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.
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.