A., a lifelong resident of California’s deserts, is Professor of English at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. She is editor of No Place for a Puritan: the literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009). An avid California desert defender and scholar, she is also a widely published poet and writer. She writes about the desert for KCET Artbound Los Angeles; Heyday Books; the Riverside Press Enterprise; and for many poetry and literary magazines. She worked as a wildland firefighter for the BLM California Desert District during the 1980’s.
• Visioning and Marketing of Desert Natural and Cultural Heritage Tourism: The Renewable Tourism Economy
• The West Mojave Area And the Travel Management Plan: Unbalanced Subgroup Leads To Flawed Result
• Will There Ever Be A Desert Tortoise National Wildlife Refuge?
• What Is Wilderness? Revisiting The Wilderness Act Of 1964
• Manzanar: Farewell To Viewshed?
• Eagles Left Adrift In Our Pursuit Of Wind Energy
• For the Desert: What We’ve Lost, What We Remember, Where We Gather, Where the Eagle Rises
• The Salton Sea Initiative
• BLM Reopens Parts Of Dunes That Had Been Closed For 10 Years
• A Profile Of Superintendent Mark Butler
• Proposed Development of a New City on Park’s Southern Border
• Wilderness: Our Shared Heritage And Legacy
• Architecture And Nature
• Geothermal Development In Northern Nevada
• Public Resources At Risk From Bechtel
• Current Issues
• The Colorado A River Under Stress
• Phainopepla: The Bird In The Shiny Black Robe
Soda Mountain Solar Looms Over Mojave National Preserve
The fundamental contradiction in the numerous proposals by private companies to build industrial-scale renewable energy projects and long-distance power lines on acreage administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is that the lands are public while the profits from the construction and operation (or sale) of the power plants and transmission lines accrue to large corporations. The public does gain electricity. Yet the energy would be just as available and the contradiction avoided through siting on private, previously-disturbed lands or through distributed generation at sites near where the electricity is consumed.
The contradiction is especially evident in the proposal by Soda Mountain Solar, a subsidiary of Bechtel Development Company, to site its Soda Mountain Solar project (hereafter, project) on public lands immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous U.S. at 1.6 million acres.
The proposed project is a 350-megawatt photovoltaic (PV) electric power generating plant set for siting on 4,397 acres of public land administered by the BLM some 6 miles southwest of Baker, California. The application by Soda Mountain Solar, LLC requests a right-of-way authorization to construct a solar field on 2,691 acres, a project substation, an access road, operations and maintenance buildings, and to realign approximately 3.3 miles of Rasor Road. The North Array, on the west side of Interstate 15, is proposed to end in the vicinity of the Zzyzx Road overpass. On the other side of the highway, the South Array will be situated next to the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area. The East Array is proposed for construction immediately to the north, less than one mile from the Mojave National Preserve boundary and at the base of the mountains extending into the park.
The Public Scoping Report was released in January 2013 by BLM, the lead NEPA agency for National Environmental Policy Act proceedings, and San Bernardino County, the lead CEQA agency under the California Environmental Quality Act. The letters of commentary submitted by individuals, environmental organizations, California government agencies, and such national entities as the National Park Service during the October to December 2012 scoping period and summarized in the Report delineate a host of likely environmental consequences to public lands and the Mojave National Preserve, many of which may be irreversible. The potential, significant environmental impacts include decreased spring discharge in the Soda Springs (Zzyzx) area as a result of groundwater pumping for the project, loss of habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub, loss of high-quality desert tortoise habitat, increased habitat fragmentation for desert bighorn sheep, and the loss of wildlife connectivity with the Soda Mountains. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/renewableenergy/soda_mountain.html
The consequences for the Mojave National Preserve are of special concern because the project threatens not only the particular resources and landscape that Congress mandated to be protected by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, but the very integrity of this treasured unit of the National Park System. The integrity of the Preserve — its essential quality — rests on the fact that it (a) protects a relatively intact ecosystem of the eastern Mojave Desert from threats associated with commercial development, (b) provides connectivity between other protected national areas within the Mojave desert region, and (c) provides opportunities for solitude, thereby functioning as a refuge from urban areas.
It is disingenuous to reject this argument merely because the project would be sited on the doorstep of the Mojave National Preserve rather than within its boundaries. The currently undeveloped, natural area at the northwest corner of the Mojave National Preserve where the project might be sited is effectively part of the park. This is most evident with respect to the unobstructed and dramatic view into the Preserve documented in the panoramic photo by Michael Gordon. This vista would be obscured by project buildings and PV panels attached to single-axis trackers with a minimum height of 20 feet. In order to ensure solitude for visitors and a refuge from urban areas, the National Park Service manages the Preserve to protect dark skies. A solar facility at the corner of the Preserve is incompatible with that management goal because a solar facility with all of its lighting will significantly degrade the visitor experience. The project will violate the visual integrity of the Preserve.
The proposal to site the Soda Mountain Solar project near the Mojave National Preserve and the likely consequences of that for local citizens reflect the growing income inequality in the United States, the gap between the richest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population in America. Bechtel, a transnational corporation that will profit financially from the construction of the project, is a privately-owned engineering and construction firm. Chairman and chief executive officer Riley P. Bechtel is the great grandson of founder Warren A. Bechtel and heir to the company. Riley Bechtel is consistently ranked in the top 200 richest people in the United States and among the richest men in the world. Thus a Soda Mountain Solar project will not be built adjacent to Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, site of the San Francisco-based exclusive men’s hangout known as the Bohemian Club, where members like Riley Bechtel encamp each summer. But it will be constructed on public land far from the closed-to-the-public encampment in Sonoma.
This is more than an academic argument as the public resources at risk from the project are those enjoyed by the 99 percent. Annually, some 550,000 people visit the Preserve and their experience will be impacted by Soda Mountain Solar. School children from the gate-way community of Barstow, many of whom have never been to a national park, travel via Zzyzx Road (and through the project if it is built) on National Park Service-organized field trips to the Desert Studies Center to experience the desert up close, to learn of the history and culture of the Chemehuevi, and, if they are lucky, to see the bighorn sheep that frequent the springs in the area. The Desert Studies Center, a field station of California State University, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It provides an opportunity for these children to receive instruction among natural ponds, dry lakes, and rugged mountains. Local citizens who use the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area will be impacted by the realignment of Rasor Road. The safety of the thousands who travel to and from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 may be at risk from the glare of the estimated 1.5 million PV panels that will comprise the facility. The project simply does not serve the public interest.
There is a larger, regional context for the contradiction between private and public interests revealed by the Soda Mountain Solar project. The once-dramatic view of the Ivanpah Valley on a moonlit night from atop Clark Mountain, a singular unit of Mojave National Preserve, has been altered beyond redemption by the panels, looming towers, and bright lights of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a power facility built by BrightSource Energy and Bechtel. The Iberdrola energy project, proposed for the Silurian Valley a few miles away, would, along with the Soda Mountain Solar project, interfere markedly with connectivity between Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, an essential habitat corridor with Mojave National Preserve at its biological center.
Perhaps, as with the Wall Street movement, those who care deeply about Mojave National Preserve will occupy the contested space to protect the public interest.
G. Sidney Silliman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a member of the California/Nevada Desert Committee. The arguments expressed here do not represent the views of the Committee or the University.
The Colorado River is vitally important to the residents of the seven western states that share its drainage basin. It supplies irrigation and drinking water to more than 30 million people over an area stretching from Denver to San Diego. Unfortunately, the river is over allocated and over utilized and with the current drought we are reaching the point where who uses its water and how much they use will almost certainly have to change.
In order to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are today it is necessary to look back at how the Colorado River, one of the most regulated in the world, has been manipulated and managed since 1900. Prior to the twentieth century the Colorado ran free and was only utilized by those few people and settlements along the river that used minor amounts for irrigation and municipal purposes. The Colorado is one of the very few rivers in this country that has no major cities along its banks, although Las Vegas is only a few miles away. The river has never really been suitable for navigation, and the extremely hot summers along the lower reaches discouraged settlement. Most of the municipal use takes place outside the river’s drainage basin.The first real change to the Colorado came in 1900 when the Imperial Land Company started diverting water from the river to the Imperial Valley for agricultural purposes. In 1905 the diversion canal was overwhelmed by the rivers’ spring flood and the river changed course and flowed into the Salton Sink for a year and created the Salton Sea. As the Imperial Valley boomed and became an important farm area, more and more water was diverted. By 1920 the other six states that share the Colorado River drainage basin became concerned that California might claim the entire flow of the river, and set out to assert their own claims. In 1928 the Colorado River Compact was signed. This compact divided the entire flow of the Colorado among the seven states. Mexico got nothing, and no provision was made for leaving anything in the river (in 1945 Mexico was allocated 1.5 million acre-feet in return for limiting Mexican diversions on tributaries of the Rio Grande). The quantity of water allocated to each state was based on then current and potential usage and ten years of flow data from the period shortly before the compact was signed. According to the data available at that time, the average annual flow was 17.5 million acre-feet. California got the largest share at 4.4 million acre-feet annually and Nevada the smallest at 300,000 acre-feet.
Until 1936 and the completion of Hoover Dam there was no storage capacity and no regulation of the river’s annual flow. Since 1936 a number of other dams have been built, including Glen Canyon Dam. Between them, Lakes Mead and Powell, backed up by Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams respectively have a storage capacity of about 60 million acre-feet. This volume equates to some four years of the total normal average flow of the river. During both the 1950’s drought and the filling of Glen Canyon Reservoir in the 1960’s the surface level of Lake Mead fell substantially, but no impact was felt by downstream users because Arizona and Nevada were using only a small portion of their allocations.
In the year 2000 the idea that the Colorado River could be completely consumed and unable to deliver its legal allocations seemed far-fetched. But in 2001 the current drought began and 2002 saw the lowest flows measured since record keeping began: just 25% of normal run-off. The level of Lake Mead fell precipitously and water managers began to take notice. With the exception of two very wet years, the drought that began in 2001 is still with us. The flow during the 2013 water year, which ended September 30, was 35% of average and the second lowest on record. The 2012 water year wasn’t much better with about 45% of average flow.
By 2005, it was apparent that the drought on the Colorado was not going away soon and the States and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, realized that changes to the compact were needed and began work on something called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which was signed in 2007. This agreement laid out a framework for allocating water based on volume in storage and identified specific Lake Mead levels for the categories of surplus, normal condition, phase1 shortage, phase 2 shortage, etc. It also stipulated that except during times of surplus no State could take more than its legal allocation. The only state really affected by this stipulation was California, which had been diverting more than 5 million acre-feet as opposed to its 4.4 million acre-foot allocation.The phase 1 shortage level for Lake Mead is 1075 feet above mean sea level. The lake surface currently (November 1, 2013) stands at 1104 feet above sea level and, barring a very wet winter, is expected to fall by about 25 feet by November 2014. This will mean the Bureau of Reclamation will be very close to declaring a shortage, which will require Arizona and Nevada to reduce their diversions from the river below their full allocations.
Starting in 2002 Las Vegas, which uses almost all of Nevada’s allocation, initiated a water conservation program, modest at first but ultimately quite aggressive. It has reduced Nevada’s consumptive use of Colorado River water from 330,000 acre-feet per year to 235,000 acre-feet per year. During this period the population of Las Vegas grew by 400,000 people. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
Approximately eighty percent of the Colorado’s water is used for irrigation. Major conservation efforts in that area are much more difficult, for a variety of reasons. First is cost; agricultural water is cheap, only a few dollars per acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons), due to the subsidies associated with federal water projects. Secondly, in order to thrive, plants need a certain minimum volume of water. In the hot summers of the interior deserts of California and Arizona that is a lot, about 5 acre-feet per acre per year, enough water to cover each acre of farmland to a depth of 5 feet if applied all at once. In addition, since there is a significant amount of salt in water from the Colorado (about 1 ton per acre-foot of water) which remains behind in the soil when irrigation water either evaporates or is transpired by plants, enough water must be applied to the soil to flush the salt through the soil into a drain system. The Salton Sea persists because it receives agricultural drain water from the Imperial and Coachella Valleys and the Mexicali Valley in Mexico.
Nearly a century ago Colorado River authorities made crucial decisions based upon inadequate information and naive assumptions. We are left with an overly-complex system further complicated by Western water law that says, first in time, first in right. Straightening out this tangle is a huge challenge. But under the duress of drought small changes are being made. It is in the interest of the three Lower Basin States, Arizona, California and Nevada plus Mexico to keep the water level in Lake Mead higher than 1075 feet above sea level so that there is not a declared shortage. Hence, there are several agreements in effect that allow conserved water to be stored in Lake Mead for later use. Prior to these agreements the situation was “use it or lose it.” There was no incentive to conserve water.
Based on current knowledge and projections the jobs of those charged with meeting the demands for Colorado River water will become increasingly difficult. We know from tree ring data that pre-historic droughts in the Colorado Basin have lasted as long as thirty years and that the twentieth century was the wettest century in the last two thousand years. Projections of future climate change suggest a drier, warmer climate with greater extremes in this region. We also know from recent experience that river flows are influenced by the previous year(s) precipitation because the soil acts as a sponge and the perennial flows are dependent on the level of saturation of that sponge. A “normal” year preceded by a dry year will have decreased river flows because part of the “normal” year precipitation will be consumed in re-saturating the soil sponge.
Is there any reason for optimism? Yes, I think there is, because we are starting to see some cooperation between the major municipal water purveyors. And Mexico is now partner in the discussions. But the 800-pound gorilla in the room is agricultural use. So far, the irrigation districts– speaking for farmers–haven’t shown much appetite for change. A drying, warmer climate will increase agricultural water demand. At some point we are going to have to re-consider how we use the water of the Colorado, an increasingly scarce and valuable resource.
John Hiatt, a desert activist living in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a member of the CNRCC Desert Committee and is a board member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.
Appreciating the Subtleties of Joshua Tree National Park
Mark Butler patrolled the winding mountain trails of Yosemite National Park’s backcountry as a National Park Service Wilderness Ranger fresh out of high school. It was a life changing experience for Butler, who was captivated by the beauty of Yosemite, the challenge of the work, and the satisfaction he gained from helping people explore remote wilderness. For 33 years after that summer job, Mark went on to serve the National Park Service in an incredibly diverse array of jobs ranging from maintenance worker, carpenter and utility system operator. He also worked as a physical scientist, environmental compliance manager, and Chief of the Division of Project Management at Yosemite National Park, before finally moving to his current position as Superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park.
“The different positions I’ve held have given me the ability to understand a wide variety of interests and concerns that come from park partners, visitors and staff,” reflected Butler. “Because of this broad perspective, I can work to promote partnerships, reconcile differences between park divisions, and provide balanced leadership.” Joshua Tree National Park has benefited from Butler’s exemplary leadership since he was appointed Superintendent in February 2011.
Superintendent Butler enjoys Joshua Tree National Park’s historic and cultural sites like the Key’s Desert Queen Ranch and the Wall Street Mill. He also finds the ecology of the Mojave/Sonoran Desert transition zone fascinating and is amazed by the diversity and beauty of the park’s oases. He is also impressed by Joshua Tree’s outstanding recreational opportunities and its reputation as a world-class climbing destination.
“As a rock climber, I have really enjoyed the rock formations in the Wonderland of Rocks,” says Butler. “But what’s really incredible about Joshua Tree National Park is that because it has such an open landscape hikers can explore almost anywhere, providing that they are well prepared and respectful of the desert ecology.”
One highlight during Superintendent Butler’s tenure at Joshua Tree National Park was a tour he gave to then Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to Cap Rock and Hidden Valley. There the Secretary developed a connection with Joshua Tree National Park’s fragile and intense desert landscape. Following this tour, Butler arranged for the Secretary to hear from Basin residents, and local families of active duty Marines, about the importance of the park. “Hearing Basin residents and families express their appreciation for the park was very inspirational,” recalls Butler. Another memorable occasion was an evening hike to White Tank with his wife, Cathy. “There was a full moon rising and we were in awe of the beauty of the desert,” says Butler.
Superintendent Butler thinks that one of the most important resources of Joshua Tree National Park is the ecological diversity of the transition zone between the Colorado and Mojave Desert portions of the park. The park’s vast Joshua Tree forests are also iconic and unique.
“One of the things that I find most interesting about Joshua Tree National Park is the subtleness of the place. On the surface it looks very harsh and very threatening, but when you look at it more closely, you can really discover a tremendous amount of fragility and beauty,” says Butler. “At first glance people think the desert is a harsh, barren and lifeless landscape, but in reality, it’s not. I really think that all park visitors can benefit greatly by attending a park interpretive program or a Desert Institute class to be introduced to and learn more about the desert. This will help them begin to understand and appreciate it.” Butler believes that because there is general lack of understanding about the desert, there has been a long history of threats to Joshua Tree National Park.
“One of the key challenges facing the park comes from the increasing level of large-scale urban and industrial development occurring adjacent to the park’s boundary,” said Butler. Development along the park’s boundary is a concern because it can lead to fragmentation and disruption of wildlife habitat and wildlife migration corridors, resulting in increased levels of genetic isolation among the park’s desert dwelling animals, like mountain lion, coyote, bobcat, bighorn sheep, mule deer and numerous varieties of insects, arachnids, and birds. Development immediately adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park may also be a significant factor in how the park responds to climate change, especially if wildlife corridors that give animals room to roam in order to find food, water, shelter and mates are impeded. Butler concludes that because of these ongoing threats it will be very important for the park to continue to work proactively with all communities on its boundary and within the region to encourage land use and development policies that can help protect the park.
“I think that so much of what has threatened the Joshua Tree National Park in the past is the consequence of people not having visited and experienced its wonder,” says Butler. “A majority of the visitors to the park quickly become desert lovers who appreciate the uniqueness of the landscape and are interested in seeing it protected. They are a key part of the solution by ensuring that this place is preserved and protected for present and future generations.”
Seth Shteir is California desert senior field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.
So It’s Back to Court Once Again To Protect The Majestic Algodones Dunes
The Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Sand Dunes, is North America’s largest active sand dune formation, covering about 200,000 acres in the southeastern corner of Imperial County and barely dipping into Mexico. It provides unique habitat for many imperiled species including the Peirson’s milk vetch (federally threatened), desert tortoise (federally and state threatened), Algodones Dunes sunflower (State endangered), flat-tailed horned lizard (imperiled), several dozen invertebrates that live nowhere else on earth, and the Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard, which was petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act in July 2012. The east side of the Algodones Dunes intercepts the sparse rainfall runoff coming from the Chocolate Mountains to the east, resulting in rich pockets of desert woodland oases that are refugia for numerous migrating birds, burrow deer, and other desert animals.
A relict of the ancient Lake Cahuilla, which dried up after the Pleistocene, is the sand source for the modern day Algodones Dunes. The Salton Sea now covers this former sand source, so little “new” sand is being added. Yet the wind still blows, and effectively it is moving the dunes to the southeast at about a meter per year. Most of the Dunes are public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Algodones Dunes are a National Natural Landmark and is also considered an Outstanding Natural Area by the BLM.
As much as the Algodones Dunes are an endemic plant and animal hotspot, they are also a mecca for off-road vehicles. During the prime reproductive and growing seasons of the late fall, winter and early spring, up to 200,000 people in off-road vehicles descend upon the Algodones Dunes, most of which are ‘open’ to ORVs. Only 16% of the area is federally designated as wilderness – a designation that does not allow for any motorized access. The Algodones Dunes has also become notorious for off-road mayhem, which results in human deaths annually.
In 2000, Sierra Club joined the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Desert Survivors in legally challenging management of species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA). As a result of that lawsuit, in order to protect the Peirson’s milkvetch and other species, three closures to off-road vehicles were agreed upon between the conservation groups, BLM, and the off-road vehicle groups. They were put in place until the BLM revised the Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP). These areas include a large central closure of approximately 48,000 acres, a small closure at the north end of the dunes near Mammoth Wash, and a very small closure south of Interstate 8 (which bisects the dunes). Each of these areas was identified for protection of the Peirson’s milkvech. In all, the existing wilderness coupled with these closures, which have been in place since 2000 protected 54% of the landscape from off-road vehicles. The remaining 46% remained open to ORVs.
In 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and others successfully challenged a Bush Administration RAMP that re-opened the approximately 50,000 acres of closures. Also in 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed critical habitat protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch on over 52,000 acres, but in 2004, ultimately designated only 21,800 acres. By 2006, federal court rulings had kept the closures in place, while directing the BLM to again revise their RAMP. The rulings also directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the critical habitat designation for the Peirson’s milkvetch. By 2009, the court was satisfied with the paltry 12,105 acres of critical habitat that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had designated for the Peirson’s milkvetch. Finally, in 2012, the BLM released a final RAMP, which re-opened all of the closures – the largest conservation rollback in the California deserts in the last 10 years. It fails to protect all of the Peirson’s milkvetch critical habitat, and it fails to consider a limitation on the number of vehicles on the Algodones Dunes at any one time. The final decision for this ill-conceived RAMP was issued in 2013.
Not only does the flawed RAMP put a long list of imperiled species back in harm’s way, but it is also a blow to sustainable energy planning in the California Desert Conservation Area. Just two days prior to the release of the final decision on the Algodones RAMP, the BLM had assured the public it would take meaningful measures to off-set the impacts of large-scale renewable energy projects in the California Desert Conservation Area. Clearly, reopening previously protected habitat for rare species in an iconic National Natural Landmark to destruction by fossil-fuel guzzling and emission-spewing vehicles misses the mark on every count.
Plants and animals are not the only ones to suffer. Sadly, Imperial County, where the Algodones Dunes are located, has some of the worst air quality in the nation. Dust, also known as particulate matter or PM10, is kicked up by the off-road vehicles as they speed through the Algodones Dunes. Off-road vehicles are also not required to comply with California’s stringent vehicle emission requirements. Once airborne, the small dust particles and exhaust from the off-road vehicles drift into the adjacent communities and exacerbate health related diseases such as asthma in both children and adults.
So the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Desert Survivors, and PEER are once again challenging the BLM in court over this faulty plan. The dazzling beauty, the unique plants and animals, and the local community all deserve a more balanced approach to managing the Algodones Dunes, not one that exacerbates air quality problems and destroys rare plants and animals.
Ileene Anderson is a biologist and Public Lands Desert Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She has worked on Algodones Dunes conservation issues for over 15 years.
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• Climate Change And (Or) Desert Protection
• Grassroots Groups Sue Over Destructive Solar Policy
• Confessions Of A Late Bloomer
• The Birth Of Desert Magazine Part II
• The Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex
• From Glaciers To The Granite Mountains: Getting To Know Mojave National Preserve’s Superintendent Stephanie Dubois
• Book Review: Another Place & Time – Voices From The Carrisa Plains by Craig Deutsche
• Tales From A Ranger
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People Do The Darnedest Things
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Editor’s Note: the author worked for many years as a law enforcement ranger for BLM and has many interesting stories to tell of his encounters with characters he came in contact with as part of his job. His first two stories appeared in the March, 2013 issue of Desert Report. Below are two more of his stories.
The Pushawalla Bandit
Cameron Barrows was the longtime Manager of the Coachella Valley Preserve, and I enjoyed working with him.
One day, Cameron drove with me to the entrance of Pushawalla Canyon, which runs through the Preserve. It is fenced and posted against vehicle travel at both ends of the three-mile long canyon. In between is a beautiful palm oasis, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault, which forces underground water to the surface as a live stream for several hundred yards. Cameron expressed frustration that somebody in a dune buggy was regularly vandalizing this fence, then driving through the canyon.
This trespass almost always occurred during a weekend night with a full moon, and it appeared to be the same individual each time. I told Cameron that I would try to catch this violator, and it became a challenge.
On a few promising nights during the next several months, I set up a surveillance for this unknown individual, who we called the “Pushawalla Bandit”, but he did not appear. Then, early on a Sunday morning, I drove to the upper end of the canyon and noticed that the fence had been run over. There were fresh dune buggy tracks running into and out of the canyon.
It happened that there had been very little traffic on the local dirt roads this early in the morning, and I was able to follow the buggy’s tracks with only a few interruptions. The tracks led through the Indio Hills subdivision, which is a curious mixture of occasional ranch style homes and desert shacks. I passed a side road that a local resident had posted with an official-looking street sign, “ROAD TO RUIN,” Farther on, the tracks entered behind a closed gate into a large compound. I climbed a nearby hill to where I could see inside and observed two dune buggies in the yard next to a ramshackle house and tons of assorted junk.
I researched the owner of the house, a biker named “Mike.” He had a previous conviction for producing methamphetamine, but no active arrest warrants. It happened that the Preserve’s part-time maintenance worker, who repaired the fence after each of the Bandit’s incursions, knew him. I didn’t feel comfortable citing Mike for Vandalism and Entering a Closed Area, because I hadn’t actually seen anybody driving the buggy. Instead, I decided to pay Mike a courtesy call. Accompanied by a Sheriff’s Deputy, I advised Mike that his buggy had been driven in a closed area and the Preserve’s fence had been vandalized.
Mike denied doing this, instead claiming that he had been lending his buggy to some friends. He promised to be more careful in the future. I suggested that he do so, because if this happened again, he would be held responsible. Mike seems to have gotten the message, as the vandalism stopped.
The Caveman Of Morongo Valley
In 1990 I was making a diligent effort to reduce an unacceptable degree of OHV trespass in the Big Morongo Preserve, which is located in the mountains several miles north of Palm Springs.
Among other things, this is Bighorn Sheep habitat, and they can be easily disturbed and scared away from water sources by motor vehicles. With the cooperation of several adjacent landowners, many illegal vehicle entry points were fenced and patrolled, and motor vehicle trespass began to decrease.
I had heard rumors of a “Caveman” living somewhere in the Preserve, and he had supposedly been there for some 20 years.
Somebody told me that he played the organ during Sunday services in one of the local churches. I didn’t take these rumors too seriously, especially since it is very hot in the Preserve during the summer.
One day, I was walking down a ravine in the middle of the Preserve, following a recent motorcycle track. Just above a 20-foot dry waterfall, there was evidence of a vehicle crash, including broken glass from a headlight. A rope had been left dangling over the dry waterfall. I guessed that the rider had used the rope to lower his bike down the ledge, maybe after taking a spill and damaging his bike.
Walking around the ledge, I found the caveman’s lair. The cave’s entrance was covered by a vertical tarp. I looked inside, and saw the occupant had a sleeping area and a small library of religious and language books. In front of the cave was a cooking area with a campfire ring and several pots and pans. There was also a trash dump off to the side.
This location was in a side canyon about ¼ mile West of Big Morongo Canyon. Walking down towards the canyon, I encountered a man in his mid-50s. His appearance was nothing like what I expected of a “Caveman”. He had short hair, was clean-shaven, wore glasses and was wearing decent clothes. He appeared quite sociable, and presented me with an Oregon ID card when I asked him for his identification. “Rene” advised me that he had lived in this cave most of the last 17 years, leaving during summer to do farm work in Oregon. He walked out to Morongo Valley for supplies every week or two. He told me that a motorcycle rider had indeed crashed his bike above the cliff a couple of days previously, and Rene had helped him lower the bike down. The rider walked out, later returning with whatever he needed to repair his bike.
Rene was antagonistic towards the rider because it had led to his “Discovery” by the BLM.
Long term occupation on BLM land is prohibited, especially in a protected area like the Morongo Preserve. However, aside from his garbage dump, Rene was causing minimal resource damage. I offered him an unofficial deal: he could stay for now, if he would begin to reduce his garbage pile. I suggested that he pack out some of his trash each time he hiked out for supplies. Rene said he would consider what to do, but he was unhappy about his cave being discovered, which would spoil the isolation he had enjoyed for years.
I returned a couple of weeks later, and Rene had abandoned the cave and removed his property. He had left his trash. Later, the Preserve Manager, her boyfriend and I drove as close as we could to the cave and carried out several bags of accumulated garbage.
The Caveman was not heard from again.
Footnote: I later stopped and cited the motorcycle rider referred to in this story, on one of his subsequent rides through the Preserve.
Edward Patrovsky has been a Sierra Club member since 1970, when he worked on the early campaign for the Sheep Mountain Wilderness in the Angeles National Forest. Ed was a National Park Ranger for many years, transferring to the BLM in 1988 where he worked for BLM’s Palm Springs and Ridgecrest offices until his retirement in 2004. He was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee to the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission in January 2013.
Four Distinct Environments In Southern Nevada
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Editor’s note: This year, National Wildlife Refuge Week is October 13-19. This annual event recognizes the nation’s 560 national wildlife refuges and falls on the second full week in October. Many refuges host public celebrations during this time.
Many visitors to southern Nevada, as well as residents, are surprised to learn that there are four national wildlife refuges in the area. Obviously, Lake Mead and Red Rock Canyon are well-known attractions, but the area’s national wildlife refuges are frequently overlooked. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the four refuges comprising the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex are located within a 90-mile radius of Las Vegas. They are home to numerous endemic species of plants and animals, some of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Desert Complex refuges are among the 560 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). The NWRS mission is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
The four wildlife refuges hosted only 130,000 visitors in Fiscal Year 2012 — a small number considering that they are located relatively close to nearly two million people living in the Las Vegas metropolitan area (the Desert NWR is only 15 miles north of the city). So, the USFWS continues to encourage people to connect with nature and learn more about the work being done to protect endangered species and their habitats. Public access to the refuges is free of charge.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located in Nye County, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1984 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act.
It comprises approximately 24,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and desert uplands that provide habitat for at least 24 plant and animal species that occur nowhere else in the world. The refuge is recognized as a wetland of international importance.
There are four species of endemic and endangered desert fish at Ash Meadows: the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, the Warm Springs pupfish, the Ash Meadows speckled dace, and the Devil’s Hole pupfish. (Devil’s Hole is located within the refuge boundaries, but it is managed by the National Park Service as part of Death Valley National Park.) Approximately 340 species of plants can be found on the refuge — one is listed as endangered and six as threatened. The listed plants are endemic to Ash Meadows, which means they are found nowhere else in the world. Also, nearly 300 species of birds have been reported on the refuge. Birders and photographers flock to the refuge during the spring and fall for a glimpse of their favorite bird(s).
Visitors can also follow three different boardwalks, which offer close-up views of rare pupfish, relics from prehistoric Indians, and even an old stone cabin built in 1895 by the mysterious gunslinger Jack Longstreet.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge, only 15 miles north of Las Vegas, was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the protection, preservation, and management of desert bighorn sheep and other native flora and fauna. The 1.6-million-acre refuge is the largest in the lower 48 states. It contains six mountain ranges and seven distinct life zones, with elevations ranging from 2,200 feet on valley floors to nearly 10,000 feet in the Sheep Range. The variations in elevation and rainfall have created diverse habitats. Visitors will see everything from Joshua trees and creosote bushes to piñon pines, junipers and ponderosa pines.
The land that is now the Desert NWR has been home to people for thousands of years, from Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) to ranch homesteaders. Nonetheless, the refuge remains largely unchanged by human hands. More than 1.3 million acres of the refuge are proposed as wilderness, and have been managed as de facto wilderness since 1974. Visitors can see collared lizards, hunt for tracks of elusive mountain lions, get a glimpse of bighorn sheep and mule deer, or grab their binoculars for a better look at 320 bird species. Camping and hiking opportunities abound.
Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge is located on just 116 acres in northeastern Clark County, approximately 60 miles north of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1979 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to secure habitat for the endangered Moapa dace. The small fish is commonly found throughout the headwaters of the Muddy River system. Dace populations were in decline due to habitat destruction and modification. Competition with introduced species such as mosquitofish and shortfin molly, as well as the appearance of non-native tilapia, contributed to the dace’s decline. As more and more habitat is restored and non-native species are removed, the fish is rebounding. Recent population surveys show a healthy increase in numbers. The dace are counted twice each year. Scientists snorkel through every reach and tally the dace they see. The most recent count, conducted August 6-7, 2013, determined there were 1,727 Moapa dace in the streams — roughly 46 percent more dace than were counted in August 2012.
Due to its small size, fragile habitats, and on-going restoration work, the wildlife refuge is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the fall, winter and spring. During those times, visitors can follow trails that offer glimpses of the Moapa dace and other aquatic wildlife, as well as panoramic views of the refuge and the adjacent Warm Springs Natural Area.
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is in central Lincoln County, 90 miles north of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1963 under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act to protect habitat for migrating birds in the Pahranagat Valley.
The 5,382-acre refuge consists of marshes, meadows, lakes, and upland desert habitat. It is located in the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route through the western United States.
It provides nesting, resting, and feeding areas for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and song birds (including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher). Nourished by the waters of Crystal and Ash Springs, the refuge offers ideal wetlands and riparian habitats for thousands of migratory birds, birds of prey, deer, and rare fish.
Pahranagat NWR’s many recreational opportunities will bring visitors into close proximity with this diverse array of wildlife.
Notably, 264 bird species have been recorded on the refuge, making it a popular destination for birders and photographers.
Hiking trails cross through five different habitat types, giving visitors the opportunity to see meadows, marshes, lakes, streams and desert within a single afternoon visit. Hunting and fishing are also popular activities, and for those interested in experiencing this desert oasis at night, camping is available at Upper Pahranagat Lake.
Millions of people come to Las Vegas each year for the entertainment and bright lights on the Strip. If you are looking for something a little different, please consider visiting one of the national wildlife refuges in southern Nevada. If you plan such a day trip, prepare to be surprised by what you see.
Dan Balduini is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office. He has nearly 40 years of communications experience in broadcast journalism and public affairs. He joined FWS in April 2009.
How You Can Help
With budgets continuing to shrink, the Desert Complex relies heavily on volunteers to help with the important work on the refuges. Volunteers assist staff with everything from visitor services and environmental education to habitat restoration and maintenance. Desert Complex volunteers contributed 21,714 hours in FY2012 — equivalent to more than 10 full-time employees. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to contact Harry Konwin via email (email@example.com), or by telephone (702-515-5494). Another way to get involved is to join the Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuges). This private organization is dedicated to supporting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in southern Nevada through advocacy, stewardship, and outreach.