There has been some good news for Death Valley National Park. The National Parks Service recently announced much-anticipated proposals to enhance the wilderness values at the three-million acre park.
Faced with a growing number of visitors eager to rough it, administrators have established new limits on the size of camping groups, on the extent of commercial and non-commercial use of this rugged landscape, and on the location and timing of specialized recreational activities like sandboarding, canyoneering, and caving. By instituting greater managerial control of these and other uses, the Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship Plan expects to make this wild land a little more wild.
However paradoxically the notion that human management of wilderness is essential to preserve it as wilderness, that's not the most striking aspect of the Park Service's report. It wasn't too long ago, after all, that most Americans thought the harsh Mojave Desert contained nothing worth protecting. For most it was but a vast wasteland, a place of threat (its name is not a misnomer), to be hurried through, or to be gouged of its mineral riches. It's hard to find anyone back in the day who thought it should be preserved for its own sake.
I was one of the thousands who visited the Architecture and Design Museum's "Never Built: Los Angeles" exhibition, which offered an alternate-universe look through illustrations, models, and dioramas of failed projects that could have shaped our city. The exhibit just ended its wildly popular three-month run this past weekend, and according to A+D Museum staff, as many as 300 guests per day had perused examples of the great "could've beens" of our urban landscape (for those that missed out, there's always the book version).
Speaking of "could've beens," a part of myself had been interested in possibly taking up urban planning or architecture in school, spurred by experiences of a younger me in my first two years of college, transferring buses from Hollywood to Cal State L.A. via Downtown, and reading issues of the Downtown News to bide my time. The paper covered many projects that were intended to be part of the urban core's early-1990s commercial real estate boom, but had never made it.
Though I never formally studied urban planning or architecture, I always kept my ear to the ground on such issues, and am glad to have witnessed with my own eyes things like the building of our modern rail transit system, the revitalization of Hollywood, and the emergence of downtown L.A. as the residential, culinary, and entertainment hotspot it has become today.
All of those things piqued my interest in Never Built: Los Angeles, which initially had myself expecting to see a bevy of well-designed projects which would make me want to sigh in lamenting their non-existence. But most of them caused me to breathe a sigh of relief instead.
The Joshua tree's range in the Mojave is an archipelago, constrained by altitude and available moisture. The trees mainly grow at altitudes between 2,000 and 6,000 feet, most happily in the upper middle part of that range. Map the range of the tree and you will draw a set of disconnected splotches across the Mojave. One very large splotch covers the west end of the desert, where the rising of the Sierra Nevada and the Transverse Ranges drags the valley floors up into the tree's preferred range, and you can travel from Twentynine Palms to Gorman to Ridgecrest mainly within sight of a Joshua tree. Somewhat smaller splotches cover the Cima Dome-Ivanpah-Lanfair area and Pearce Ferry Road, Wickenberg and the Bill Williams River and Goldfield. The rest of the range is in small patches on the sides of mountains.
And notable on this map you've drawn is a broad Joshua-less swath through the middle of the desert, curving in from Needles like a lowercase "C" a hundred miles thick, passing through Barstow and Death Valley with only a couple patches of trees in Fort Irwin to interfere with the nice clean lines. Only in the northern limit of the Joshua tree's range does this treeless swath close up, and the east and west populations of Joshua trees meet in Nevada's Tikaboo Valley.
Living in isolation from their cousins, the eastern and western groups of Joshua trees have evolved different growth habits, a different appearance. But just how different are they?
William Mulholland, who supervised the planning and construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the flow of which would power the city's politics, nurture its industrialization, and transform its semi-arid landscape, was not a garrulous man.
"This rude platform is an altar," Mulholland told a jubilant crowd of 30,000 gathered in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to celebrate the aqueduct's dedication on November 5, 1913, "and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children's children -- for all time." Although this sentence sounded like the start of a lengthy paean to that present day's shimmering future, it marked the beginning and end of his speech: "That's all," he said, and then sat down to thunderous applause.
At least those were the words he uttered for the mass of men, women, and children who had traveled by automobile, train, and horse and buggy to get their first look at and taste of Sierra snowmelt channeled from the Owens River Valley more than 230 miles to the north of the City of Angels. As the throng surged toward the infrastructure to cheer the first gallons cascading down a nearby hill, Mulholland turned to Mayor J.J. Rose and reportedly urged: "There it is, Mr. Mayor. Take it."
On Thursday a couple of friends who have been trying to pry me away from my computer for weeks actually succeeded. We got in their truck and went here, more or less, to a place I'd been wanting to see for some time -- a spot where there are huge rings of Mojave yucca.
Mojave yuccas, scientifically known as Yucca schidigera, are one of the most common plants in the California desert. Desert travelers can recognize them readily: they look vaguely like Joshua trees, but are far coarser and more robust in structure, with heavier trunks and thicker leaves. As often as not you'll see Mojave yuccas growing in clumps. Sometimes those clumps have empty space in the center. Because each individual stem in such an open-centered clump is a genetic duplicate of its colleagues, botanists refer to such groups as "clonal rings."
Once you know they're there, you start seeing clumps and rings of Mojave yucca everywhere in the desert. They're as common as liveoaks on the California coast. And most people seeing them don't realize that even the smaller clumps can be mind-bendingly ancient.
There went that noise again.
Typing on my computer one night, a few years ago, I heard that sound, the sound coming from some eight feet above me. It was the scurrying of some sort of critter on my rooftop, the footsteps too light to be from a person, and too heavy to be that of a squirrel or any one of the numerous cats that wander about my neighborhood.
And the next night, I heard that noise again.
And again the night after that.
Eventually I had gotten well-accustomed to the sound of that random little critter on my rooftop. I paid no mind to it beyond the few seconds I could hear it dash above my ceiling. It could have been a monkey or even an extra-terrestrial visitor for all I knew.
Months went by, and I found myself watering the lawn one evening. And out of nowhere, it came out of the shadows, as if to introduce itself to me.
It was a raccoon.
Of course. It all made sense now. It seemed the right size and mass to be that little critter scrambling atop my roof every night. It kind of stood there, as if it wanted to initiate conversation with me, much like a human neighbor would. So I initiated the conversation:
"Well hello there, Mr. Rac --"
And then it just turned around and left.
The first time I awoke in the Mojave, I was cramped uncomfortably into the passenger seat of my girlfriend's Honda in a roadside rest area on Route 58 near Boron. It was not yet light. I had agreed to drive her car from Los Angeles to the Bay Area alone; she would fly back to spend time with her new boyfriend. Our breakup was not far off. I dropped her off at the airport, then drove off to head anywhere but home. A couple hours later I turned east on 58 from Mojave, vaguely remembering a rest stop from a visit five years before, not knowing which way I'd go when I awoke the next morning.
Through the dry, cloudless air, a few spring morning constellations shone brilliantly. The nearby hills on the Edwards Air Force Base, speckled with lights from one installation or another, made it hard to tell where the sky ended and the earth began.
And then I saw a difference between land and air. The black sky to the east at first seemed to turn a deeper black, as if some unseen hand had poured a vat of purple ink into it. The cast was enough to outline a few objects on land: texture crept slowly into the featureless dark. Then a pale red smudge began to outline the horizon. As I watched, rapt, it spread to the whole eastern sky, a brilliant vermilion wash fading to violet overhead. I left the car to stretch. Behind the spot where I'd parked, a twenty-five-foot Joshua tree stood outlined against the red morning sky.
This was the summer of the bear.
Their antics -- or what we imagine to be antics -- have gone viral on YouTube. Such as the July incident in which a 300-pound black bear ambled into Lonigan's bar in Estes Park, Colorado. That sounds like the start of a joke, but the patrons are the punch line. So fixed were they on throwing back shots and nursing a cold brew that they never noticed the burly bruin wandering through the establishment.
As for the member of the Ursidae family caught on camera as it rifled through a dumpster parked outside the Edelweiss restaurant in Colorado Springs -- who doesn't love a bit of larceny? Frustrated by its inability to get purchase on the tasty morsels buried within, the upright bear used its powerful body to push-pull the heavy roll-away from the loading dock and out of camera's eye, presumably to chow down in peace. The presumption was confirmed when, like a next-evening return to a favorite dining spot, it showed up 24-hours later, replicating its late-night snack run.
A different sort of fun-and-games captured the North American imagination in August when a research cam that the Alberta Provincial Park system had set up to monitor animal behavior picked up a quartet of bears in full romp. The grizzly foursome starts by rolling in the dust and then does some serious backscratching against the pine's rough bark, a touch of midsummer madness.
And then there is Meatball, a one-time inhabitant of the Glendale, CA foothills who in 2012 gained an instant internet following after breaking into a garage refrigerator and wolfing down frozen meatballs. Sightings of it in other backyards captivated some residents, one of whom immediately established a still-active Twitter feed dubbed Glen Bearian. Although in time state wildlife officials captured the bold bear and sent it to a San Diego wildlife sanctuary, this summer the city decided to immortalize its arresting presence in the community's life: Meatball will be the featured (and animated) figure in Glendale's float in the 2014 Rose Bowl Parade, popping out of a flower-bedecked trash can.
So what is it about these magnificent animals that have so fascinated folks online and off? Why have hundreds of thousands of viewers spent so much time loading and reloading YouTube to watch them prowl and pilfer and play? What does our watching say about us?
Four new California lizard species have been described in a new scientific paper published last week, and a couple of them were hiding in plain sight.
The new species are all legless lizards. Formerly considered members of the wide-ranging species Anniella pulchra, the lizards are different enough in skeletal structure, scale patterns and color, say the paper's authors, to deserve assignment to their own distinct species.
Given that Anniella pulchra was already rare enough despite its extensive range to concern conservationists before being split up into five species, the herpetologists say that the new species probably deserve close scrutiny by wildlife protection agencies.
This past week, Los Angeles International Airport got a $1.9 billion, 1.2 million square foot upgrade with the much-anticipated opening of the Great Hall and South Concourse of its newly-expanded Tom Bradley International Terminal.
From a visual standpoint, the renovated terminal looks remarkable. The rigid, right angles and grid-like aesthetics of the original 1984 terminal now give way to a Pacific Ocean wave-inspired design with sweeping, curved rooflines and windows that invoke more natural sunlight. Inside, the curved, angled ceilings and large window panels also evoke familiar iconic landmarks like the Hollywood Bowl, The Getty Center, and the adjacent LAX Theme Building. The visually stunning and interactive Integrated Environmental Media Systems (IEMS), made up of multiple LED panels and LCD screens are one of the unique highlights of the terminal. And the over 60 retail and dining establishments bring an upscale shopping mall experience to the airport.
The 21st century design of the updated international terminal also calls to attention one aspect that didn't yet exist in the 1980s: environmental sustainability. According to Los Angeles World Airports, the city-run agency that administers LAX, the new Bradley Terminal is designed to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Most of the terminal's sustainable practices were demonstrated during its construction phase. Building materials made from recycled content were used in the interior finishes, and over 75 percent of construction and demolition waste was recycled or salvaged. The interior of the facility uses low-emitting paints, adhesives, sealants, and carpeting. And several mitigation measures were used during the heavy construction phase, from noise and emissions retrofits to construction vehicles, to dust control, to increasing the efficiency of concrete mixers and other heavy equipment.
In terms of power and water use, in addition to a more natural sunlight-friendly design, energy-efficient lighting with occupancy sensors were installed to save electric consumption. The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are set to maximum efficiency temperatures. And low-flow plumbing fixtures were installed in all restroom facilities.
For such a large and prominent public structure, a LEED Silver certification is impressive. But is it sustainable enough?
Airports, by their nature, are not inherently sustainable facilities. They are usually located away from city centers, occupy huge swaths of land, with the majority of it being paved. And of course, airports, particularly large international gateways, are sources of air and noise pollution, although advances in aircraft technology are addressing those issues, such as the lighter composite materials that give the Boeing 787 Dreamliner increased fuel economy, and the relatively quiet jet engines used to propel the massive Airbus A380.
But other new airport facilities have already left LAX trailing in terms of sustainability. The Bradley Terminal's counterpart at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has a LEED Gold certification, utilizing innovative features such as rainwater capture and environmentally-friendly cleaning practices. Another LEED Gold certification has been attained just up the coast, at California's second-busiest aviation facility, with San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 2, renovated in 2011, boasting locally-sourced and organic food at its dining outlets, water bottle refilling stations, and a reclaimed water system used for toilets and industrial uses. And though much smaller in size and scope, Chattanooga Airport's renewable energy-powered general aviation terminal in Tennessee has earned a LEED Platinum certification, using 4,000 solar panels located in a nearby site to power the building. Additional sustainable measures include the use of 95-percent recycled building materials, and native plant landscaping.
The newly-revamped terminal is undoubtedly more pleasing to the eye and more convenient to the traveler, but its day-to-day sustainable practices appear rather invisible, or even inconsistent. For example, a set of segregated waste and recyclable receptacles are located near the food court area of the terminal, but standard trash bins are placed in all other locations. Even more importantly, practices like the use of renewable energy sources and wastewater treatment and re-usage are not addressed in the new building.
The recent Bradley Terminal update is just part of a larger, $4.1 billion investment toward the overall modernization of LAX, which will include renovations to its domestic terminals as well as a second international terminal located across the tarmac to the west, which will be accessed by a large pedestrian and peoplemover bridge.
It would be even more impressive for a true 21st century, world class facility like a newly-renovated LAX to include solar power generation, with panels placed over open-air parking lots and structures, or even integrated into the roofs of buildings. Or treated wastewater to be used for non-potable uses like landscape irrigation and aircraft washing.
A facility with the size and scope of LAX has not just the obligation to be more sustainable, but the unique opportunity to literally demonstrate to the world how sustainable it, and the city and country it represents, can be, and how individuals can be inspired to take up some of those practices in their own daily lives.
Airports are places where journeys both begin and end. The journey to sustainability is now taking flight, so hopefully the upcoming renovated elements of LAX can make it soar to even higher heights.