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The Planet
Nevada Offers More Than Desert

by Johanna Congleton

I kicked the dust a little and anxiously watched the horizon, waiting to rendezvous with Sierra Club National Outings leader Vicky Hoover. She had told me to meet her in Sulphur, Nev., and from there she would escort me to where the other trip participants were camped.

"Make sure you get supplies in Gerlach, because there may not be much in Sulphur," she had warned.

And it's a good thing I listened. Sulphur is a ghost town. All that remain are two houses, both rotting and collapsing in on themselves like pumpkins left out too long after Halloween. A graveyard of 1950s-model cars - each one full of bullet holes - baked in the sun behind the houses. The only sign of "life" I saw was the open-pit sulfur mine half a mile away, which is how I supposed the ghost town got its name.

Gradually, a puff of dust in the distance became larger, and I soon saw a flash of metal. Hoover had arrived, and in an hour I was pitching my tent in an area remote enough to make Sulphur seem like a city. It was the beginning of my first Sierra Club activist outing to northwest Nevada.

The first leg of the trip would take us to the Black Rock Desert and Jackson Mountains, the second to High Rock Canyon. The idea behind these outings is that participants will be inspired enough by the beauty and value of a threatened place that they'll work to protect it when they return home.

Our first night out served as an introduction to the history of the Black Rock/High Rock region and the threats it faces. As the sun set over the playa, Hoover spoke to our group about the strain that mining, geothermal-energy development and off-road vehicle use have placed on the land.

The Black Rock Desert/High Rock Canyon region provides a glimpse of a past that is difficult to see elsewhere. The white, cracked desert crust is actually a prehistoric lake bed. Approximately 8,000 years ago, the lake evaporated, leaving fossils of ancient species that are still embedded in the playa - a gold mine for archaeologists.

Remnants of native Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe cultures also entice relic-seekers. After the trip, as I waited in a saloon in Gerlach for a local mechanic to patch a tire, an over-stimulated elderly man burst in, letting shafts of light into the dark pub as the door swung wide on its hinges.

"I found some great specimens today," he said, and his hands shook a little from age or excitement as he carefully unwrapped a white cloth. Inside were four perfectly intact obsidian arrowheads, all of varying sizes and contours, all centuries old.

More recent history is visible in the wagon-wheel ruts made by settlers two centuries ago on the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail, which our trip guide Kirk Peterson led us along. Most of the emigrant trail has been developed, but here you can still see the landscape as it was long ago. Inscriptions carved by the weary hands of western settlers remain on the red canyon walls. When I hiked through High Rock Canyon, I imagined I could hear the clang of metal against stone as conestoga wagons rolled over the way to the West.

Yet the wagon-wheel ruts run parallel to motorbike prints. Thousands of miles of illegal ORV roads already scar the Black Rock/High Rock region. Fresh tracks snake past signs that read "Closed to Off-Road Vehicles." Brochures and flyers mounted at the mouth of High Rock Canyon politely ask motor enthusiasts to stay on designated trails - but often go unheeded.

As I saw more of this, the future of the Black Rock region began to seem bleak. But during a campfire talk, Hoover gave me hope: She explained that Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) had recently introduced the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area Act of 2000 (S. 2273), and that it could save the Black Rock area.

If it passes, the bill will designate 690,000 acres of northwest Nevada's pristine backcountry as a National Conservation Area, and 400,000 additional acres as wilderness. In both areas, new geothermal and mining developments would be prohibited - but grazing, hunting, hiking and camping would continue. In the wilderness area, motorized vehicles would be banned; in the conservation area, ORVs would be restricted to designated trails, except on the west playa of the Black Rock Desert where tracks disappear after light rain. The bill would also allow the Bureau of Land Management to increase enforcement on illegal ORV trails.

Some ORV users, incensed by the bill's intent to close environmentally damaging trails, falsely claim their access will be limited to a single track in most places.

"That isn't true," replied Carol Tresner, a Sierra Club Outings activist who led our trip. "They'd simply close trails that aren't designated for motor use and step up enforcement."

Motorized vehicle proponents aren't the only ones upset by Bryan's bill. On the last night of the trip, I slipped away from the group to speak with some of the local ranchers who have private inholdings and permits to graze publicly owned portions of the proposed NCA and wilderness. At the Soldier's Meadows Ranch, anti-NCA signs were posted on the kitchen walls, and I couldn't help but feel a little intimidated.

"You gotta be a nut to say all those ORV trails are nice to look at, and we don't want them here any more than you do," ranch manager Mackey Hedges told me. "But we want to be able to stay on the land."

As I stressed for them the fact that the bill preserves grazing rights, I realized I was already beginning to do my part to protect this fragile desert landscape. Please help me continue this work by contacting your senators and urging them to protect the natural, cultural and historical values of the Black Rock/High Rock region by co-sponsoring S. 2273, the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area Act of 2000. Also urge your representative to support the bill when it is introduced in the House.

For more information on Nevada wilderness issues or S. 2273, contact Marge Sill at marge.sill@sierraclub.org

To participate in an activist outing, contact Vicky Hoover at (415) 977-5500; vicky.hoover@sierraclub.org.


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