The Most Sought After Wasteland

Many people still entertain the notion that the desert is a "barren" wasteland, devoid of life and human value, as a recent KCET piece points out.  Beyond the obviously erroneous ecological assumptions behind that notion, I am also amazed at how many people portray the desert as an endless resource waiting to be granted utility by human genius.  The fact of the matter is that we have struggled to manage demand for desert resources for decades, and humans -- out of love and ignorance -- have demanded more from the the desert than it can give.  The relatively recent debate over siting renewable energy projects in the desert is just the latest chapter.
As Congress set forth in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976: "the California desert environment and its resources, including certain rare and endangered species of wildlife, plants, and fishes, and numer­ous archeological and historic sites, are seriously threatened by air pollution, inadequate Federal management authority, and pressures of increased use, particularly recreational use, which are certain to intensify because of the rapidly growing popu­lation of southern California..."
Those demands on the desert--in California and neighboring states -- have grown, compounding the difficulties faced by conservationists, government officials and land managers.  In addition to continued urban sprawl, energy, mining, and agriculture development, millions of people visit the deserts each year for recreation -- off-highway vehicle (OHV) riding, camping, hiking, photography, rockhounding, rock climbing, etc.  The military also places significant pressure on the desert, conducting air and ground training exercises, and testing new technologies, involving the rotation of thousands of soldiers and vehicles through the region each year. Our southwestern deserts are already over-tapped, so we should not be surprised when our demand for desert resources stumbles across another person's or institution's claims.

The recent economic slump may have slowed housing construction, but the trend over the past couple of decades has been one of urban expansion.  NASA and the US Geological Survey released satellite images showing the expansion of the Las Vegas metropolitan area from 1972 until recently.  When watching the video, consider that not only does that sprawl directly displace habitat and wildlife, but requires more water and electricity.


You could probably find similar images for communities in California and Arizona. I know California's Victor Valley in the western Mojave Desert ballooned in size since the early 1980s.  The cities there are now looking to expand their boundaries.  The City of Victorville still seeks to expand its territory by up to 32 square miles, engulfing desert habitat to the north of the city. Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County are also planning a new highway, known as E-220, connecting the Victor Valley and Antelope Valley, with the aim of spurring new industrial and housing developments throughout the western Mojave Desert. Home builders and city officials expect the economy to turn around, and their plan for that eventuality is to keep sprawling.

Agriculture also constitutes a major sprawl across the desert. In the Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea, well over 700 square miles of desert habitat have been converted for farms, irrigating the land with water from the Salton Sea and Colorado River. Other agriculture concentrations persist along the Colorado River near Blythe and Needles. 

Farm land stretches from the Salton Sea to the border with Mexico in California's Imperial Valley -- a massive zone of desert habitat converted to meet human needs, reliant upon dwindling and stressed water sources.

The Desert Next Door
More people living in the region means more people venturing into the nearby desert habitat that remains.  Known as edge effect, the desert habitat closest to urban development typically sees degradation from various well-intentioned and also illegal uses, ranging from bicycle riding to illegal dumping of garbage.   Growing up in a desert town, I was witness to and contributor to the edge effect. Exploring the desert on our bikes, my brother and I would ride along tracks carved into the desert by off-highway vehicles and often came across illegal trash piles and discarded yard waste. As time went on, much of that desert was eventually bulldozed for more houses.

But it isn't just the immediate neighbors that like to use and abuse the desert. Millions of visitors travel from far away to admire its beauty and pursue other recreational activities.  Joshua Tree National Park attracts roughly 1.4 million visitors each year, with about 90% of them identifying "views without development" as one of the main reasons for visiting, according to a University of Idaho study.  As of 2011, the number of visitors to the relatively newly established Mojave National Preserve hovers between 536,000 and 600,000 per year.  Death Valley National Park visitation climbed from 704,000 in 2007 to over 946,000 in 2011.  Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas attracts over a million hikers, rock climbers, and other landscape admirers each year.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas attracts over one million city escapees every year.
According to a Bureau of Land Management presentation to the Desert Advisory Council, nearly 1.28 million people visited the Imperial Sand Dunes in the Colorado Desert region of Southern California in 2010.  Many of the visitors to the dunes came for off-highway vehicle recreation, and many of them camped overnight.  Another popular OHV recreation area in Johnson Valley is estimated to host over 200,000 visitors each year, while other OHV areas at Stoddard Wells, El Mirage, and Ridgecrest keep busy, as well.  In these designated OHV areas, the BLM works hard to manage a host of problems brought on by the popularity of motorized recreation, ranging from vehicle accidents, vandalism, littering, and people ignoring boundaries.

A time elapsed photo shows the head and tail lights of dozens of OHVs at the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. Photo from BLM presentation to the Desert Advisory Council.
The BLM has sought to educate visitors about the need to pick up after themselves before leaving popular recreation sites. The photo above shows some of the garbage left behind by visitors to the Imperial Sand Dunes. Photo from BLM presentation to the Desert Advisory Council.
In addition to dedicated OHV areas like those found at the Imperial Sand Dunes or Johnson Valley, there are thousands of miles of designated OHV routes crossing the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, attracting even more recreational visitors. A court ruled in 2006 that the BLM's analysis of open routes in the west Mojave Desert needed to be revised, finding that there was inadequate law enforcement and management of OHV recreation in the desert, resulting in the degradation of the ecosystem.

War in the Desert
The US military is no stranger to the desert.  In the 1800s that presence was to guard travel routes and engage in hostilities with Native American tribes.  By the 1900s the military presence expanded for training, with General Patton training an army for tank maneuvers in preparation for World War II battlefields thousands of miles away.  Today, the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army train personnel and test new equipment on hundreds of square miles of desert.  All of these military bases depend to some degree on open, undeveloped desert.  Fewer neighbors means fewer noise complaints and less safety hazard.

Fort Irwin -- the Army's National Training Center -- rotates roughly 75,000 soldiers and their vehicles/equipment through the desert base each year.  The Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms also trains thousands of soldiers and simulates battles in the desert.  Both bases have recently expanded or are in the process of acquiring more land, much of it along its western boundary and overlapping with the Johnson Valley OHV area. According to the environmental impact statement for the expansion, the new training area would also impact some high quality desert tortoise habitat. 

The map above shows the Marine Corps planned expansion of its base at Twentynine Plams onto over 300 square miles of desert, conflicting with OHV areas and habitat for endangered species.

Other bases include Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, which conduct testing on desert ranges to develop new technologies. Both are located in the western Mojave Desert and cover an expansive swath of territory, much of it relatively undisturbed, and leaving habitat for a variety of animals, including the rare Mohave Ground Squirrel. In the Colorado Desert of Souther California, the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range covers over 700 square miles of habitat, providing a training range for the Navy and Marines.  The Yuma Proving Ground, near the California/Arizona border, encompasses over 1,300 square miles of desert habitat.

The military recently announced at a recent Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan meeting that it was considering a proposal to declare a swath of the desert in California and parts of Nevada as unfit for wind energy projects, citing the impact of spinning turbine blades on military training and testing. The spinning blades are known to interfere with radar, and potentially spoil test results.

The image above is from the Department of Defense's presentation at a DRECP stakeholder's meeting, depicting restricted airspace and aviation testing zones above the California desert.

Give it a Break
This post really represents just a brief summary of the demands on the desert, and I have already described simulated wars, millions of hikers and campers, millions of off-highway vehicle riders, and thousands of square miles of new farms, mines and homes.  Our deserts are not infinite, and our every step has an impact.  Let's keep our lands wild.


  1. Sad and haunting. It's my understanding that the Native Americans who lived in the desert found it richly abundant with food throughout most of the year. They were able to live in congruence with the desert. It was the Spaniards who came and said: "Look. There's nothing here at all."

    Thanks for this!

  2. Military use of the desert is detrimental to the ecosystem and the many unique plants and animals that rely on it, but I believe it is less impacting than OHV and sprawl. Military bases in many parts of the country have become de facto wildlife preserves because they keep the general public out. Expansion of Fort Irwin and other military facilities might actually be the better alternative to all of the other planned and proposed developments, so long as they act as responsible stewards.

    I just found your blog a couple of weeks ago. I am quite fond of desert and don't get out to visit as often as I would like. Thanks for your blog.

  3. Pluses and minuses... I have been in China Lake twice, visiting sites of historical family significance. I can say, having seen a number of historical sites, and read some unclassified documents, that the Navy takes preservation of the land within this base, very seriously. And I have seen relics and artifacts that, no way in hell, would still be there if not closed off to the public. Certainly, many will not agree with me, but I am personally impressed.
    See the last 2012 issue of The RocketeerII for an article on my last visit, the highlight of which was locating a site I have a picture of, an old cabin with my aunt and another woman, taken probably 70 years ago. Cabin still stands and the ground is littered with artifacts. Would have been picked clean if not for the Navy.

  4. Both sides of the Colorado River was my playground since the mid 50's to mid 60's. It was bad enough mining/prospecting trashed the desert, hills and mountains. So I return in 2012 to find it far worse. Hobby prospectors, ATV operators etc have added to the mess. Cleaning up has been daunting by myself of other peoples irrisponsible behaviour. If the animals could speak they would demand everyone to stay the hell off my land.Walk! leave no trace! Behave!


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