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Thriving Communities

Monday, July 10th, 2017

This is my eleventh hour letter to the Secretary of the Interior. As Edward Abbey wrote, my vox clamantis in deserto, my voice crying in the wilderness.

Today is the final day to submit your comments on Executive Order 13792, which orders a review of all national monuments established since 1996. This review is to ensure that they were created in accordance with the original intent of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The most pressing national monument “under review” is Bears Ears, although there are many others, several of which are in the West. Please make your opinion heard; it is the only way for the the Secretary to hear our thoughts on this matter. You can read my other thoughts on this in these blog posts (here and here).

Comments may be submitted online at by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar and clicking “Search,” or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.

Mojave Trails National Monument

With July 10th looming closer, I decided to spend the part of the weekend in the desert, photographing monsoon thunderstorms. Perhaps more than that, I simply wanted to be out on my public lands. After considering where the storms were moving, I ended up on the western edge of Mojave Trails National Monument, one of the monuments currently under review by the Department of Interior. While the scenery did not disappoint, a small foible of my own began a series of events that has caused my view of our National Monuments to evolve.

Mojave Trails is just a little less than 2 years old, and protects a very large swath of the Mojave Desert in southern California. The Cadiz Dunes and parts of historic Route 66 are two highlights of the monument, but there are countless other mountain ranges and valleys, each with their own bits of natural wonder and history. The casual observer may see only miles of desolate, lonely creosote in Mojave Trails. However, a 2014 study published in the scientific journal Nature identified the Mojave Desert as a huge sink for carbon–in other words, the plants here do an incredible job of removing carbon from the atmosphere, thus curtailing global warming. Uninterrupted patches of desert are even more important than we originally thought.

photo of mountain ranges and valleys in Mojave Trails National Monument

A Sandy Situation

After entering the monument, I pulled off the highway, ate lunch, and continued down a long dirt road. My plan was to get as close to Ship Mountain as possible, for views of the Sheepshole Mountains, as well as the Cadiz Valley to the east. With temperatures well over 100 degrees, I was content to enjoy the air conditioning while I enjoyed the scenery.

Like most backcountry roads in the Mojave, I encountered several patches of sand, which I floated through effortlessly. Then, I got to the big sand pit. As soon as I realized I shouldn’t be there, I put the car in reverse and floored the gas. All I got was a giant dust cloud. I realized I was stuck immediately, so I used some wood I found to try to build a bridge for my car’s tires. Still nothing. I found something I could dig with, and actually got to a hard bottom of the sand, but my tires still couldn’t find purchase. I tried everything I could think of, but it soon became clear that I needed help.

It’s time for me to dine on crow for a bit, and admit that I screwed up. Although I normally am very aware of my limits, I was in a 2WD vehicle on a backcountry road, and did not have the proper equipment (like a shovel, or an air pump so I could deflate my tires) to extract myself. However, I did have a full tank of gas (for air conditioning), a GPS messenger, and lots of water and food. More importantly, I had cell service.

I called my girlfriend to ask her to call AAA for me, hoping they would be able to send a wrecker to pull me out. Of course, the nearest service wanted $1500 for their time, so that wasn’t an option. Still, my girlfriend and her dad drove out to pick me up, and we left the car for the night.

On our way home, we stopped for dinner, and happened to ask our waiter (somewhat jokingly) if he knew anyone with a 4×4 who would be willing to pull me out. Turns out he did! We got into contact with an entire network of good samaritan off-roading enthusiasts who pull people like me out of sticky situations for free. I posted my GPS coordinates and a description of my problem on one of their forums and within minutes I had several people willing and ready to help. The next morning I met two servicemen stationed in Twentynine Palms, and they had me out within minutes. We even stopped on the way to my car so they could help another motorist in need.

The cost of their goodwill? A handshake.

Our National Monuments as common ground

Even today, writing this, I’m blown away by their simple willingness to help, and wanting nothing in return. They would have driven anywhere to help me, and one of them even offered to come help me at 3am, before he realized I had gotten a ride out for the night. This neighborly goodwill and cooperation is what Daniel Kemmis writes about extensively in his excellent book, “Community and the Politics of Place.

Although I likely won’t cross paths with those men again, I am thankful for their selfless willingness to help. I am also reminded of the common ground that brings us together: our public lands. While they enjoy a different activity than I do, our monuments and backcountry views bring both of us outdoors, together.

In the same way the Mojave Desert plants create a healthy ecosystem, there is another community of outdoorsmen that is simply thriving. In a time when we are feeling idealogical and political rifts more than ever, I believe it’s more important than ever to seek common ground, make connections, and make our collective voices heard.

There are only a few hours left to do just that. Mojave Trails, just like the other monuments under review, deserves to be protected for countless reasons. Have you submitted your comments yet?

black and white photo of Ship Mountain in Mojave Trails National Monument at sunset

In Memoriam

Monday, May 16th, 2011

This weekend, a friend and I made a last minute trip out to Joshua Tree National Park to search for photography opportunities.  After doing a short hike, we drove into the main park entrance about 5:30pm.  Although the temperature was starting to drop, the asphalt was still warm; it didn’t take long before we discovered this freshly road killed Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchllii pyrrhus).  Its a species I’ve always wanted to photograph–just not like this.

Speckled Rattlesnake in Joshua Tree National Park, California

In Memoriam, May 2011

Its always somber to see road killed reptiles, but this was just the beginning.  Not five minutes later, we pulled a very badly injured (fatally, I’m sure) coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) off the road, and over the course of the evening, we found a gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer), and a red diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber) that had been killed earlier in the day.  It was carnage–easy to see why–with cars whizzing by us at 50-60 mph (25-35 mph over the posted speed limit).

Accidents happen, especially with fast-moving snakes like gopher snakes or coachwhips–they can jump out in front of a driver, with no hope of being avoided.  But, as my friend pointed out, there is no excuse for killing a rattlesnake in a park where the speed limit is 25 or 35 miles per hour.  They’re visible animals, and when following the speed limit, they can be avoided, largely because they are slow-moving.

April and May is peak camping season in Joshua Tree–the campgrounds are full, and people are everywhere.  Right now, that time of day is suicide for a basking snake.

To make it worse, the red diamond rattlesnake we found later in the evening was missing its rattle.  I hate to think about someone hitting the animal purposely to take the rattle (although I know of people who have done just that)–its a despicable act.  Even if a later driver stopped to take it, I wouldn’t want to be that person if a park ranger came down the road!

I know I sound like a real square with this post, urging people to stick to the posted speed limit, but after what we witnessed this weekend in Joshua Tree, its obvious that slowing down could really help to save some beautiful wildlife from needless deaths.

A visit to Joshua Tree, part 1

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Last week, a friend and I headed out to Joshua Tree National Park in search of summer wildlife.  There’s no doubt the desert is not a fun place in July–we started the first of three hikes in 80+ degree temperatures and ended up hiking in 100+ degrees, but it was a productive trip.

We started the day near the Black Rock Campground in hopes of finding Scott’s Orioles to photograph.  We did see several orioles, but they buzzed by at top speed, with no interest in stopping for us to photograph them.  Instead, we did find several very accommodating Ash-throated Flycatchers, and I got some nice shots of these pleasant birds.  To see all of my Ash-throated Flycatcher images, click here.

ash-throated flycatcher, joshua tree national park, california

Ash-throated Flycatcher, July 2010

After spending a couple of hours hiking in this area, we headed over to the 49 Palms Oasis trail, which is a fantastic place to photograph Chuckwallas and Collared Lizards.  We weren’t successful in finding many Chuckwallas, but we did find a few flashy and cooperative Collared Lizards.  These are some of my favorites, and I was very happy to find some that were so willing to let us photograph them.  To see all of my Collared Lizard images, click here.

great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national park, california

Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

Great Basin Collared Lizard, joshua tree national park, california

Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

When its over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, its easy to see why these heat-loving lizards would seek refuge in the bushes rather than the rocks–its much cooler!  Even in the upper photo, you can see the lizard’s toes lifted off the rock–presumably they stay cooler this way.

After these two very hot hikes, we headed into the main part of the park to look for antelope ground squirrels and dragonflies.  No squirrels were to be found, but we did find a scavenger-like scrub jay, as well as several dragonflies, including a new one for me: red saddlebags.

scrub jay, joshua tree national park, california

Western Scrub Jay, July 2010

Red Saddlebags, July 2010

In addition to this, we found several desert bighorn sheep (future post), and a few other cool things.  Despite the heat, it was a great day in our local National Park!