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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

When I moved to a small town in the Mojave Desert last spring, I found myself in a new relationship with garbage.

There’s some serious junk festering in the sands of the Southwest: toxic dumps, airplane graveyards, nuclear test sites, and so on. An abandoned disposal site in Yuma, Ariz., holds a mountain of toxic e-waste from California. The Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County, near the Mexican border, takes in rail-transported loads of garbage from Los Angeles. And the lonely section of the Mojave between Victorville and Las Vegas is known to be a choice stretch of body-dumping territory.

It makes for an odd and sometimes grim American miscellany. But the longer I’m here, the more inevitable the combination of desert and trash seems to be.

We live in a country that promises eternal newness. But we’ve never been great at dealing with yesterday’s new––the old new, the long-dead new, the new stuff that’s no longer shiny. It haunts us, gathering dust in the corners, lingering in the air like an unpleasant smell. It makes us uncomfortable, cluttering our lives. So we cast it away—into an emptiness that seems to dwarf it, a place where nobody will notice it.

This gesture makes sense, if you assume vastness and cleanliness are the same. They aren’t, of course. But it’s hard to remember that from our usual vantage on the desert—which is from a distance.

Even here in Southern California, I can climb away from what we leave behind. The scramble up 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto is itself a kind of cleansing. The last half-hour to the peak is a crawl over white boulders, like chunks of old, hardened clouds, before a last breathless balance up the highest slab. At the top, 360 degrees of pure perception is yours for the turning, the taking, while the desert stretches its vast and apparently golden carpet far below.

The power of erasure can seem unlimited—at least until it comes up against some of the hardest trash to get rid of: the personal kind. As I get acquainted with the desert’s landscape of castoffs, I recall long-lost trash of my own. The Little Debbie wrappers, leftovers and wadded-up pieces of paper scattered around raccoon-raided cans in my childhood backyard in Florida; the stale peanut butter and marshmallows we used to trap said raccoons and then later release them by the creek; the decorative bunches of eucalyptus that I hauled from a dumpster and sold to neighbors out of my Radio Flyer wagon. The many apartment furnishings I gathered curbside on garbage collection days in Los Angeles. The pink sweatbands that found their way from my trash in New York City onto the head and wrists of a homeless man at the next subway station.

Many of us have bagged and tied off all kinds of memories and feelings, and buried them deep, left them to decompose, hoping that they’ll somehow disappear in the vastness of time and experience. But our memories and desires are not so easily disposed of. Periodic radioactivity of the heart is part of the human condition. We’ve all got some personal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant inside.

“Throwing away” just might be the dominant fiction of American consciousness. It’s the flipside of the American dream, a dark corollary to the myth of the West: The ability to become whatever you desire requires the ability to toss things away without looking back. We handle our personal garbage pretty irresponsibly. Perhaps, if we’re serious about valuing our environment, it behooves us to value our inner landscapes, too, expanding the notion of “sustainability” so that it includes more than just physical ways of being. Emotional trash may not disappear easily, but it’s a hardy material. It can be reused. Recycled. Whether for love, art or the common good, there’s tremendous power in learning to own what we wish we could just throw away.

So, in an awkward move toward reintegration, I am making an inventory of what I find as I dig into my own exterior and interior deserts.

Kleenex. Three peach pits. A wad of masking tape. Cat poop. Bad drafts of poems.

An empty box of assumptions. Old grudges. Some limitations. Some hopes, some sadness, some fear.

And this glazed, broken bowl that, if I bend over it at just the right angle, throws back a blurred reflection.

Elizabeth Wyatt is a writer and artist based in Joshua Tree. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

When a racist rancher in Nevada and his armed supporters can command headlines by claiming to own and control publicly owned lands, perhaps it’s time to remind Westerners about the history of the nation’s public-land heritage.

Recall that it is we, the American people, who own the public lands that make up so much of our Western states. These great open spaces are the birthright of all of us, not just the residents of Nevada or California or other Western states. The question of ownership of the public lands was settled by the founding fathers, in favor of you and me, by the Maryland compromise reached in 1781, and carried forward in the property clause of Article IV in the United States Constitution.

On occasion, diehard malcontents such as Cliven Bundy emerge to promote so-called "Sagebrush Rebellions" to turn the public lands over to the states as a conduit for handing them out to resource raiders and private interests. Governors and state legislatures, most recently in Utah, are sometimes drawn into endorsing these movements, only to see them fade away in the face of public opinion.

While this latest fracas is fresh in our minds, let me speak up for the employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who have been demonized by Fox News' Sean Hannity and threatened by rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers. BLM staffers are dedicated public servants who struggle with the unenviable task of juggling the conflicting demands of ranchers, miners, oil and gas companies, sportsmen and conservationists. They deserve our respect and our gratitude.

I believe that the whole sorry Bundy episode has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to conservation. We can do that by calling on President Barack Obama to take action to protect more of the special places on our public lands.

He can begin by using the Antiquities Act to establish more national monuments. Some may counsel caution in light of the recent House passage of a bill by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to gut the law. However, the best way to protect and preserve the Antiquities Act is to use it visibly and vigorously, thereby demonstrating once again the broad public support it has enjoyed for more than 100 years.

The president could start with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill to protect a million acres in the Mojave Desert of California—including land adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Or he could take up Maine Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud’s bill to protect the scores of small islands that host seabird colonies off the coast of Maine. The president can use his authority under the Antiquities Act to take these bills and their establishing language and designate the lands in questions as new national monuments.

President Obama could also review the list of our existing national parks and monuments, many of which are in need of expansion because these areas are threatened by encroaching strip mining, drilling or other incompatible development. He could start out in the majestic expanses of Southern Utah, where Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks all need additional lands to protect their archaeological sites and unique geological formations.

And at Yellowstone National Park, the migratory herds of bison, elk and other wildlife all need more space, which can be best obtained by designating the forest lands to the West as a national monument. There are many other areas where local residents are voicing support for new national monuments, including the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the Owyhee Canyons in Oregon.

The president also has the authority to add lands to our National Wildlife Refuge System. There is an urgent need to create a system of refuges to protect the endangered greater sage grouse that inhabits the sagebrush seas that stretch across public lands in seven Western states.

In addition, the Antiquities Act could be used to protect fisheries and endangered coral system in our marine waters. Bristol Bay off Western Alaska is the most prolific of our fisheries, the passage through which millions of salmon migrate to spawn throughout the river systems of Alaska. The little-known deep-water corals adjoining the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea also deserve enhanced protection.

There is much to be done, and President Obama should not wait until the 11th hour to act. He should start now by advancing proposals, explaining the urgency of conservation, generating the visibility of the issues at stake and asking all Americans to voice their opinions. He should invite Congress to take legislative action, making it clear that he will act if it doesn’t.

A robust conservation program, following in the tradition begun by President Theodore Roosevelt, will be an enduring accomplishment for President Obama, a gift to future generations from his time in office.

Bruce Babbitt, an Interior Department secretary under President Bill Clinton, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated service of High Country News. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is working on conservation planning in the Amazon River Basin as a fellow of the Blue Moon Fund.

Published in Community Voices

Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert: Nearly all at once, nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves.

The bloom was so sweeping and abundant—and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year—that it was called “a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.”

This spring, the bloom was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic.

This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species—“leading,” because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction in which the climate that suits them is marching, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out new recruits in a distinctly northern pattern.

That’s exactly what scientists believe the shaggy beasts need to do—quickly—to survive in a warming world.

The pattern is obvious to the naked eye here, because it’s occurring where the Mojave Desert gives way to the Great Basin, where stands of Joshua trees fade to sagebrush. ”I get chills when I look at that population,” says Esque. ”We know from the paleo record that plants and animals have moved north and south by hundreds of miles—if not more—in response to climate change. To see it in our lifetime, at a time when it really matters if they can move or not, it’s neat.”

The news about Joshua trees of late has mostly been gloomy, so much so that some people have begun to imagine a future in which Joshua Tree National Park is without Joshua trees. Fires carried by non-native grasses have been picking off the plants. There is evidence that in the hottest, driest spots it occupies, the trees are already plodding down the road to extinction by failing to reproduce. One study projected that 90 percent of their current habitat could be inhospitable by century’s end.

And so Joshua trees face the modern mandate familiar to so many species: move or die. The same study projecting a 90 percent reduction in habitat also cast doubt on Joshua trees’ ability to migrate far enough quickly enough to keep them on the map in significant numbers. It found evidence that the Shasta ground sloth was once one of the plant’s major seed-dispersers. The sloth, of course, is extinct, and the trees now mostly depend on smaller creatures—squirrels and kangaroo rats—to spread their seed. The sloths, large mammals that they were, are assumed to have dispersed the seeds over greater distances than the rodents now do, meaning Joshua trees might be able to make small steps to new territory, but not the great leaps that may be necessary.

But really, says Esque, we don’t know how quickly Joshua trees are capable of moving, or even if they can move at all. It’s possible the new trees in the Tikaboo Valley represent a “static front,” he explains, “where they keep casting out young trees, but every 30 years, there’s a drought that might kill them, so the population can never really move.”

Nor do we know for certain that sloths dispersed seed across great distances, because we don’t know how widely the animals actually ranged. “There are a lot of questions, probably way more than answers,” he says. Which is why it’s so exciting that he and his colleague Chris Smith, an evolutionary biologist, may have discovered the trees’ forward march. If they can confirm that it is the species’ leading edge, they can begin to gain greater insight into its potential mobility, and with that its prospects for the future.

In March, Esque, Smith and a group of citizen scientists spent four days collecting data to do just that, by mapping the distribution of old and young Joshua trees in the Tikaboo Valley. As it happens, the Tikaboo is the only place scientists know of where the distinct eastern and western populations of Joshua trees meet and mingle. So they took tissue samples from the burgeoning population, too, in hopes of identifying whether either the eastern or western trees, or their hybrids, were winning the “race north.”

“As you move northward (in the Tikaboo), the big Joshua trees thin out, they get shorter and shorter, younger and younger, then you get to a point where there aren’t any anymore,” Esque explains. The youngest, he believes, are less than a decade old. “That’s the edge of Joshua trees as we know them. The potential is right there for the species’ migration.”

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor of High Country News, where this article was initially published. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment