It Takes Minutes to Trash the Desert, but Centuries to Repair

And you've taken such good care of it. | Photo: Chris Clarke

It's probably best that this piece of land go unidentified here, so let's just say it's a square mile of the Mojave Desert in California. Owned by a foreclosing bank, it's an undeveloped link between a National Park and a broad swath of open desert -- an important wildlife corridor in this rapidly suburbanizing part of the desert. Coyotes live here, and jackrabbits, and ladderbacked woodpeckers, and plants so ancient as to defy belief. On an upland part of an alluvial fan, the land has hundred-mile views.

And there are some who look at this square mile of land and see only a blank spot where they can do things they shouldn't. As it turns out, you don't need a bunch of venture capital investment to trash the desert. All you need is some wheels and a stunted set of ethics.

Story continues below

A small sign warning against a huge problem. | Photo: Chris Clarke

A square mile of undeveloped desert is hard enough to police, and if that square mile is in an unincorporated part of a large, cash-strapped county that's even more true. Add a few informal roads through the parcel and you have a perfect recipe for illegal dumping. A dumper need merely wait for dark, pull a few hundred yards off the pavement, and unload.

This land has clearly been used for illegal dumping for decades. Walk along the main illegal roads and you walk between rows of large piles of debris, ten yards on either side. Some of the piles are large enough to be seen in Google Maps' satellite view, and were obviously brought in by dumptruck.

A dumptruck-load of construction debris. | Photo: Chris Clarke

Walk these roads, stopping every so often to dump the sand from your shoes, and you will walk past piles of construction debris: concrete and wall board and metal reinforcing mesh. You will walk past piles of garden waste, tree trimmings and old stems of tomato and chrysanthemum mummified in the arid heat, shot through with plastic bags and broken plant pots. You will walk past household appliances and furniture someone found too expensive to discard legally.

Photo: Chris Clarke

You will walk past unspeakably vile places where -- if this were a television detective show -- a hazmat-suited technician would take a sample from the five-foot pile of waste, send it to the lab for analysis, and within two hours have the address of the dog breeder from whose kennels the waste originated. This is not television, so the waste merely leaks distemper viruses into the earth not a hundred yards from an old kit fox burrow.

There are good people who care about this land, but you would be forgiven, if you wandered along these roads, for concluding otherwise. There's just so much trash and vileness, accumulated over so many years, that the place looks abandoned. And so, predictably, the illegal offroaders have moved in.

Off-road vehicle enthusiasts and environmental activists have a decades-long history of conflict, but the majority of off-roaders might well find this place as appallingly ill-treated as I do. Many off-roaders stick to established trails, conduct trash cleanup campaigns, and try not to recreate on private land without permission. Here, on land where the owner is a bank hundreds of miles away and unlikely to grant permission to off-roaders, tire tracks leave the roads and head through broken vegetation to dirt tracks they've carved into the landscape.

Illegal dirt bike racetrack | Photo: Chris Clarke

If these dirt-bikers whose scrawled graffiti claims defiantly that this desert belongs to them as much as to the treehuggers have ever sponsored a trash cleanup here, it does not show.

Just one of dozens of similar trash drifts | Photo: Chris Clarke

If you are of the treehugger camp, you might not view that claim of co-ownership with much sympathy. You might, instead, have Shakespeare's lines from Julius Caesar come to mind, the lines old Bill had Antony speak after Caesar's death in Act 3:

Three miles from a National Park, and this land holds enough trash to fill a fleet of dumpsters, with the tracks of knobbly tires threaded through the piles. It is a depressing prospect. Were one of those representatives of Washington, D.C.-based wilderness groups to visit the site, he or she might well decide that this would be a perfect place to bulldoze for a few more megawatts of solar power, because clearly, the place is lost.

But it's not lost.

People are lazy. Given a choice between hauling trash a hundred yards from the road by hand or just dumping it at the roadside, no one would choose the former option --especially people whose laziness extends as far as their conscience. Given a choice between blazing a quarter-mile of new illegal trail through open desert or staying within sight of the beer, most illegal offroaders will choose the brews.

Though this is indeed a "bleeding piece of earth," the injury is mainly limited to the roadsides. Head a hundred yards away from those tire-torn gashes in the landscape and the desert is still there. Mated pairs of jackrabbits still bound away from you through the cacti. Desert washes devoid of all but wind-blown trash still braid their way through the landscape. Creosote bushes of unbelievable age dot the landscape where they've lived for centuries -- where some of them have lived for millennia.

1,500-year-old creosote | Photo: Chris Clarke

Coyotes still slink across the washes a hundred yards ahead of you, and cactus wrens still scold you from the tops of hundred-year-old Joshua trees in whose trunks woodpeckers still hammer holes. Packrats still build middens, still eat Joshua tree leaves like corn off a cob. Even along the tortured dirt roads a few centuries-old cacti have managed to defend themselves from the yahoos.

Nine-foot-tall pencil cactus | Photo: Chris Clarke

We claim to prize ambition as a society, to loathe laziness. This square mile of desert suggests the opposite. Were the dumpers and dirtbikers more ambitious this land might truly be a landfill. As it is, if we just stop hurting it it might recover in only a few short centuries.

The creosotes can easily wait that long, if we let them.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading