Herpeta Portraits

Horns and Lava

Three Inyo County locals enjoying the beautiful spring….

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Toad and Twigs

Support National Monuments!

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico

Anyone who follows conservation news at all has heard by now about the review of National Monuments currently being conducted by the Trump administration. I will of course be sharing my opinion with the BLM. I’ll be commenting on a number of monuments with which I’m personally familiar, starting with Utah’s Bears Ears, which has by far the tightest deadline to submit comments. Please do the same by May 26th!

Any comment helps, but detailed and substantive comments help the most. In particular, I don’t imagine the administration cares much about experiences in the wild and anecdotes of natural beauty; instead, they have explicitly solicited comments on (among other things) whether the monuments are larger than they need to be and whether they contain features of sufficient historic or scientific interest [more]. Good comments should address those questions explicitly. There is an excellent collection of talking points assembled here on Facebook, and another fine collection is in progress here. If you need catching up on the issue generally, Modern Hiker has an excellent run-down with lots of good links.

Please feel free to lift whatever may be useful fro my comments below! And please check back or follow me on Facebook as I post additional comments on other monuments.


Dear Secretary Zinke,

I am writing to express my strong support for maintaining the status and boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument as currently designated. I have camped, hiked and backpacked in the region many times, both as a child and an adult, and I am quite familiar with the landscape and what it contains. The abundance of high quality archaeological sites in Bears Ears clearly marks it as a region of world-class significance, and the fact that visitors can explore these sites in a remote and undeveloped setting of spectacular geology and great beauty sets it apart as unique in the U.S. Preservation of archaeological and geological resources of such quantity and quality is clearly an appropriate use of the Antiquities Act.

Regarding the size of the monument, I will reiterate that the opportunity to explore such archaeologic resources on a landscape-wide scale in a backcountry setting is unique in the U.S., and the monument’s substantial size is key to preserving that opportunity. It is common when wandering cross-country in the region to find artifacts and ruins not marked on any map. Protecting Bears Ears’ resources is not a question of protecting just a few well known sites, but rather preserving the countless less known sites in between. It is also worth noting that the monument’s acreage as designated is significantly smaller than what preservation advocates had proposed, and is comparable to the acreage proposed in Utah Representative Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative. Several areas with high mineral potential were left out of the presidential proclamation.

I believe concerns about the continuation of traditional uses of the area by local residents and Native Americans were well addressed in the process of designating the monument. It is my wish to see all responsible use of the area continue so long as such is is compatible with preserving the area’s historic and scenic resources. In any case, these are fundamentally questions of how the monument should be managed, not of whether it should exist at all, and therefore have little relevance to the question of whether Bears Ears National Monument’s boundaries should stand as designated.

Those of us who closely followed the years leading up to monument designation know that there was no shortage of debate and opportunities for the public to weight in. Protection of this area has been an issue in the public eye for decades. There is of course disagreement, but it is very clear from polling, public statements and public comment that many Utahns, local residents and local tribal members enthusiastically support the monument, together with many thousands of other Americans.

Finally, let me conclude by saying I would ideally wish that the Bears Ears landscape could simply be left alone. But benign neglect is not realistic in our day and age. When I was young, one could hike for days or return for several visits chasing rumors of good ruin. Now one can find detailed directions in ten minutes on the internet. With such an increase in information and visitation, it is long past time that land managers take a more active role in protecting this landscape. The Bears Ears region seriously needs major increases in visitor education, resource monitoring and above all law enforcement. Please allow the monument designation to stand as originally proclaimed.

Ruin in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, used by kind permission of Greg Russell

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Amargosa Canyon

Amargosa Morning

The Amargosa River makes most of it’s long journey from the Nevada Test Site to Death Valley underground, but in a couple places the underlying geology forces its water to the surface. Here it cuts a beautiful canyon through the Sperry Hills, with the Avawatz Range looming behind. The riparian zone here supports thick vegetation and lots of animal life, and is the home of the Amargosa River pupfish, Cyprinodon nevadensis amargosae. The area also contains the beautiful and delicious China Ranch Date Farm, which I recommend both for hiking access and for date milkshakes.Below the date farm, the canyon is protected within the boundaries of the enormous Kingston Range Wilderness.

The Amargosa is already in low desert here, but it’s waters still have over 1,200 feet to descend as they curve northward to their final resting place 282 feet below sea level at the lowest point in North America.

Amargosa Canyon

Breath of Snow

Dark Star

Two from last fall in the Palisades – consider them portraits of wind, as winter’s first storm hit the High Sierra and outlined the crags with blowing snow.

Breath of Palisades

Happy Spring!

Poppy Haze

Though snow is still coming in the Sierra, winter is done and Easter is here, so I guess I’m reconciled to the fact that it’s now spring! We enjoyed these early fruits of California’s wet season a few weeks ago down south. As you read this, we’re on our way to the coast for some more seasonal and classic California scenery.

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Of course, this year’s wildflowers have been the subject of enormous hype. While I was taking some of these photos, surrounded by beautiful flowers stretching over the rolling hills into the distance, I heard a woman next to me on her cell: “They said it was epic here, but this is NOT epic, it’s going to rain, the poppies are closing and I can’t believe I drove hours for this!” There’s no pleasing some people, I guess!

Poppies in Grass

Poppy Pair

Wishing a joyous spring to all, and just a few more storms in the mountains…..

Purple and Orange

Valley and Palisades

Split Mountain over Deep Springs

One of the great scenic pleasures of living in Deep Springs is the view. Every clear day, when I step outside I look towards the Palisades, a particularly tall and scenic group of Sierra Nevada peaks, looming above the ridges to the west, their alpine heights soaring 9,000 feet above our mile-high valley. A little below are a set of convoluted granite ridges that extend southward into the valley like fingers reaching down from the White Mountains. For almost four years now, I’ve been trying to capture the appeal and scale of this view in a photograph. It seems like it should be easy, but something in the arrangement of the peaks and ridges keeps defeating me, giving me disappointingly unbalanced compositions. But after January’s massive snowstorm, I tried a new viewpoint, chosen mainly because it was somewhere feasible to drive and hike at sunrise with mostly impassible roads and deep snow on the ground. Wide-angle compositions here were lackluster, which is why I’d neglected the place, but through a long lens the peaks and ridges at last lined up satisfactorily. These two images are now my favorite illustrations I’ve managed of the relationship between Deep Springs Valley and the High Sierra.

Palisades over Deep Springs

The Big Snow

Storm Breath

The fantastic winter of 2017 brought such photographic riches that I’m still digging out. While our morning of mists was probably the most beautiful hour I’ve spent in Deep Springs Valley, the headline event of the year was undoubtedly the big snow of January 22-23. As the Sierras were being buried in enough feet of snow to make the record books (Mammoth Mountains got over 20 feet in January alone, at the base!), even at our place deep in the rain shadow, I measured a solid 18 inches overnight. Both of our passes out of the valley were closed for a week. And then it got cold, with morning temps below zero even after the sun was up, plus lots of freezing fog and rime ice.

Deep Springs Valley Snow Panorama

Please enlarge!

Photo opportunities were everywhere, but the downside was that driving anywhere ranged from problematic to impossible, and moving at all in the valley’s rougher terrain was very challenging. But I took advantage as I was able, both around the ranch and in the accessible parts of the Valley.

Deep Springs gets colder than most people expect and snow happens here, but that week was a wonderful taste of the Northern Rockies winters of my childhood here in the California desert.

Snow Druid Sunset

Snowy sunset over the Druid, Deep Springs’ patron boulder

Refuge

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At Ash Meadows it is possible to understand something of isolation and evolution, islands and sanctuaries, the harmful press of exotic species, habitat destruction and restoration, the ebb and flow of Pleistocene waters, extinction and resilience, the misguided use of the desert’s water, and how a few dedicated people can put things right.

-Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, pg. 153.

Today is the 114th birthday of the National Wildlife Refuge System. In all our American array of protected public lands, the Refuges always strike me as a bit of an odd category. Some are heavily modified by humans while others are pristine wilderness. Some are enormous while others are tiny. Many protect marshes and wetlands while a few preserve deserts. A few are famous and iconic for photographers and wildlife watchers while many are obscure locals’ secrets. Many are a short drive from population centers while some are remote enough to require expeditionary logistics. Most are publicly accessible while a few are strictly off-limits. But in my experience they are very worthwhile and capable of broadening one’s perspective on time, landscape and life on earth.

The two closest refuges to my home are especially poignant in their evocation of fragile life in a changing world, of living creatures’ place perched on the thin skin of the present atop an incomprehensible depth of deep time and geologic change. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in southern Nevada is a jewel box of turquoise pools, wildflowers and endemic species set amidst some of the continent’s harshest desert, a giant washboard of sharp-edged limestone mountains and dusty basins east of Death Valley. Its aquatic animals, particularly its three pupfish species, are gloriously improbable, surviving and diversifying on 10,000-year-old rain and snowmelt that has slowly percolated through 500-million-year-old stone. Driving by on the highway, this parched landscape is the last place one would expect to find a menagerie of unique water-dependent life, but Ash Meadows has (or in three sad cases, had) 29 unique endemics in its 30 or so square miles, a density of biodiversity “replicated nowhere else in Canada or the United States, one matched by few places in the world” [Norment, pg. 151]. The small, watery Edens of the refuge’s springs, pools and meadows, enjoying their brief moment in time surrounded by inhospitable vastness, feel like a miniature reproduction of our watery world spinning its lonely way through the immense void of the universe.

Evening at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Churchill County, Nevada

250 air miles to the northwest is another oasis still dreaming of the Pleistocene. Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Churchill County, Nevada is a marshy lowland occupying a piece of the Carson Sink, where the melted snows of the Sierra Nevada find their final resting place as the Carson River reaches its terminus in this broad valley enclosed by arid mountains, far from the sea. Much of the Carson sink is a dusty white flat covered in minerals left by the evaporating waters; other parts are now irrigated farmland. The refuge itself is a series of ponds and dykes, arranged and maintained by bulldozer and lightly flooded when spare water is available for the benefit of migratory birds.

Despite the undeniable human modifications at Stillwater, my recent visit was a delight of solitude. On a beautiful Saturday evening, I seemed to be quite alone amidst the refuge’s 80,000 acres of water, grass, mountain views and quiet. Except for the birds, of which there were plenty: I easily found substantial numbers of swans, pelicans, snow geese, herons, various waterfowl, Red-winged blackbirds, even a Sandhill crane or two.

Humans have been enjoying the landscape around Stillwater for a long time. Prehistoric burials at nearby Spirit Cave are some of the oldest in the Americas, dating up to 9,400 years ago. Rock art in the immediate area is estimated up to 8,000 years old, and North America’s oldest petroglyphs are relatively nearby. Even today, this valley is a watery place by Nevada standards, and its current waters are a mere ghost of what once was. Wetter climates of the past meant that this area was excellent lakefront property (the surrounding hills are striped with easily visible beach terraces), and prehistoric peoples took full advantage of the abundance of water and bird life. Archaeologists have even found beautiful duck decoys dated around 2,000 years old in nearby Lovelock Cave. Nevada is a dryer place these days, but on my evening at Stillwater, with ponds flooded, birds calling in the twilight and the peaks of the eponymous Stillwater Range white with snow, it was easy to feel connected to that wetter world and its people who lived off these same waters and hunted the ancestors of these same birds.

It would be remiss to avoid mentioning here that National Wildlife Refuges are notably under threat today. For reasons I do not pretend to understand, the public does not regard refuges with the same reverence as National Parks or even wilderness areas, and politicians feel free to use them as political footballs and attempt to diminish their protections whenever they become inconvenient. It’s a small political miracle that Ash Meadows’ water sources have been preserved. Stillwater and Desert NWRs in Nevada are threatened by proposed military expansions. Arctic NWR in Alaska has been a source of contention for many years. Malheur NWR in Oregon was recently the epicenter of anti-government action in the West when it was taken over by armed protestors for 41 days. And the entire refuge system is facing massive cuts to budgets that have already been seriously reduced in recent years. Despite many good intentions, the idea that any areas should be managed first and foremost for animals seems difficult for many people to swallow. But these areas have enormous value to humans as well. Besides their simple beauty, their often substantial contributions to rural recreation economies, and the wonder of seeing large numbers of animals behaving naturally, they connect us in concrete and sensory ways to the history of our ancestors, our species, our biology and the stone and water of our planet itself.

….although I do not quite understand the psychology of it, phenomena like the Ash Meadows and Warm Springs naucorids [aquatic insects] offer up a reassurance to me, a sense that aloneness can be endured, maybe even transcended. Wherever I go in the Basin and Range Country, whenever I see a creature like the Warm Springs naucorid…. I feel as though I have encountered life’s insistent tenacity, and all the justification needed for Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge….

-Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, pg. 163.

Even clouds over the Stillwater Range, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

Morning of Mists

Moisture, winter chill, an inversion layer and a closed valley came together to bring an amazing morning to our high desert.

I’ve seen the “lake of fog” effect before at Deep Springs, but this January morning was absolutely astounding as fog banks danced and shifted through the entire valley, drifting through the granite ridges and shrouding the lake playa, with fresh snow on the peaks of the Inyos and Whites.

Burros under Boundary

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Taking the scenic route home yesterday, I got to do a little photo session with some locals in Mineral County, Nevada. They were very obliging to pose with a view of Boundary Peak, Nevada’s highest.