The desert has long been the red-headed stepchild of the environmental movement, the place that few really want to adopt, to protect. Even after a century of lyrical paeans to arid lands from a hundred writers, stunning photos and epochal paintings of the desert's beauty, ask someone to describe "the environment" and he or she will likely talk about lush forests. Or coastlines and wetlands. Or verdant meadows. Few will mention the deserts.
In truth, the deserts are some of the most intact and biodiverse ecosystems North America has to offer. New desert species are discovered all the time, and our arid lands have suffered relatively little of the human disruption that has so thoroughly changed places dearer to the typical Green's heart, like San Francisco Bay or Yosemite Valley. North America's deserts are one of our last remaining large repositories of wild lands. So why the disdain?
Some of it is almost certainly the fact that deserts aren't particularly comfortable places for human beings, at least some of the time. Few passages express this discomfort better than this paragraph by pioneering biologist Clinton Hart Merriam in the introduction to an 1895 scientific paper on the LeConte's thrasher:
The burning sun, set in a cloudless sky, beats down relentlessly on a dreary expanse of sand, gravel and clay, broken only by the seared walls of barren desert ranges. The picture is made more weird and the way fraught with greater danger by the mirage-breeding alkali beds that warn the experienced traveller of impending danger; but hundreds of venturesome explorers, pushing on until crazed with thirst, have been overtaken by despair and death. These deserts receive little water: the rainfall is meagre, the streams from the surrounding mountains soon disappear in the hot sands, and the broad Colorado itself hurries on to the sea as if in a conduit, without imparting verdure to even its immediate banks save in a few favored spots.
And that was coming from a guy who liked the deserts.
The key assumption underlying the above criticisms -- which Merriam may have intended as tongue-in-cheek or melodramatic, but which certainly echo much of what's been said about the desert since -- is that a healthy, thriving environment is one in which humans will be comfortable. We can imagine ourselves lounging blissfully content against the thick bole of a pine in a Sierra forest, or idly ambling through a cool meadow. Those habitats seem hospitable to us, and so we find it easier to think of them as important ecosystems. The desert, though, can be uncomfortable. Much of the time, it's hot enough to kill you if you don't drink a few gallons of water a day -- and that water may only be found in tiny seeps with miles of dry between them. Things that live in the desert tend to be spiny, or bitey, or venomous, or some combination of the three.
Never mind that we'd be equally uncomfortable in polar bear or Emperor penguin habitat, or forty feet below the surface in a lush tropical coral reef. Those habitats seem cool and refreshing, so we can get excited about saving those. But deserts? Deserts are just hot, nasty, dusty places to speed through, with nothing of interest to attract your attention: like the Vegas casino billboard outside Barstow on I-15 says, "The boredom ends in 151 miles."
Environmentalists even use a bit of jargon that reinforces this assumption. When we damage a piece of land so badly that nothing will grow on it, we call that "desertification." If we call a dusty, vegetation-free, ecologically trashed place like Darfur "desertified," that says something about what we think of the value of deserts.
The result? Many of us don't think of deserts as places with their own rich assemblages of plants and animals, their own habitats and processes and communities, and so we don't fight quite as hard when someone proposes we fill a piece of desert with a landfill, or with a toxic waste dump, with a prison or a nuclear testing ground or a broad expanse of solar panels and wind turbines.
On the contrary. Check out this statement by climate change activist Joe Romm, who in 2009 lambasted Senator Dianne Feinstein for wanting to keep energy development out of desert lands that had been set aside for conservation purposes:
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) appears to like deserts so much that she wants them to stretch from Oklahoma to California and cover one third the planet... Deserts are certainly fragile, inhospitable eco-systems -- a key reason that nobody should want them spreading over one third the planet or the entire U.S. Southwest for 1,000 years.
In other words, not only do we not think of deserts as things deserving protection, we're threatened by deserts and we need to prevent them.
How do we change this? How do those of us who want to protect deserts from the massive industrial development they face persuade people that they're worth protecting?
This past weekend I was out in the desert near Desert Center in Riverside County, with about a dozen other people. The event was just a meetup of readers of my blog, an excuse to get out and relax away from our jobs and the Internet for a few days. We camped in a broad, washy valley full of ironwood and palo verde, creosote and ocotillo, and we spent a few days just wandering around and looking.
People came from nearby Palm Desert and Yucca Valley, and from places further afield like Las Vegas and Orange County. One attendee came from the notably non-arid clime of Port Townsend, Washington. Quite a few of the people in the campsite had never camped in the desert before, and didn't quite know what they were looking at and what to expect.
I showed them a few things, like the tiny little black stains on the surface of the earth -- fragile cryptobiotic soil crusts -- that hold down the sand and dust beneath, and which must be protected lest they crumble and take a century to grow back.We poked our noses into coyote burrows and wondered over the inhabitants of the hundreds of smaller holes that Swiss-cheesed every few square yards of desert.
Each tenth footstep on the sand caved in someone's tunnel -- an annoyance for the antelope ground squirrel or pocket mouse in residence, but a reminder that most of the animal life in the desert is underground, and that their three-dimensional habitat was vulnerable and deserved protection. We looked at stems of ocotillos covered with a profusion of green leaves after September's rainstorms, and which had spent August looking like bundles of dead sticks covered only in wicked thorns. We watched a near-full moon bathe the desert in a literally unearthly beauty.
This wasn't anyplace truly special in the desert: it was two miles from the interstate in a long valley that has been trammeled by people for a century. This was no wilderness. It was merely the desert as you usually find it: a piece of plastic debris here and there, a stray tire track or five, and a thriving, fascinating ecosystem underlying all of it.
A handful of people new to the desert came away from the weekend with a new sense of how the desert actually works, and they're less likely to believe that sign outside Barstow as a result, more likely to notice the patterns in the landscape and to know that hundreds of thousands of wonderful little things populate each formerly barren-looking piece of landscape. And they demanded we do it again. That's about half a dozen new advocates for the desert created in the space of a weekend. I'll be organizing another rendezvous like it in April, and some of the folks I spent the weekend with are already making plans to attend.
Ed Abbey said you've got to get out of your car and walk around to see anything in the desert, and he was right, but he wasn't just talking about getting to remote wilderness views or deep secluded slot canyons. He was talking about having the dragonflies land on your hat as well, and getting a bit of wash sand in your sandals, and noticing the difference in air temperature as you pass beneath the thin shade of a palo verde, and learning which tunneled pieces of hummock look more likely to collapse beneath your feet.
Do that enough times and that drive to Las Vegas only starts to be boring after you arrive.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here. He lives in Palm Springs.