“When one of us says, ‘Look, there’s nothing out there,’ what we are really saying is, ‘I cannot see.’” – Terry Tempest Williams
An open land can be remarkably good at hiding things. The low shrubs of the Great Basin offer cover and shade for all the scurrying creatures, most waiting for darkness or just a cooler quieter moment to move. Canyons winding back into dry ranges hold more secret aspen groves and high hidden meadows than any one person could ever know of in a hundred seasons of wandering. In a dry arroyo your boots will kick a thousand mysterious stones washed down at erratic intervals before touching that one stone flaked by an ancient hand into an elegant portable tool and lost to time. The stories are plainly but subtly written if we are willing to look. The land wants us to know that there was once a lush and expansive inland lake. Between pinyon-juniper slopes above and the flat alkali pans below this long arcing terrace was a shoreline. The bones are there of long vanished mammals that thrived. Rocks are carved with stories. Time has obscured the meaning but they can still speak. In remnant lakes prehistoric fish still swim.
Pleistocene lakes surrounded mountainous islands, the climate not so much wetter but cooler. A gradually warming planet gradually drew down the water into briny remnants. The mountains remain as islands their summits isolated by wide dry basins rarely crossed by plant or animal unless on the wing. Below, a new sea of muted green and soft yellows rises in tides of peppery fragrance, fleeting summer thunderstorms releasing the aromas of Big Sagebrush and flowering Rabbitbrush. I was once carried across a long Nevada valley on a cloud of that native smell. The sweat from pedaling my touring bicycle over the ranges and playas was washed clear by a sudden and brief afternoon downpour. The wide desert void illuminated by gaps in the clouds filled my vision as the moistened fragrance of a million September flowers and tiny fuzzy leaves filled my lungs. It was a joy to be in motion, exposed to the wide and open place.
When we rolled off the boat from Alaska, back into the lower 48, a couple quick mountain passes brought us literally into the story of the Sage Grouse. East of the Cascade Range begins what is perhaps the largest plant community in North America, the Sagebrush-Steppe. It covers much of the land from Eastern Washington south to the Mojave Desert in Southern California and from the east slope of the Sierra Nevada across into Wyoming and Colorado. In fact every state west of the Mississippi has at least some pockets of sagebrush and associated plants. It is in the Great Basin though that this underappreciated plant truly finds its home often in unbroken swaths extending to all horizons. This is also the core home of the Sage Grouse. The birds are obligate residents of this ecosystem. This means that this is the only place they can live and they are wholly dependent on its health. To the causal eye the landscape looks self-same and unchanging. I’ve suffered through any number of people complaining that traveling across Nevada was “So Boring!” as if the endless interstate stripmalls of more civilized quarters offered something more than mind-numbing eye candy. Our unwillingness to see cannot be better illustrated than by the fact that this once unadulterated land could support tens of millions of these birds and they are down to no more than a quarter of their former numbers. The land seemed immutable and persistent so perhaps it wasn’t worth seeing more closely. It didn’t take armies of earthmoving machinery, fleets of D9 Caterpillars pushing earth and crushing plants, though there have been plenty of those out here. Benign indifference, a slow march of misuse on a place not worth looking at, a self-serving contradiction that there is nothing out there so we can take what we want from it. Over time this has left as much as 90% of the ecosystem degraded to some degree; habitat loss, widespread invasive plant species, overgrazing, a contaminated and fractured landscape from oil, gas and mineral extraction. These are sensitive birds. They need unmolested ground to do their exotic mating dance and create offspring. We’ve lacked the foresight and generosity to notice and give them their space.
We arrived back in the West with the story of this otherwise obscure and strange bird on the tongues of the nightly news. This story has been known for years by those on the ground, but now the machines of bureaucracy and politics were waiting with bated breath to pat themselves on the back for doing something. After years of scrabbling and studying and cutting deals the Department of the Interior chose not to list the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered species even though it had already determined that they deserved the status. The details are vast but the idea is that all the various stake holders, ranchers, oil & gas extractors, developers, environmental groups, local, state and federal agencies, have collaborated in order to walk a narrow path of continuing to take from the land while giving enough attention to its health to keep these bird from disappearing. They averted the most drastic and contentious option in favor of a pragmatic solution that offers tangible actions. There is optimism that a new atmosphere of best practices can be created through cooperation rather than confrontation. It has been called the biggest conservation framework ever patched together. Protections are intended to become more robust if and when the birds’ status is not improving. I have no doubt that some of these folks have learned to see this place better and care to keep it whole. Many ranchers have been taught the hard truth that this place can and will stop providing if it is treated as a wasteland. I’m not so convinced though that all the players would uphold their end of the bargain when push comes to shove. For some, guile is part of doing business and can be written off in the ledger at another time.
I seemed to be digging myself into a pit of cynicism and the best antidote for that is to get out onto the land and do some less metaphorical digging. Thankfully we learned that National Public Lands Day was coming so we signed up to join some folks out on the playa of the Black Rock Desert for a weekend of camping and service projects. Dusk was falling as we found the group and set up camp on the edge of the playa. Walking out onto the flat expanse you could convince yourself that you were walking on water, the edge curling away to the base of the dry and colorful mountains. I tried to imagine the clear waters of an extinct lake rising 500 feet above my head and laying this deep, fine bed of silt that I stood upon. In the distance dust rose from the footprint of the recently vacated Black Rock City, long streamers of dust marked the routes of vehicles tracing out in another direction towards the large camp of amateur rocketeers. This remote place has become popular, and though it is a durable landscape it’s not the lifeless waste suitable for abuse that some would like to believe. There really is no place on the planet that life hasn’t found a niche and waiting patiently beneath the crust of the playa are innumerable microbes and tiny fairy shrimp, possibly a spadefoot toad or two near the springs. When the infrequent downpours saturate the lakebed these creatures are resurrected and life briefly flourishes. These brief outbursts of life mean that even migrating birds can find much needed food in an otherwise inhospitable vastness.
The playa is not Sage Grouse habitat. However, the surrounding hills and alluvial fans are covered with sagebrush rangeland. They are also crisscrossed with barbed wire, some of it improperly placed or out of use, but still creating an impediment to wildlife. Poorly located in sensitive areas it can also be lethal to Sage Grouse when they fly into it. On a hot morning our cheerful group of Friends of Black Rock/High Rock and Friends of Nevada Wilderness as well as some BLM folks loaded into a few trucks and bumped our way back into a riparian area on a local rancher’s property. Arrangements had been made to remove several hundred yards of problematic fencing. It was sweaty, dusty and scratchy work (“Everyone up to date of their tetanus shots?”). You realize that cowhands putting in these fences don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how they are going to be taken out. We found ourselves trapped in willow thickets and shoulder deep in Artemisia tridentata. Fortunately for me these are some of my favorite smelling plants and I had the joy getting dirty with great people in a rugged and natural place and I still have the scratch marks to prove it.
Back at camp a cold beer and a Dutch oven cook-off were my extra rewards. Late in the evening, steeping away from my new friends for a spell, I stood on the playa. The clear sky and a full moon meant that I could see far across the desert, just a few campsite lights on the long horizon. There is solace in this vastness. Opening our eyes means the pain of knowing the land has many wounds. It’s a big place though, and it is still full of life and mysteries, and with any luck you might find yourself there sharing a slumgullion stew with rowdy bunch of folks who give a damn about it.