Neighbors Face Noise, Dust, and Toxins
Here in northern Nevada we’ve all heard tales of the Comstock District silver and gold rush, about 30 miles southeast of Reno, which started up right after the ‘49er gold strike in California. Unlike gold towns that became ghost towns, people hung on here, and today tourists from everywhere walk the boardwalks and visit the saloons, cemetery, and restored opera house of Virginia City. This was the hub of the Comstock, and in its heyday it was touted as the richest town in the country. Mark Twain ran the Territorial Enterprise from a building still standing in the center of town.
The underground mines of the Comstock made some people wealthy and ruined many others. Their riches contributed to the transformation of San Francisco while stripping entire mountains of timber for tunnel supports. The mines were centers of technical innovation in an era when engineering feats were opening up new industrial possibilities everywhere. People marvel to hear about the gravity fed aqueduct engineered in the 1879’s to supply water to the arid Comstock from the Sierra Nevada, 30+ miles away, which even today supplies residents with pure alpine water.
Less well known than Virginia City are two nearby towns that also figured in Comstock history, Silver City and Gold Hill. They lie south and downhill from Virginia City in Gold Canyon, which winds precipitously south towards Carson City. Victorian-era homes are mixed with off-grid, owner built homes and other buildings among steep hillsides pocketed with old mining shafts, tailings, and falling down wooden structures. The Comstock is now a unique, beautiful, quiet, and neighborly place to live. Silver City (population 170) residents are proud of the community center they built in 2004 to replace their old one (built in 1867) when it burned down.
All three towns lie within the Comstock National Historic District, a state of Nevada designation, as well as within the Virginia City National Historic District, a National Park Service designation. The documents for the 1961 designation of the district note that “the mines are closed and the sound of the tourist is heard in the land.” The Master Plan of Storey County, where Virginia City is located, recognizes that tourism, not mining, is the economic force in the county now.
Enter modern mining methods and the thirst for gold that never ends. Since 2010 (there were previous attempts at modern mining), the quiet in Gold Canyon has been broken by pneumatic drilling. Comstock Mining Inc. (CMI) earlier consolidated 70% of the mining claims here. They own or control over 7,000 acres of claims: 1376 acres of patented and surface claims, and 6071 acres of unpatented BLM land. “Unpatented” means owned by the citizens of the US. CMI’s plans, for which there are no Plans of Operation yet filed (a significant detail), include underground mining of old claims and more open pit mining. Today two open pit mines, Lucerne and Billy the Kid, are being worked by CMI southwest of Gold Hill and about 1000 feet across the road from homes in Silver City.
The Lucerne Pit’s effects include industrial-level noise, of which resident Joe McCarthy says the constant backup “beep beep” of haul trucks are what drives him the most crazy. Residents also hear dynamite blasting and other industrial sounds amplified in the narrow canyon. The drilling of exploration holes goes on in multiple locations.
The heap leach process used by CMI to extract gold from waste rock employs cyanide for processing; an estimated twenty tons of waste rock yields enough gold for a ring. Cyanide is trucked in on winding and narrow Highway 341 right along with other traffic. Home values in the Comstock are shaky. “One buyer here” said Joe, “CMI”. Who would choose to relocate within earshot of a working mine?
Dust blowing from the pits and processing site and possibly from explorations is made more problematic because mining during the bonanza days used elemental mercury to separate gold and silver from waste rock. The Comstock, with two historical designations and approximately a thousand residents plus tourists, is on the National Priorities List as the Carson River Mercury Superfund Site (CRMS) because dangerous levels of mercury persist in water, air, and earth, and especially in tailings at old mill sites. Arsenic and lead have also been identified as Contaminants of Concern in the CRMS.
The latest (2012) study of levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic at the Lucerne Pit site was completed by an engineering firm hired by Comstock Mining. It found nothing that exceeded the state’s actionable levels for lead and mercury. They found arsenic in mean concentrations slightly above the Residential Screening/Action Level but concluded, based on other evaluations paid for by Comstock, that the arsenic data was indicative of naturally-occurring concentrations and thus not subject to Superfund oversight.
Some residents question the credibility of data gathered and analyzed by parties contracted by Comstock Mining. Others are concerned because all mercury-poisoned sites within the 5-county area of the CRMS may not have been identified by the EPA.
Activists wanting to mitigate or stop mining disturbances around their neighborhoods and within the two historic districts must deal with two county governments, Storey and Lyon, two planning commissions, and two Boards of County Commissioners. Both counties could use the tax revenue from the mine. And the jobs argument comes up frequently in these historically economically depressed counties.
From the point of view of neighbors and the Comstock Residents Association, the worst blow came last December when Lyon County commissioners voted to grant CMI (or whoever owns the properties next) Master Plan amendments for another pit, this time within Silver City’s town boundary. Some homes are as close as 250 feet from the proposed diggings at the old Dayton Consolidated Mill site. “Master Plan Integrity Loses to Money and Power” wrote Nancy Dallas, a local commentator.
The most significant governmental issue facing CMI in 2014 is their right-of-way application for the construction and exclusive use of a haul road between their Lucerne Pit and their heap leach facility at American Flat. Since it crosses BLM-managed public land, an Environmental Assessment is necessary; if they are not granted the haul road right, they must continue to haul on State Highway 342. Earlier statements by mining officials spoke of moving the highway. Who will pay for that? CMI has yet to turn a profit and carries a considerable debt load.
Great Basin Resource Watch (GBRW) views such instances of industrial mining in neighborhoods as “residential mining.” The Comstock, in which mining also affects travel, and tourism, viewsheds and structures in two historic districts, fits and even exceeds definitions of environmental dispossession and environmental injustice.
What has now occurred in the Comstock is reminiscent of to tribes dispossessed by mining all over the globe, Appalachian residents displaced by strip mining, people affected by fracking, and closer to home, to the predicament of residents north of the Anaconda Mine in Yerington whose water is poisoned by radionuclides. The Western Shoshone lost a sacred mountain (Mt. Tenabo in central Nevada) where nearby sacred springs are expected to dry up. Archeological sites, medicinal plants, and wildlife are gone, replaced by the giant Cortez Hills Gold Mine.
In 2005 a Nevada judge ruled that Washoe County had authority to deny a company’s proposal to mine clay for cat litter near the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Washoe County had cited concerns that the mine would contaminate the air and groundwater with arsenic, lead, and cadmium. The company, backed by the federal government, sued the county. Invoking the 1872 Mining Law, which was established to encourage gold mining on federal land, U.S. lawyers argued that Washoe County could not deny the right to mine on federal land. However, Nevada District Court Judge James Hardesty disagreed. His ruling was the first to allow a local government to override the federal mining law in response to community and environmental safety concerns, said Roger Flynn, the tribe’s attorney. In spite of this case being touted by activists as precedent setting, residential mining and the 1872 Mining Law persist.
Also persisting are questions about CMI’s intent in delaying mining on public lands within the Comstock District. Are they avoiding filing Plans of Operations required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and waiting for the pendulum to swing further towards state control of public lands, when there may be no NEPA equivalent?
One possible instrument to correct some abuses and change the power differential between citizens and mining companies would be for Nevada to pass its own environmental quality law. Reform of the 1872 Mining Law is inevitable. Cumulative impacts of mining must be more broadly defined. All these changes are sought by GBRW and other groups.
Back on the Comstock, CMI may run out of money and borrowing sources. But without legislative/regulatory reform at all levels there is no guarantee that, given the enduring attractiveness of precious metals, another mining company with thirst for the gold here may not move in and the destruction will begin anew.
Susan Juetten lives in Washoe Valley, Nevada. She often gets involved with environmental issues in the state and sometimes works for Great Basin Resource Watch in Reno.
Leonard Knight 1931-2014
This is what I want you to write to the world / that the answer is “love.” / I’ve painted the word “love” at least 24,000 times out here in the desert” — Leonard Knight, desert artist/visionary 1931-2014
This is the story of a lone desert mountain, a hill really, less than an acre in size, located in California’s Imperial County in the Western Sonoran/Colorado Desert. It is not far from the old shoreline of ancient Lake Cahuilla, and is now just a few miles from present-day Salton Sea.
This, too, is the story of a man who brought his vision to that remote desert hill many years ago, and camped by that mountain, just down the road from the tiny, mostly abandoned town of Niland and adjacent to an area popular with winter campers known as Slab City. He began to paint his vision onto that lonely desert hill, until his vision began to spill out like a Technicolor dream across the desert’s barren folds, in a lonely land once abandoned by geology and time.
Salvation Mountain is an ambitious, decades-in-the-making art installation comprised of adobe, straw, thousands of gallons of household paint, tires, tree branches, broken glass, plastic, and many other recycled everyday materials, along with Bible verses and endless reminders that “God Is Love.” The site is locally and internationally famous, and was designated in 2000 as “a folk art site worthy of preservation” by the Folk Art Association. California Senator Barbara Boxer, who entered the mountain into the congressional record as a national treasure, has described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture…a national treasure…profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”
I first visited Salvation Mountain in 2006. I saw a squat, rounded, 100-foot high mountain painted in glorious, vivid colors, complete with a cross on top and the words “God is Love.” Leonard Knight, a lean man well into his 70s, dressed in his hallmark white t-shirt and khakis, rushed up and enthusiastically greeted me, offering a tour of the mountain. “I am excited that you are here,” he said. “I am anxious to share with you what I’ve built here and what I’m working on now, and to get my message out to the world about love.”
He showed me a giant, several-story high replication of Noah’s Ark that he was in the process of building, complete with hundreds of tiny windows, and led me into an exquisitely crafted and decorated chapel at the base of his mountain. He led me through walkways and corridors, pointing out endless details and embellishments he had painstakingly added to his mountain panorama. He had first come and started to paint and decorate the mountain in the 1980s, and had been there ever since. There were flowers and there were windows and there were enough compelling artistic details to rival any art museum in the world.
What was even more astonishing were two facts that he shared with us: he used only recycled materials that visitors donated to him or that he found in trash dumps across the desert – used tires, old building lumber and housing materials, leftover house paint, all kinds of household items and goods people didn’t want anymore, etc. And, unbelievably, Knight worked primarily by himself and lived at the site alone, through winter cold and extreme summer desert heat, camping in his truck. Certainly, every time I visited the Mountain, Leonard was hard at work, or giving people tours.
How could this be? How could one man create such a vivid story, one that lives on in the annals of California desert fable and lore in the wake of his death this past February at the age of 82? Perhaps it was the perfect marriage between the power of the desert landscape itself and Knight’s unique and infectious energy and dedication to his vision, to his art. His enthusiasm and energy were unmatchable.
Beloved American author John Steinbeck called attention to the power of the California desert’s special healing and spiritual powers in his memoir, Travels with Charley, written in 1960 at the height of the Cold War and atomic threat era. After stopping on a desert road in his solo travels through the Mojave, he wrote about the sacred energy of deserts: “In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert.” I can’t read this passage without thinking of Leonard Knight, a late 20th Century desert visionary, a holy man in his own right.
Countless people have visited Salvation Mountain over the years, or learned of Leonard Knight and his electric mountain through what visitors have shared through social media in the last decade, giving his vision and story an exponentially mounting level of momentum. In fact, he’s even inspired a group of artists from the younger generation: around the corner from his mountain, on an adjacent hillside, a whole new spread of artwork has been unfolding for the last few years.
I visited Leonard Knight many more times after my first visit in 2006. Usually, there were many other visitors there, too. One time, filming was taking place for the cult classic “Into the Wild,” which features a cameo of Knight at his mountain. In 2010, shortly after the death of my fiancé, I visited the mountain with a group of poets from Riverside, and I stayed in the car with the air conditioning on. The heat was getting to me, and I was feeling a little sad. Knight came right over, and chatted with me for a few minutes, offering me something cold to drink and thanking me for coming out to see him.
I don’t know really how long we talked, or how long I was there, but even though it was probably only an hour or so, it feels now like a soothing eternity. Time, at Salvation Mountain, and especially in Leonard’s presence – in the dozen trips I took there, he was always there, and according to those who knew him well and spent lengthy amounts of time at the site, he rarely left – slowed down considerably and became irrelevant. It was a pleasure to remember what it means to just sit in the wide, open desert, absorbing its healing presence. This is something I’ve savored doing all of my life, although it seems to have become harder to do in recent years, for personal reasons and because of pressures on the desert coming from powerful, outside sources.
Since that time, which turned out to be my last visit to Salvation Mountain, and the last time I saw Leonard before he died, the landscape of the desert itself has taken many unfavorable hits. The impact of the “Solar Gold Rush” – the race to bombard the California and southwestern deserts with a checkerboard of massive wind and solar technology zones – has hit full force, and there has been much more to be sad about in the face of this.
And now, more than ever, the enduring legacy of Leonard Knight’s beloved mountain has become a visual and metaphoric symbol of just how precious and rare our deserts are. In this case, the desert, with its mother lode soul, has been able to help birth and sustain one man’s vision of remembering what’s most important in life in the end: beauty, community, and love. The desert has a special gift to remind us of that, and Leonard rendered this prolifically.
And what’s important to me now, as the fate of Salvation Mountain hangs in the balance—now that Knight is gone, as is so much of what else is precious and sacrosanct in the desert, as the early years of our new centennial tick forward—is this: I circle back around in my mind and heart and imagination to remember something Leonard once told me.
“Imagine this,” he said. “If everyone stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway in L.A. just got out of their cars, and shook each others’ hands, and smiled, and shared a little bit of love with one another that way, instead of honking and getting mad, just imagine how much better the world could be that way.”
Indeed. And now, when I’m stuck in traffic, or when I’m frustrated and saddened by yet another California desert destruction story in the news – big solar, big wind, unethical water transfers of rare and precious desert aquifers, bird deaths, loss of sacred desert habitat, gold-digging multinational corporate interests – I allow my mind to wander to the vivid dream of Salvation Mountain, with its colorful dreams and promises, and I am renewed.
And just thinking about it, about Leonard Knight and his devotion to lighting up the world from a once-forgotten corner of the desert with sincerity and hope, and to encouraging every visitor who made the pilgrimage out to Salvation Mountain to see things for themselves, and to take a minute to stop and remember what it means to be human, and to remember that the desert is, truly, the one most distinct geography that “mothers miracles such as this” as Steinbeck wrote, I instantly begin to feel better.
Ruth Nolan, M.F.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 1980s.
When Mike Cipra left his job in Death Valley National Park in February 2014, his wife Jane, the park’s botanist, did not go with him. When curious park staffers asked her how much longer she was staying, her face lit up and she replied with a smile “After the Eurekensis blooms.” As it turned out, only Jane Cipra and her crew of biological technicians really understood what was waiting to happen a few months later.
This story, about the totally unexpected and magnificent 2014 bloom of the Eurekensis, has its beginnings in 1978 when the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera californica ssp eurekensis) was put on the Federal Endangered Species list along with the Eureka Valley dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae). The listing came into effect on May 27, 1978. The necessity of listing both these species had been triggered by threats to the plants and their habitat from off-road vehicles (ORV’s).
The threat posed by ORV’s actually dates back to the 1960’s when the Eureka Dunes’ steep slopes had become a popular playground for visitors fond of engine noise and piston power. Increasing numbers of people coming into the area also meant more campers. All this human activity had a detrimental effect on this fragile ecosystem, as plants were repeatedly crushed and buried. But it took some time before the threats to the dune vegetation were clearly understood. In the seventies the Eureka Valley was still under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and was not closely monitored. Also values were different in the 1960’s. Preservation and conservation were not priorities. These days we have a much better appreciation of why the Eureka Valley evening primrose as well as the Eureka Valley dune grass should be valued instead of being allowed to vanish into the abyss of extinction. BLM eventually recognized the devastation that was being wrought by people enjoying the “good times” on the dunes, and the area was closed to vehicular traffic in 1976.
The 1994 passage of the Desert Protection Act brought the Eureka Valley under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The area became part of Death Valley National Park and was designated as wilderness. Unfortunately the throaty rumble of a trespassing ORV can still occasionally be noted to tear up sand and silence. Perhaps the driver is unaware that it does not take much to significantly impact this delicate ecosystem.
The Eureka Dunes cover three square miles and are the tallest dunes in California, rising 680 feet above the valley floor. They are a visible and dominant feature of the valley. The dune vegetation, on the other hand, is usually not an attention grabber. During dry years, the Eureka Valley evening primrose remains dormant in the subsurface. When conditions are right, which tends to be only during wet years, these perennials grow from the roots. But even when the plant seeds germinate, this primrose comes up only as a tiny basal rosette of grey-green leaves. This means that normally there is little to betray their presence. But when the timing of rain is right, the stems elongate rapidly, and sometime between April and July the plants bloom. This bloom is, as most desert blooms tend to be, a spectacular but ephemeral event lasting only a few weeks. When the bloom is over, the elongated stems die off. The plants retreat into the subsurface and wait until the conditions are favourable once again. Then the cycle begins anew.
The Eureka Valley evening primrose is a remarkable plant. It is unique in that the Eureka Dunes is the only place in the world where it grows. But growing in sand is challenging business. The surface of dunes is forever in motion and anything that grows there needs to have ways of dealing with being repeatedly buried in shifting sands. The Eurekensis has a fleshy root that is capable of storing the plant’s energy underground, which is especially important during the hot summer months or even during dry years. This highly adaptive survival strategy gives it a substantial head start on flower and fruit production when conditions are favourable. The Eurekensis also has two different reproductive strategies to deal with these conditions. As well as being a prodigious seed producer like many desert plants, it can clone itself by sending out lateral underground shoots that form new rosettes at the end of every branch. This gives it the ability to rise and spread above the surface.
When the Eureka Valley evening primrose was added to the Federal Endangered Species list, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) became involved because the listing and delisting of species come under their jurisdiction. In 2007 the USFWS completed a five year review and concluded that the threats to the Eureka Valley evening primrose were reduced to a point where the plant no longer needed to be considered endangered, and it could potentially be taken off the Endangered Species list. They also turned to Death Valley National Park’s botanist, Michelle Slaton at that time, to request as much additional information as possible. Ms. Slaton initiated surveys in the Eureka Dunes to evaluate the plant’s status. When Jane Cipra took over as the park’s botanist in 2010, this project came with her new job. She increased the survey activity in 2011 and with the help of an exceptionally dedicated crew of bio-technicians and volunteers she was able to survey the entire habitat of the Eureka Dunes rare plants in the same season for the first time. Prior to this, the Main Dunes was surveyed in 2007 and the Marble Canyon and Saline Spur were surveyed separately in 2008.
Every spring for four consecutive years, Jane and her crew made the trek to the Eureka Valley braving furious dust storms, rain, sleet, and desiccating heat. The team remained at the dunes for days at a time no matter what the conditions. In 2011, Jane and four bio-technicians covered 6,568 acres between March 15 and April 11. The spring of 2009, as well as spring 2010, had been good “flower years” in the park, and the Eureka Valley evening primrose had a decent showing. But when the drought hit southern California, the Eureka Valley evening primrose became elusive.
In addition to drought conditions, there was another threat: Russian thistle (Salsola gobicola). Russian thistle, also known as tumbleweed, was documented for the first time in the Eureka Valley in the 1970’s. In the Eureka Valley, the Eurekensis and the Russian thistle grow in exactly the same habitat of dune slopes and semi-stabilized sand surrounding the dunes. In the spring of 2011, the botany crew found very little Eurekensis and instead found many thousands of acres of Russian thistle that had already dried and gone to seed in what had been historically Eurekensis habitat. The results of the 2011 survey suggested that the Russian thistle had replaced the evening primrose in its prime habitat. However, the Eurekensis’ growing season is winter and spring, whereas the Russian thistle’s season is typically summer and fall. The crew was hopeful that this offset in timing meant that the primrose was still there underneath the sand and might come back.
Monitoring continued in the spring of 2012 but there were no visible changes. When the crew prepared for their spring 2013 survey, their mood was subdued. Southern California was into the third year of drought. Jane described the scene upon the crew’s arrival in the Eureka Valley: “When we arrived and looked at the area, it seemed that there was nothing alive. Everything was brown, but then we went out and started seeing tiny little seedling rosettes. There they were. Eureka Valley evening primroses, hundreds of thousands of them. But the plants were all the size of quarters and dimes.” She continued: “The seeds had germinated, but we couldn’t figure out why. Nothing unusual had shown up in our weather information.”
Weather information is currently tracked carefully in the area. There are three strategically placed weather stations that were installed in December 2012, that record rainfall, wind and temperature on a daily basis. But they may not have been installed soon enough to provide Jane with the information she needed. At this point, the only possible explanation Jane could give for the plants’ unexpected presence was that sometime between September and December 2012 there had been a freak rain storm that was not recorded by any weather stations but was enough of an event to stimulate the seedlings.
Jane then worried about the survival of the seedlings during the summer time. She explained “the Eureka Valley gets as hot as an oven and sees temperatures that can easily push the thermometer to more than 120 degrees. I did not expect these seedlings to survive the summer.” In November 2013 Jane and her crew returned to the valley to check and found that the seedlings had not only survived the summer but were now 3-6 inches in diameter. Relieved and encouraged by what they saw, they expanded their assessment to include land outside of their survey areas. Much to Jane’s surprise they found many seedlings there as well. Then a new concern started to weigh on Jane. “I worried about the seedlings’ survival during the hard winter freeze.”
In February 2014, full of anticipation but trying not to get their hopes up, Jane and her crew once again bumped north along Big Pine Road (a.k.a. Death Valley Road) on their way to the Eureka Valley. Once they arrived at their destination, their concerns dissipated – jubilance took its place. Jane described what they found: “The primroses were still there. The plants were now the size of dinner plates and steering wheels.”
Fast forward to March 2014. The news spread rapidly among park staff and regular Eureka Valley visitors: “There is a bloom at the Eureka Dunes that you’ve got to see.” Two senior park rangers reported that they had never seen anything like this during the twenty plus years they’ve worked in the park.
The botany crew was delighted to note that there was hardly any Russian thistle and the plants that could be seen were in the seedling stage while at the same time, the primroses were in full bloom and beginning seed production. This means that while the two species share the same space, they do not share it at the same time. They are stimulated by different temperatures, precipitation and amounts of day light and do not appear to be competing for the same resources. The primroses were there all along, just waiting for the right conditions for them.
Somehow those “right conditions” occurred and the result was this “once-in-a-life-time” event. This bloom, lasting six weeks, started with fields of yellow just about as far as the eye could see. The initial stages included the yellow desert evening primrose (Oenothera primiveris ssp. bufonis) interspersed primarily with yellow desert marigolds, although many other flowers could be found as well. The yellow desert evening primrose is not specific to the Eureka Valley but can be found in desert flats and gentle slopes from south-eastern California to western Texas and south-western Mexico. It cannot fail to charm with its pale to bright yellow flowers consisting of four heart-shaped petals and measuring two inches across growing out of the center of a basal rosette of leaves. Within weeks these flowers faded. Then the Eureka Valley evening primrose exuberantly took center stage. The fields of the soft white flowers with a hint of a pink blush, interspersed with the vibrant apricot-colored desert mallow, were breathtaking.
When sunlight faded and the promise of darkness hung in the air, this playground of wind and sand, light and shadow came alive. It was the hour between butterflies and moths when the evening primroses opened their petals. Where previously the white and yellow had been barely visible, the flowers now glowed luminescent in the gentle light of the rising moon. When the wind did not provide the music and the perfumed night air hung still, one could hear the constant buzz of the night pollinators. Hawk moths, sphinx moths and other insects darted from flower to flower. The only words that came to mind: This is magic.
As the bloom was coming to an end, Jane reflected on the fact that this area is still in a severe drought cycle. The Eureka Dunes receive more precipitation than other areas in Death Valley and sand tends to hold water, which makes this area more hospitable to vegetation than one might think. However what made these plants bloom in such profusion at this time? There is no answer to that question. All we know is how little we really know.
Jane has developed a deep respect for these remarkable plants. She knows, perhaps better than most people, the ways in which these plants are challenged by human activity and natural forces. Yet the force of life prevails in spite of it all. Jane Cipra has joined her husband in northern California, but the memories of the amazing Eurekensis will, most likely, remain with her for a long time to come.
Birgitta has volunteered in Death Valley National Park since 2008. Currently she and her husband, photographer Neal Nurmi, are working together documenting Death Valley’s backcountry cabins and other structures.
Hills, Mountains, and Valleys
While this is a time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is also a good time to think about other areas that have not yet been given wilderness designation. In the previous two issues of Desert Report I have written about several wild places found in our southwest deserts that meet all the requirements for wilderness designation but have not yet been so designated. Here are a few more, including several areas that need added protection by extending their current wilderness boundaries.
Lying between Interstate 15, Highway 127, Kingston Road, and the Kingston Mountains lie approximately 450 square miles of open land, under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Practically speaking, this entire area has no land protection and is under constant threat from development and poor land management. Known as the Silurian Hills and Shadow Mountains, the area consists of a conglomeration of hills, mountains, and volcanic mesas. The geology is a blend of limestone and volcanic rocks, which make beautiful and unique landscapes and habitats. Like many places of the southwest deserts, the flora and fauna is highly underexplored and understudied, but what little information is known from the area shows that it is a place of strong diversity. It contains important animal corridors between the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, as well as other bio-diverse areas such as the Kingston and Avawatz Mountains. Surprisingly, almost no botanical exploration has been done here. A few short expeditions were made in 2011 and 2012 which found some very pristine and unique habitat, including rare plant populations such as desert bear poppy (Arctomecon merriamii) and Clark Mountain buckwheat (Eriogonum heermannii var. floccosum).
Unfortunately, like many such places, this area is threatened by off-highway vehicle (OHV) use and heavy grazing. Historically, the area saw a good deal of mining, but today the Silurian Valley is under threat from proposed large scale solar and wind projects. These would destroy pristine desert habitat and cut off an important animal corridor. Read Jack Prichett’s article in the previous edition of Desert Report for more information on this contentious project.
The Granite Mountains referred to here are north of Apple Valley, east of Interstate 15, and west of Highway 247. Just a short drive from the large and expanding urban sprawl of Victor Valley, Hesperia, and Apple Valley, the Granite Mountains are a perfect example of a large pristine area that meets all the requirements for wilderness designation, but which has not yet been so designated. Though nearly surrounded by a large metropolis, this range receives little visitation. This is surprising considering its great beauty in the form of rugged rock faces, ancient boulder piles, and hidden springs. Biologically, this area is poorly studied, but there is known to be a butterfly (Papilio indra fordi) that is narrowly endemic to the Granite Mountains. A few botanists have suggested that the Granite Mountains are one of the last remaining places in our deserts where coastal vegetation can be found, possibly because cool mists and fog can push up through the Cajon Pass, bringing extra moisture and cooler temperatures to this mountain range.
The Granite Mountains have been recently threatened by renewable energy projects wanting to install large wind turbines across their upper ridges and peaks. Such development would eliminate any chance of wilderness designation and would destroy a great deal of pristine habitat. Also, the mountains lie within the “Rodman Mountains Recreation Lands”, which surround the range on its north, west, and east sides, meaning that they are susceptible to destruction from OHV use. Luckily, this has not been a major issue to date. But it seems fitting that the Granite Mountains should be set aside as a designated wilderness to protect a section of this heavily abused part of the Mojave Desert, a place where local residents can visit to enjoy at least one location that still offers beauty and solitude, one place to get away from car alarms, urban sprawl, and the deafening sound of motorcycles and quads.
The Iron Mountains are a remote and unique range in San Bernardino County. There is very little visitation to their interior, largely due to their inaccessibility. They are biologically under-explored, but several sensitive species, such as big horn sheep and desert tortoises, are there. A botanical expedition in 2011 also revealed several sensitive plant species, and there are definitely more to be found. The sand dunes and ramps in the northwestern corner have never been studied by botanists despite their location in the transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. There are no doubt many rare plant populations still to be found here.
Despite their remoteness, these mountains have historically seen abuse from humans, going back to when General Patton used this area as a tank training ground during World War II. Even today, the California Aqueduct travels through the center of this range deep underground. Despite this subterranean intrusion, there are no roads in this mountain range, so the area meets many of the requirements for wilderness designation.
There are also many areas in our southwest deserts that could be better managed and protected by extending certain wilderness boundaries. The following are just a few examples.
The Rice Valley Wilderness, created in 1994, consists of the southern section of this valley. However, it should also include the valley’s northern half, due to the importance and uniqueness of that area. The valley consists of a dry lake bed being overtaken by sand dunes blowing in from the northwest, making it part of one of the longest and largest sand dune systems in California. The northern half of this valley was once an open OHV area, but was closed due to lack of visitation in 2002. Biologically, Rice Valley is a hotspot of biodiversity, including sensitive fauna species such as desert tortoise, kit fox, burrowing owl, fringe toed lizard, prairie falcon, and the cheeseweed owlfly (known from only about ten isolated populations worldwide). Recent botanical explorations have also revealed a plethora of rare plant populations, including the world’s largest stand of crucifixion thorn (Castela emoryi), which went unnoticed until 2012. A dozen other sensitive plant species occur here, and there will no doubt be more found in this under-explored area.
The Palen/McCoy Wilderness lies to the west of the Rice Valley Wilderness and consists of several mountain ranges, including the Arica Mountains. However, the wilderness boundary stops along the spine of the Arica Mountains, and really should continue east and north to include all of the sand dunes of this pristine and sensitive area. These sand dunes are a continuation of those in Rice Valley and, as mentioned above, contain a plethora of unique and sensitive species.
Both of these areas outside of current wilderness boundaries are under threat from rough OHV use, heavy grazing, and solar energy projects. There is a development project underway in the northern section of Rice Valley that will include a heliostat 650 feet tall (twice the height of the Statue of Liberty!). This horrible eyesore will be visible for miles around. The project also plans to dig a well in Rice Valley, possibly disrupting the water table of which could severely affect the large stand of crucifixion thorn and other flora and fauna of the area.” It is unlikely that this project can be stopped, but extending the wilderness boundary up to its border will at least prevent further development and bring much needed protection to this unique and beautiful valley.
Throughout this three-part series, I have discussed nine places that should be given wilderness designation. These are just a few examples of remote areas in our southwest deserts that could be, and should be, given wilderness designation or included in previously designated wilderness areas to provide protection and preservation for the future. These scenic and fragile places can’t protect themselves ‒ it is our responsibility to do so.
Duncan Bell is a field botanist for Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and spends most of his time doing floristic work in the under-collected and under-explored mountain ranges of Southern California.
• More Wild Places That Need Wilderness Designation
• Kathy Billings: Superintendent Of Death Valley Nat’l Park
• Amazing Eurekensis: A Wonderful Bloom at Eureka Dunes
• Wilderness Concept: How It Has Affected Native Americans
• My Wilderness: A Florida Native Discovers the CA Desert
• Leonard Knight 1931-2014
• Residential Mining In Nevada’s Historic Comstock
• Story of Picacho Mine: Greed, Opportunity, and Technology
• Tales From A Ranger: Death Valley Manhunt
• Current Issues
Silurian Valley, a majestic desert basin flanked by the 6,000-foot-plus Avawatz, Soda, and Kingston ranges, is undeveloped. The nearest community is 17 miles south, the town of Baker. Head north from Baker on California Highway 127 and the Mojave Desert unfolds before you.
The highway, which follows the valley floor, is a gateway to the south entrance to Death Valley. Just as importantly, the valley is a key piece of a corridor linking three properties managed by the National Park Service—Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert Preserve to the south, with Death Valley National Park to the north.
Power Plants Target the Valley
Today, however, Silurian Valley is the target for two massive proposed renewable energy plants: the Silurian Valley Wind Farm and the Aurora Solar Plant. Together these large ventures would destroy the environmental integrity of Silurian Valley and despoil its magnificent desert vistas, while generating electricity for homes in cities a hundred miles away. The projects would also impinge on historical cultural resources, including the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, the Mormon Road wagon trail, and the historic route of the Tonopah and Tidewater railroad. The two plants are both projects of Iberdrola Renewables, a business unit of Iberdrola USA.
Solar Plant Requires a Variance
Licensing Aurora Solar would require the BLM to approve the first variance, for a power plant application, to the carefully developed Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), published in late 2012. The variance—special exemption—would be required since the Silurian Valley is not part of the Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) defined in the PEIS. Areas outside the SEZs are either excluded from solar development, or projects must pass through more rigorous examination to prove they are appropriate locations for solar energy development.
Strong Opposition Surfaces at Public Hearing for Aurora Solar Plant
On March 27, 2014, the BLM held a public meeting in Barstow to solicit comments from public agencies and the general public about their concerns and interests on the proposed Silurian Valley solar project. Representatives of Iberdrola Renewables made a presentation on the project and answered questions about it.
The meeting drew 60 attendees representing the general public, local business and land owners, public agencies. Conservation organizations included the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Nature Conservancy, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA), and more. It became apparent during the afternoon session that many participants opposed the Aurora project and were unhappy with the format of the public meeting. There was strong vocal protest on two points: 1) the BLM was not recording the 3-minute comments made by speakers, some of whom had traveled from other cities to speak, and 2) questions to Iberdrola took place in “break-out” sessions, making it impossible for participants to hear all the questions and answers.
Thirty-six speakers made public comments regarding the Aurora plant, of which only one was in support. Many objected to the BLM’s considering a variance to allow building a plant outside designated SEZs, especially in an unspoiled valley linking three NPS properties. Many made the point that Silurian Valley represents a key “jumping off” point into the desert for those leaving Interstate 15 at Baker. Others pointed out the existence of ecologically sensitive zones adjacent to the Silurian Valley and other properties that enjoy special protections. These include the Amargosa River, which is designated a Wild and Scenic River and the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, whose corridor would be impacted both visually and physically by the two proposed power plants.
Projects Would Impact Old Spanish Trail and Later Mormon Road
Archival evidence, including John C. Fremont’s 1845 account, is clear that the Old Spanish Trail passed through Silurian Valley. After 1849 the Trail route became part of the Mormon Road, a wagon trail that brought miners, Mormons and other emigrants to southern California. As a National Historic Trail, the OST corridor is administered by the BLM as part of its National Conservation Lands, the branch devoted to protecting scenic landscapes.
In 2013, BLM intern Amy Oeschner reported in a research paper, read at the annual conference of the American Institute of Archaeology, that she used aerial photos and software enhancement to locate portions of the trail in Silurian Valley. She then conducted ground-truthing surface surveys of trail segments to record and document condition of the trail. Artifacts she found include a clay pipe bowl, datable to James Buchanan’s presidential campaign of 1856, in the Mormon Road period. She also found a mule shoe consistent with those used by Mexican mule caravans.
Broad Coalition Forming to Oppose the Two Plants
Leaders of desert conservation organizations and business and property owners in Tecopa and Shoshone are coordinating an effort to build a broad coalition opposing licensing of the two Silurian Valley plants. Says NPCA’s David Lamfrom, “The Silurian Valley represents a beating heart of the Mojave Desert in California. We mustn’t allow a dagger to be put through it.” Susan Sorrells, who owns businesses in Shoshone points out that ecological and cultural tourism are what bring people to Shoshone. “They treasure the open desert which we have so far preserved in this area,” she says.
The coalition will work for establishment of a broad conservation corridor extending from Shoshone and the Nevada state line in the north to I-15 and the Mojave Preserve in the south, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the vital Silurian Valley corridor linking three NPS units and protecting the treasured vistas of the Silurian Valley.
Jack Prichett is president of the Old Spanish Trail Association-Tecopa chapter. He has made numerous presentations on the Old Spanish Trail and the threats posed by large desert solar plants.
WILD PLACES THAT NEED WILDERNESS DESIGNATION, PART 2
In the previous issue of Desert Report, several locations were mentioned that are truly wild places, under threat from development, that have not yet been designated as wilderness. In this issue, with the focus on locations in the east Mojave, I present a few more.
The Mescal Range
If you were to ask most people in the state of California to find the Mescal Range on a map, I would guess that 99.9 percent of our state population would not be able to do so. Ironically, thousands of people drive past this range on a daily basis, millions annually on the way to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Most probably see it as a large limestone rock rising from the desert floor seemingly devoid of life. This is far from the truth. When you travel south from Interstate 15 into this range all traffic noises cease. You leave the modern world behind and everything seems pristine and wild.
The eastern section of this range encompasses the northern section of Piute Valley. In the summer, after the monsoonal rains, this area becomes a unique desert grassland amongst the Joshua tree woodland. It holds many plant rarities such as the bizarre cactus known as dead cholla (Grusonia parishii) and the beautiful and unusual Mohave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia). This side of the range also holds the only known location in California of fossilized dinosaur tracks. Known as the ‘dinosaur trackway’, these impressions in the localized sandstone outcropping are believed to be 200 million years old and are obviously of great importance.
There is no vehicle access into the interior of this rugged range. Although challenging, the rewards upon entry are great. One has to either walk up the long western drainages or climb up and over the steep rugged eastern limestone ridges to reach their center. Floristically, this range has been highly unexplored. Until quite recently, most of the historic plant collections were from the edges and margins of the range with virtually no recorded plants from its interior. There is at least one plant in the area that is new to science and to date there have been found 30 different rare plant species in this range. Every expedition into its center reveals new and undocumented plant species.
The Mescal Range lies between the better known Clark Mountains and the New York Mountains which are also home to many unique rare plant species and plant assemblages such as some of the last remaining stands of white fir (Abies concolor) in the desert. Further explorations of the Mescal Range may find another area of marooned populations of white fir. Other near endemic plant species that are shared between the Clarks and the New Yorks may be revealed in the future. To date several have already been found, such as dwarf Indian mallow (Abutilon parvulum) and Navajo muhly (Muhlenbergia arsenei) that in California are only known in either the Clark Mountains or New York Mountains.
Sadly, last year while exploring the interior of the Mescal Range, I came across two men with chain saws cutting down the pinyon pines that grow here. I have no idea why, and did not approach these questionable characters with chainsaws in the middle of nowhere to ask.
Large scale mining is also a threat for this range. Just across the highway from the Mescal Range lies the largest rare earth mine in the U.S.A. It would be devastating if this destructive mine where to spill over and expand across the highway.
The area is also a very important animal corridor for wildlife traveling between the Mojave National Preserve to the Clark Mountains and beyond. The Mescal Range is managed by the BLM and its central and eastern sections, at this time, have no form of protection. This area definitely meets all requirements for wilderness designation and needs to be designated as so as soon as possible.
The Castle Mountains
My first trip to the Castle Mountains was a very memorable one. I was there to monitor and make a conservation seed collection of the near endemic pinto beardtoungue (Penstemon bicolor). It was the middle of July and the day saw triple digit temps. There were not very many flowers, but I was fascinated by the area and vowed to return to explore further. That evening while driving out along the little 4-wheel drive road, a roadrunner appeared on the road in front of me. I was only able to drive about 3 MPH on this little road. Instead of running off into the brush the roadrunner continued to run along the road in front of me. It in fact ran in front of me for nearly a mile! Eventually, it darted after a lizard in the shrubbery. I was surrounded by one of the thickest and largest stands of Joshua trees I have ever seen to date. With the sun setting behind them, it was a truly perfect moment.
Since then I have spent countless days, during all seasons, in the Castle Mountains exploring the abundant wildlife that they contain. This mountain range, until recently, was also botanically unexplored. Recent explorations by desert botanist James Andre and myself have turned up a plethora of rare plant species and at least one plant new to the California flora. To date we have found over 30 rare plant species in this range, several of which are near endemics and found only in this part of the Mohave.
If you have not been to the Castle Mountains, you should go. It is best to visit in the late summer after the monsoonal rains. During this time, the valleys at the base of the mountains appear as large grassy savannas. After the rains, hidden among these unique grasslands are flowers that may be seen only at this time of the year. The stands of Joshua trees here are outstanding; even if you are a desert snob, you will still find them more than impressive.
Historically the Castle Mountains have seen a good amount of mining, especially at their southern end. This has not been an issue for some time now, but just recently a large mining claim has been reopened for this range and it seems likely that large scale mining may commence in its southern section. This area is managed by the BLM and has no form of protection what-so-ever. I have heard it strongly stated that this area should be given over to, and managed by, the Mohave National Preserve. Whoever the manager may be, this area fills many requirements for wilderness designation and should be designated so as soon as possible.
Look for more wild places that need wilderness designation in upcoming editions in 2014.
Duncan Bell is a field botanist for Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and spends most of his time doing floristic work in the undercollected and unexplored mountain ranges of Southern California.
a lesson for the Future
Entering Death Valley from the south, one is nearly compelled to pass through the small town of Shoshone, California. While there is a highway maintenance station near the village entrance and a modern gas station as well, it would be the older and more rustic buildings that catch your eye: an old museum with a rusting, early-model auto in front; the Crowbar Cafe with a cowboy logo and wooden tables outside; a strangely painted community hall; and a small green, wooden bungalow off to the side. These are relics from an earlier history, a time far from the extravagances of the twenty-first century. All this might have vanished thirty years ago with the collapse of the regional mining ventures if it were not for the efforts of the local town manager, Susan Sorrells. Shoshone was founded by her great grandfather, but Susan must be considered a new kind of pioneer in the western tradition.
I first met Susan fourteen years ago at a meeting held in the community hall. A group of people were being conducted on a tour to a nearby trackway with the fossilized footprints of a great variety of Pleistocene mammals, and it was purely by accident that Susan and I began talking. Several years later I planned to bring a high school geology class to see this same trackway. As we spoke on the phone, I learned that Susan had once been a boarding student at the Westlake School for Girls, the very place where I had begun my own teaching career. Over the years we have spoken many times, and much of the conversation has centered on her family history as they arrived and then settled in the southern Death Valley region.
The family first came west when Susan’s great-great-grandfather, David Fairbanks, arrived in Salt Lake with Brigham Young. Among his ten children was a son, Ralph Fairbanks, who was later to be known universally as “Dad.” Over the years this son worked as a swamper on a wagon train along the Mormon Trail, as a prospector in Pioche, Nevada, and as a teamster driving freight wagons out of Las Vegas and eventually to the mining camps of Greenwater, to the south of Death Valley. These mines, like most of those in Death Valley, were promotions that drained the investors and produced almost nothing from the ground. Before these mining ventures collapsed, “Dad” had moved thirty miles south to the present site of Shoshone, where he bought land and established a variety of business ventures. His nickname was accidental. When Native Americans were present, his children always addressed him as “Dad,” and so quite naturally the Indians also called him “Dad.” In time everyone referred to him this way, and it is said that even his own parents eventually called him “Dad.” He was the founder of Shoshone. This was in the very early 1900s.
Among Dad’s acquaintances was a younger fellow, Charles Brown, a miner and allegedly sheriff in Greenwater. Charles fell madly in love with one of Dad’s daughters, Stella, but by her father’s decree their marriage had to wait till the day she turned eighteen in 1910. By this time the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad had pushed north to service the mining ventures in the region. As the terminus of the line, Shoshone became a major hub of commerce, and Dad was a major financial beneficiary. Charlie and Stella had moved to the Dale Mining district, near present-day Joshua Tree National Park, and then to Tonopah, where Charles rather successfully invested in a bar. By this time Dad was older and living alone, and in 1920, at the request of one of Stella’s sisters, Charlie and Stella returned to Shoshone to help manage the business. A few years later Highway 127 was completed north from Baker through Shoshone, and tourism became a second economic engine for the family.
In time Charlie became the principal citizen of Shoshone and rather a legend of the area. He was elected to the California State Senate, where he served for twenty-five years. The store in Shoshone goes by the name “Brown’s General Store,” and state highway 127 running north to Death Valley is signed as the “Charles Brown Highway.”
Charlie Brown had four children, two boys and two girls. One of the sons had a distinguished military career in World War II and went on to become a circuit judge. The second son took over the family holdings in Baker, California. The oldest of Charlie’s four children was a daughter, Bernice, who married Maurice Sorrells. As Charles became older, he asked Bernice and Maurice to return from their home in Sacramento to help run Shoshone and the businesses there. When Maurice was elected a Supervisor of Inyo County, it was Bernice who became the principal town manager. Susan Sorrells has described the family business during those years.“Shoshone was the hub of commerce in the Amargosa and Death Valley area. Our family owned a Standard Oil dealership and a wholesale grocery and dynamite business, and they took supplies to the seven or eight mining camps in the area, where about forty miners stayed during the week. There were also about fifty mines in the area, most of these being talc, but there were also gold, lead and silver mines. My family also owned a store, bar, café and lodging in Shoshone. The area was booming and it was really good business.”
Susan has also spoken warmly about her childhood growing up in the town:
“Shoshone was a paradise for children growing up there. We were so free. It was fabulous. Everyone owned horses and we would go on overnight rides for two or three days. This was when I was eleven and my brother was seventeen. Almost daily I rode my horse into the wetlands and surrounding hills where I spent a lot of my time. I really loved the land. It was a wonderful, wonderful life.”
The journey to adulthood was not direct, and perhaps Susan’s travels have been even more varied and adventurous than those of her ancestors. Eventually, however, they brought her back to her childhood home. After elementary school in Shoshone, she went one year to a Catholic school in Los Angeles, returned to Shoshone for tenth grade, and then, as already mentioned, completed high school at Westlake School for Girls.
Susan had no interest in the family business and went off to college: one year at the University of Southern California and an eventual graduation from Smith College in Massachusetts. Politics had become an interest, and Susan worked one year as an intern in Washington DC and then spent two years in Liberia in the Peace Corps. Perhaps this latter experience motivated her to complete a Master’s Degree in African studies at UCLA. She was married briefly, lived several years in Europe, and finally returned to Shoshone when her mother’s failing heath required assistance. Again in Susan’s words:
“I was living in Geneva when my mother needed assistance in managing the businesses. My mother and I were very close, and I told her that I wanted to come home and work with her until she decided what she wanted to do, such as getting a general manager or selling the property. She had expressed an interest in leaving the desert and working for the United Nations.”
Susan’s father had died some years before, so upon her mother’s death, Susan became owner and manager of the town. In 1985 the mining endeavors south of Death Valley collapsed, and the town struggled to survive. Ultimately Susan and the community decided that their economic future lay in tourism – but it would be of a sustainable kind that respected and valued the land.
The town has established several non-profit organizations to promote environmental protection. They have worked hard to restore nearby wetlands, and they have partnered in several projects with the local Bureau of Land Management. The town has encouraged researchers, both in biology and geology, to visit, study, and use their facilities. Many of these developments have already been described in the Desert Report article “Communities In The Amargosa Valley Strive To Make Tourism A Success” (June 2012). Susan Sorrells may be a new kind of pioneer who leads in a direction that will become increasingly important in our future. Her own words best describe her vision for the future:
“Our goals are to establish a town where people and endangered species live side by side. We strongly believe that people don’t have to be the enemy but instead can caretake and steward the environment where they live. As a result, the residents and guests will be renewed by their interaction with nature, which is already happening.”
Craig Deutsche describes himself as a long-time desert rat. In an earlier life he was a high school teacher, a distance runner, and an editor for the “Desert Report.” Retired now, he humors a bird-watching wife and is a committed volunteer in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
• Pioneers In The Desert
• Silurian Valley In The Crosshairs
• Solar Tentacles Reach Into Owens Valley
• The Wilderness Act: History Of Wilderness In Southern California
• The Wilderness Act: The East Mojave
• Interview With Steve Mietz, Superintendant of Great Basin National Park
• Ocotillo Wells
• The Impacts Of Energy Projects On Migratory Birds
• Current Issues
• 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