March 30, 2018
Lawrence R. Walker and Frederick H. Landau are plant ecologists who have 65 years between them living in the Mojave Desert. Together, they co-wrote A Natural History of the Mojave Desert. Today, they share what they see as the future for the desert they love, and why they embarked on writing the book.
Protected areas are marked with lines on a map. However, many disruptions, whether natural or anthropogenic in origin, are unaffected by boundaries. The construction of roads or solar power plants might be stopped by a fence, but the spread of droughts, fires, or climate change is not. Invasive plant and animal species could, theoretically, be controlled at boundaries, but in practice the invasion front is usually too diffuse to monitor closely. In addition, species ranges are now shifting with climate change, further complicating designations on a map. Therefore, natural resource protection must be addressed at regional and broader spatial scales. Further, such protection is most successful when it represents an integrated response from multiple groups. Government and nongovernment agencies, scientists, managers, residents, and visitors all have a vital role in the creation of a best-case scenario for the future of the Mojave Desert. Government leads public discussions and then sets policy; nongovernment groups act as watchdogs for the development and implementation of policy; scientists ask questions, conduct research, and supply knowledge to guide policy choices; managers integrate many demands into practical approaches; residents lobby for permanent, balanced compromises between resource use and abuse; and visitors support wise management choices when they pay to visit natural areas. Finally, educators inform about process, decisions, and policy and lead the promulgation of values to the next generation.
The future of the natural resources of the Mojave Desert is hard to predict. Certainly, challenges lie ahead as the region likely becomes hotter and drier but possibly sees more frequent summer rains. Depending on their intensity and duration, these monsoonal rains might lead to increased erosion. Organisms that can move rapidly enough will move, north or to higher elevations, for example. Focused mostly on our own needs, humans will also adapt to the future. We have technological tools that will help us improve water extraction and conservation. We have social tools that will help us reconfigure our societies around a hotter, drier climate. But what we hope will also be utilized are the ecological tools that natural systems provide. Our human creations are often based on natural models: dam construction and consequences from beavers; flight mechanics and efficiencies from birds; cooling techniques from colonial insects and leaf anatomy. It is our hope that we can also take the lessons of our senses, our aesthetic appreciation of the Mojave Desert to help mold a livable, inspiring future for ourselves. Finally, we hope that the future that we help shape keeps as many as possible of the myriad desert organisms and their ecosystems intact.
In A Natural History of the Mojave Desert we attempted to convey our enthusiasm about the natural history of the Mojave Desert. We hope that we succeeded. We used the writing process as an excuse to reexamine our relationship with our environs, visiting old haunts and discovering many new ones. What follows are some final musings, including our hope that you begin or continue your own personal exploration of this remarkable Desert.
We traveled the edges of the desert, trying to sort out where to draw a boundary line. We asked people at those amorphous edges: “Do you live in the Mojave Desert?” We got lots of interesting answers, reinforcing our original belief that such edges are mostly artificial human constructs. But just like so much in ecology and natural history, what cannot be easily delineated or defined still has a distinct reality. That reality is shaped by geology, geography, climate, and organisms, including humans. On big spatial scales, the collisions of crustal plates shaped our mountains in long, linear, north-south rows. Wetter climates in the past filled the basins between the mountain ranges with vast lakes interconnected by rivers. All of those lakes eventually dried up and are now salt flats. Three of the rivers that are fed from wetter uplands outside the Mojave Desert still flow. The largest, the mighty Colorado River, has been damned to create three new lakes or reservoirs that impact aquatic and terrestrial organisms and many human activities in the region. The Mojave River is dammed near its source and rarely reaches its onetime outlet, Soda Lake. The Amargosa River, as intermittent as it is, still supports a national hotspot of biodiversity, Ash Meadows.
These deserts are vast open spaces, mostly unobstructed by buildings or even trees. At night, the stars are pinpricks of silver light, pulling us to muse on what lies beyond. By day, we are presented with the gentle pastels of the surrounding environments: the coral-colored hills, the dark, tear-stained streaks of desert varnish, the red sands of eroded Aztec sandstone, and the striking black of rugged basalt. The Mojave Desert is a spare place. The land will not support the people, animals, and plants that other lands can. But it is a place where one can breathe deeply, and be unhurried and inquisitive. As Joseph Wood Krutch has written, deserts are a place where one kind of scarcity is compatible with, and maybe necessary for, another kind of plenty.
Our book mentions many of our observations and joys while exploring the Mojave Desert and we will continue our adventures into the future. But now we urge you to step away from your computer and explore. Take a water bottle and your own curiosity and, whether it is your first or one hundredth time on this terrain, parts of the Mojave Desert will open up to you as if for the first time. We hope that you go out and experience the peaceful satisfaction that comes from a walk in the desert.
Lawrence R. Walker is a professor of plant ecology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the (co)author or (co)editor of nine previous books, including The Biology of Disturbed Habitats. Frederick H. Landau is a research associate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Walker and Landau have twenty-five years of scientific collaboration that includes projects in Nevada, New Zealand, and Puerto Rico. They both enjoy hiking and back-road adventures throughout the Mojave Desert.
Cover photo courtesy Cindy Phillips