Monument to Emptiness
Three years ago today, President Obama designated 700,000 acres of empty, obscure country in central Nevada as Basin and Range National Monument. It’s fair to say that many people, even people like me who are inclined to be broadly supportive, found this monument a little perplexing. Even three years on, it’s not easy to get a sense of just what’s out there. A little research will tell you that there’s good rock art, a few mining and homestead sites, some threatened species, an undeveloped cave, probably many fossils, at least one arch, a landscape art project that (we are assured) will someday be completed. But mostly what you’ll find by poring over maps of the monument is a whole lot of empty Nevada.
(Which is not to say that the petroglyphs aren’t good….)
Being rather a connoisseur of Nevada emptiness, I was glad finally to manage a glimpse of the place for myself this spring. The isolation was indeed glorious, with sweeping voids of high desert valleys stretching towards distant mountains, immense silence, no visible human presence besides the unpaved roads. Spring storm clouds and rain squalls emphasized the space and drama. Nameless cliffs and rocky summits in every direction beckoned with the allure of places where no one goes.
My time in Basin and Range has so far been brief. But even this flying visit made clear to me that perhaps the Monument’s most important resources are emptiness and space. It is one of the very few protected areas in the entire Great Basin that encompasses the valleys in addition to the mountains. Most protected lands in the region preserve the ranges but ignore the basins. Its boundaries also serve to connect a generous set of interesting but seldom-visited wilderness areas outside the Monument itself. Pahranagat and Desert National Wildlife Refuges also lie close by. Taken altogether, these areas comprise and vast and very beautiful stretch of wild Nevada in which human impacts are barely noticeable.
The appeal of such bare vastness and lack of obvious focal points will no doubt remain lost on many. The emptiness of Nevada is easy to dismiss and take for granted. But consider how large-scale solar and wind energy development are taking over many valleys in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. Even land with no valuable minerals and no timber is now a resource merely because it is empty. Like all valuable non-renewable resources, we can expect to have less of it in the future. We should strongly consider protecting more of it as soon as possible before the experience of crossing an array empty valleys and mountains can no longer be taken for granted.
Aldo Leopold famously asked, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” The boundaries of Basin and Range National Monument might have been drawn with this quote in mind. Perhaps in time I and others will explore the Monument enough to find more headline features – gorges, arches, fossils, petroglyphs, curious rock outcrops, all the things that ordinarily justify protecting a landscape. But whether or not we ever find such things in Basin and Range, it will have value as a truly impressive blank spot on the map. I only hope that we will be able to appreciate it.