Preserve the Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Sheep Range Bajada

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge in southern Nevada is the largest refuge in the contiguous U.S., but it stands to get a great deal smaller. Nellis Test and Training Range is proposing to take over 227,000 acres of Desert NWR (as well as quite a bit of other public land), with public access to be eliminated, for the purpose of fancier training scenarios with live bombs. The Refuge’s elevation range encompasses seven plant life zones, from the Mojave desert floor ecosystem up to ponderosa and bristlecone pines at its upper elevations. In addition to its iconic bighorn sheep, it protects habitat for 53 species of mammals, 30 species of reptiles, 250 species of birds and 500 species of plants. It is almost entirely in primitive condition, with 88% of its acreage recommended for wilderness by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nellis TTR already encompasses 2.9 million acres, a larger area than any contiguous wilderness complex in the Lower 48, and they have overflight access to much more. In a time of expanding population and development in Nevada, when the state is attempting to diversify its economy with an emphasis on outdoor recreation, when nearby recreational areas such as the Spring Mountains, Red Rocks and Death Valley are seeing soaring visitation numbers, this landscape’s scenery, solitude and biodiversity are more valuable than ever. The Desert NWR’s status as a Refuge should be upheld and continued intact.

If any readers agree with me, now is the time to help! Please offer a comment on the legislative EIS by December 10th. Comments are by far the most effective way to influence this process – this is the gauge of public sentiment which will be incorporated into the information that will ultimately go to Congress. Your comment can be simple (“I want to see Desert National Wildlife Refuge continue to be managed for ecological values with open public access.”), or you are welcome to repurpose language from my comment below. If you’d like to do more, please consider a donation to Friends of Nevada Wilderness, which currently has a generous gift matching offer.

A distant view into the 2.9 million acres of off-limits military land on Nellis TTR.

A distant view into the 2.9 million acres of off-limits military land on Nellis TTR (click to enlarge)

More information on the proposed land takeover:

Here is my comment:

I am writing to express my opposition to the proposed NTTR Military Land Withdrawal. Specifically, I wish to support Proposed Alternative #1 (Extend Existing Land Withdrawal and Management of the NTTR, North and South Range). If that alternative should prove unworkable, I support the No Action Alternative.

In particular, I am strongly opposed to any land withdrawal that would result in loss of public access to currently open lands on the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. As a hiker, photographer, and amateur naturalist active in southern Nevada, the lands proposed for withdrawal offer me unique and irreplaceable opportunities for recreation and study in the region. Locations such as the Sheep Range, Hidden Forest and the Alamo Road contain a diversity of scenery and ecosystems which do not exist in similarly primitive condition elsewhere in southern Nevada. Hayford Peak, by virtue of its more than 5,000 feet of topographic prominence, is an important summit to the mountaineering community, and under the proposed withdrawal it would become the only such “ultra-prominence peak” in the Lower 48 to have no legal public access.

The elevation range, geology and biodiversity of the western portion of Desert NWR have no equivalent in similarly undeveloped condition in the region. Nearby recreational areas such as the Spring Mountains, Red Rocks, Death Valley and Lake Mead are already overcrowded and experiencing major management challenges, dramatically increasing visitation and resource degradation. NTTR has already withdrawn substantial lands and closed public access to a large portion of the Desert NWR’s original territory. In a time when Nevada is actively promoting and developing its outdoor recreation economy, loss of public access to an additional 300,000 acres of high quality landscape is simply unacceptable.

Also of concern is loss of public access and oversight to the archeological and historic sites in the lands proposed for withdrawal. Maintaining unlimited access for scientists and wildlife managers is likewise a vital concern.

I also believe that the regional context of military lands argues against further land withdrawal. Military lands without public access are enormous in the region. Between China Lake, Fort Irwin, Edwards, Twentynine Palms, Nellis, Hawthorne, Fallon and Utah TTR, recreation and natural landscapes in the Mojave and Great Basin desert ecosystems are already heavily impacted by military lands. This point only becomes stronger when one considers Fallon Naval Air Station’s current proposal to withdraw another 600,000 acres in Nevada. Nellis already has 2.9 million acres withdrawn (an area larger than almost any Federal wilderness area in the contiguous U.S. and approaching the size of Nevada’s total designated wilderness acreage), as well as flyover access to much more. I believe it is reasonable to expect the highly competent and professional leaders of our military to achieve their training goals on existing land withdrawals via increased innovation, more efficient use of existing withdrawals and better cooperation between military branches.

Furthermore, population and development in Nevada is rapidly expanding, causing major increases in impacts to desert land via urban growth, growing demands on water resources and solar energy infrastructure. All this comes at a time when residents and tourists are visiting Nevada’s backcountry in unprecedented numbers and the state is attempting to diversify its economy with a substantial emphasis on outdoor recreation. In this context, ecologically healthy land in undeveloped condition is more important to the public than ever.

Desert Range View

Autumn Snow

Snow on Temple Crag

Temple Crag and Second Lake had some gloomy morning weather last weekend. Despite the gloom, this weather system stayed disappointingly warm. Even where I was shooting before dawn above 10,000 feet, I was feeling mostly rain, rain and a lot of wind. Shooting conditions were not easy, but the pillars of Temple Crag rising into the looming cloud ceiling made for a spectacular scene. And even in the dim, stormy light, Second Lake’s glacial-tinted waters shone a beautiful blue.

Creeping

Tarantula

Happy Halloween from the California high desert! And a felicitous end of migration season to all our local tarantulas!

Sunrise, Storm, Sierra

Sawmill Creek Sunrise

The storm two weeks ago didn’t give the mountains more than a dusting of snow, but it certainly made for a beautiful sunrise as clouds played above the 9,000-foot scarp of the Eastern Sierra.

Storm clouds at sunrise over Goodale Creek, Eastern Sierra

Dawn on the Panamints

Salt Creek and Telescope Peak

A bit of a sleeper from last spring – sunrise on Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range. The Panamints rise to over 11,000 feet, while the Salt Creek Hills lie below sea level at the bottom of Death Valley.

A Moment of Autumn

Mount Baldwin over Aspens

This fall season has not been productive for me photographically, but I did get out for one short but glorious fall color hike in the Eastern Sierra. The geologist in me loves that some of the Sierra’s best aspens are paired with some of their most colorful metamorphic peaks!

Fall Trail

Tilted Limestone

Currant Mountain Sunrise

Some places haunt the imagination. Ever since I heard of a mountain deep in Nevada formed of massive limestone beds tilted simply and steeply into the sky, I knew Currant Mountain was a place I would have to visit. It captures almost the archetypal form of Great Basin mountain building, directly viewable to the eye without complication: a huge chunk of ancient seabed wrenched from its repose by the stretching of North America, its marine layers forming swooping, angled cliffs high in the desert air.

Marine fossils (upper right) at 11,000 feet

Marine fossils (upper right) at 11,000 feet

After imagining the place for over a decade, I finally found both time and a willing victim who would not only consent to join me in humping directly up a few thousand vertical feet of trail-less mountainside, but would also agree to do it with an overnight pack and two gallons of water for the sake of being there at sunrise. Fortunately for me, Greg Russell is usually willing to be talked into these things. Our approach involved hours of very steep bushwhacking through sage, fir, limestone outcrops loaded with fossils, scree and many wonderful bristlecone pines. Though I had read that they grew on the mountain, the vigor and beauty of Currant’s bristlecone forest was a fantastic surprise. Hundreds of gorgeous gnarled trees grow up there, many of which are surely thousands of years old, though there are lots of young ones and even brand new sprouts as well.

Duckwater Peak and Bristlecones

As we neared the ridge, I was fighting real exhaustion as I felt the stirrings of a cold coming on. We gratefully dropped our packs on a small balcony near the crest, perhaps the only campable spot anywhere near where we hoped to photograph. I was quite concerned about the sickness and what the next day might bring, but we were up there and I was not about miss my enjoyment of the evening and morning.

Greg Russell photographing sunset on Currant Mountain

Greg Russell photographing sunset on Currant Mountain

Most Great Basin ranges tend to be more dramatic on the side that’s been uplifted, but Currant is an exception. The Devonian Guilmette Formation’s thick layers seem to have sloughed off any overlying strata or rubble as they plunge downward to the east. The tilt of the mountain is stunningly obvious and the giant eroded bowls of its east face form some amazing terrain. Currant is the highest thing for many miles around, so its east side is well situated to glow with the morning’s first light.

Flowers, Limestone, Dawn

Early light on tilted strata and bristlecones:

Strata Detail

I had hoped to make the summit that morning, and we gave it a try. But I knew that our photogenic approach did not put us on the standard route. We spent a couple entertaining and spicy hours scrambling around Currant’s high ridges and catwalks, but between the complexity of the terrain, my still present illness and the ticking clock, we left the true summit for another time and headed down. The southern White Pine Range and the Currant Mountain Wilderness are not easy places to visit, but they are a highly rewarding and remarkable slice of Nevada backcountry, and I hope that I’ll be returning.

Sunrise Strata

Egan Range

Lower Terrace and Valley

For a warm-up evening before a bigger outing in eastern Nevada, Greg Russell and I hiked a jeep road up the west side of Ward Mountain in the Egan Range. Like so much of this region, the Egan Range is generously banded with layers of Paleozoic limestone, and here the layers form an upper and a lower terrace of rolling sagebrush slopes set between cliffy outcrops. We chose the lower terrace, and followed the two-track road as it rose and fell in and out of drainages.

Limestone Waves

A panorama I shot for fun, which gives a better view of cliffs that for the two parallel terraces:

Lower Terrace Panorama

This part of Nevada is better watered and lusher than many parts of the state, and the canyons were full of healthy fir stands, plus occasional signs of surface water. We even had a glimpse of a small arch in a limestone tower below us. The sage was green and thick, and I expect that these slopes could see excellent wildflowers at the right time of year. Eventually, we found a spot and waited for some evening light to break through the haze of wildfire smoke that now seems to be a regular feature of August in the American West.

Egan Range Rabbitbrush

The Egan Range runs far to the north and south, and contains several designated wilderness areas, many canyons, at least one mapped arch, some major caves and some big cliffs. It’s a little-known landscape with a ton of potential for backpacking, photography and enjoying natural history, and I hope to return for plenty more!

Terrace and Peak

Hot Springs

Balanced Rock Moonset

Of all the U.S. National Parks, one I never really expected I’d ever visit is Hot Springs. But expectations seldom mean much, and family connections brought me to central Arkansas this June, determined to see and enjoy this rather obscure and idiosyncratic National Park.

Hot Springs is hardly a wilderness park, but it does encompass several forested mountains, relatively undeveloped by local standards. To see a bit of the park’s backcountry, I was up and at a trailhead an hour before sunrise. 88 degrees and 95% humidity at 5:00 in the morning is rough going for a high desert dweller like me, and hiking these forests in the summer inspires a lot of respect, sympathy and a little horror for the lives of the native Americans and early settlers who inhabited these parts.

Boulders in Forest

A couple miles on a lightly used trail, liberally laced with spider webs, brought me to Balanced Rock, an outcrop of boulders that provided a focal point and a view of the surrounding woods. The boulders are made of Arkansas novaculite, an attractive, hard, pale rock that reminded me of the beautiful quartzites in Idaho’s Lemhi Range. The geologic map of this region is fascinatingly convoluted with lots of impressive folding, and these mountains would be a wonderful geologic playground were they a little less afflicted by trees.

Geologic Map Hot Springs

The balance point of Balanced Rock:

Balanced Rock Contact

The hike out in peaceful morning solitude was graced by a tortoise and some beautiful flowers (identification welcome!):

Arkansas Tortoise

Orange and Green

Leaves and Petals

Those big geologic folds funnel water down into the earth and send it back warm to the surface. Hot Springs was originally preserved in 1832, the first time the U.S. federal government took action to protect a natural resource. In the late 1800s, almost all of the springs were capped and diverted into bathhouses, and Bathhouse Row forms the core of the park. A couple small springs are still permitted to flow above ground a little, but one can only imagine what this hillside once looked like with dozens of streams of warm water cascading down to the now buried creek.

Spring and Pool

Display Spring Pool

The historic buildings of Bathhouse Row are interesting and mostly attractive, though some of the more monumental and institutional architecture is definitely a product of its time. The Rehabilitation Center (below) and the Arlington Hotel are enormous and rather looming. The former was used to provide spa treatments to U.S. soldiers, and the bathhouses offered many early attempts at physical therapy, some of which were likely ahead of their time, while others make one happy not to have lived 100 years ago.

Hot Springs Buildings

In its time, Hot Springs was a popular destination for the well-heeled (including Al Capone and the Mob), and it has some nice examples of early 20th Century opulence. For instance, the Edwardian parlor in the Fordyce Bathhouse (which is now the Park visitor center):

Fordyce Parlor

Blooming magnolias and a painted facade:

Main Street Magnolias

Hot Springs is certainly an unusual member of the National Park system, but it has plenty of historic and natural interest, and I’m glad to have had a chance to see it.

Downtown in Trees

Summer Storms

Deep Springs in Gold

The seasons have turned, and I haven’t had too much time for photography. But the last week has brought some welcome summer monsoon moisture, and a marvelous run of evening storm clouds that go crazy with color at sunset. For the last two evenings in a row, the entire valley has been blanketed in honey-colored glow.

Gilbert Pass Lightshow

Monsoon Mammatus

I often shy away a bit from photographing on evenings like these, since the color is just so lurid. But sometimes such light shows are impossible to resist.

Chocolate Mountain Cloud Epic

Druid Rainbow