Thursday, February 4, 2016


The Caribbean is a Biodiversity Hot Spot, designated because of the richness of its land & marine environments, and the fact that so much of it has been lost; thus making it an endangered environment. So says the International Island Conservation & The Critical Ecosystems

Partnership Fund among others. We are rightly proud of Vieques’ amazing bio bay, but there is much more to our rich environment worth noting. Endemic species are those plants & animal that are unique to a geographic area or zone, and are not found elsewhere. The Caribbean has about 8,000 of these endemic species, of which the archipelago of Puerto Rico has 250+ endemic species.

Conservation of these remaining endemics as part of our natural resources is critical to the protection & enhancement of our environment. One of the problems in protecting our natural areas is that the Caribbean only has 13% of its lands set aside for conservation. While in Puerto Rico, we only have even less: 8.7 % of lands set aside for conservation. So Vieques with almost 20,000 acres has a very large portion of Puerto Rico’s conservation land; And is the second largest conservation area in Puerto Rico, only preceded by El Yunque.

Vieques’ ecological importancia is also based on the fact that it is a land bridge between the Greater & Lesser Antilles chain of islands & Consequently hosts flora & fauna from both geográfico areas. Vieques is deemed extremely important for conservation by the international Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources’ Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, and the USFWS, as well as many NGOs.

A biologist would describe Vieques as hosting both subtropical dry and subtropical moist life zones. In these dual habitats, our Isla Nena hosts more than 950 land plant species. Our bird life notably diverse and large – include 190-plus species. In the past 10 years, 70-plus species have been added to the list of birds who make Vieques their home. See birds on the VCHT’s 7:30 a.m. Bird Walk, Thursdaya, February 11th & 25th. Reservations & fee required for this 2 hour tour.

After birds….lizards, geckos, our 4 kinds of endangered or threatened sea turtles, and other reptiles and amphibians make up the 2nd largest group of vertebrates—about 30 species total—on Vieques. Bats are the only native mammals left in Vieques and the rest of Puerto Rico. The Isla Grande has a total of 13 species, yet despite its much smaller size, Vieques has a total of 9 species, 2 of which were discovered by USFWS researchers just in 2008.

What are those swarms of white butterflies along the road? They are Vieque’s most common butterfly, the Great Southern White (scientific name is Ascia Monuste). Normally butterflies are most present in larger numbers in Vieques during the fall & winter. This is both because there is reproduction going on among the resident butterflies and an increase due to migration along the Caribbean. This year the rains have been steady and the vegetation has been green since September, which has offered ideal conditions for the butterflies. Because of the drought, last year we did not see a lot of butterflies, so the plethora of Great Southern White Butterflies seen roadside are a delight. 

Biology interfaced with tourism most dramatically when the bio bay went dark last year. Then tighter controls were enforced to ensure more protection of the Bio Bay by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, known as DNER. Nature-based & wild-life dependent tourism activities are now led by about 30 commercial outfitters with permits. While some tour costs have been driven up, the illegal tours seem to be gone, as well as activities that contributed to the dimming of the Dino-flag-a-lates (as commonly called), otherwise Scientifically named Pyrodinium Bahamense.

The plan is for more public tierra to become available for public use as clean-up proceeds on the unexploded ordinance that remain from decades of live bombing by the U.S. Navy. A segment focused on the clean-up is in will run on a coming show to address this important issue in more depth. Una of the new public areas opened last year es el Puerto Ferro Light House, trail and playa, which can be reached by turning right just after you enter the gate to the Wildlife Refuge. I hear the water is rough so use extreme caution if you get in.

Ultimately, mas land open to public use will create mas business opportunities, and hopefully that will lead to more mentoring & job training of local youth to participate in the tourism economy, as discussed earlier in this show by Mark Martin.

Conservation education can also help our local youth be oriented to participate in the tourism economy. And esta is happening due to a diversity of players: from nonprofits like VCHT & TICATOVE pero also Parque Ecologico Costero La Ceiba de Vieques, Para La Naturalleza & Isla Nena Composta, as well as the Puerto Rican DNER and many others. We can collectively find hope, Esperanza en Espanol, for el futuro of our natural resources in programs like Manta out of the VCHT, the 60 annual youth programs by the Wildlife Refuge; and the work of the certified humane educator, Adora Nagron, who does outreach to the 1500 kids in our Isla Nena Escuelas; & is funded by Juntos and the Rotary Club. Nature tourism seems posed to grow here, and continue to being a job creator for locals. Lo natural areas de Vieques are the main reasons people come to our beautiful island. So, let’s keep it that way.

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AIRING TRHOUGHOUT FEBRUARY 2016 ON Pacifica Affiliate, Radio Vieques 90.1 FM

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ed-Venturing: Twenty national park field institutes offer learned fun

I’ve arrived in America's first national park, Yellowstone, in the heart of the wolves’ mating season and courtship hangs in the frosty air as does jaunty talk of alpha males and alpha “bitches.” My first ed-venture in snow country is a four-day Lodging and Learning program, Winter Wolf Discovery, one of 25 individual multi-day programs on wolves offered year round. Our guide in all things is naturalist and biologist Shauna Baron who also drives the 14-seat bus that ferries us.

From behind the wheel Shauna, who allows us the informality of first names, expounds into a microphone headset that is easily heard except when the snow plow goes by. “If it’s hairy and has teeth, I know about it,” she says, and soon it become clear she is the alpha female of our class pack. Yellowstone is not only the grandma of national parks, it also offers the largest number of in-depth vacation seminars through their association institute.

There are 19 other national parks that host field institutes, all in the west except The Great Smoky Mountains Institute and Alaska Natural History Institutes. Besides a huge array on of natural sciences, I found unexpected class foci like arts (poetry, botanical drawing, photography, and journaling) and even yoga. Seven institutes have their own in park housing/campuses, and a few offer plusher accommodations at the park lodge like Yellowstone.

On one of my first vacations without my husband, I bed down for my Sunday through Wednesday class at Mammoth Lodge, just inside the northwest corner of Yellowstone most easily accessed by flying into Bozeman, Montana. My big picture window faces a huge cottonwood tree, and I soak in Epsom salts in my super-deep tub to revive myself before the first night’s dinner.

We are out by dawn and into dusk as these are the best times to see wolves—though not as it turns out when we have our encounters. On our first morning, the Hellroaring Overlook provides a view only of the majestic dawn landscape that appears to be painted in the subtle palate of a black and white movie.

We head to the Lamar Valley and stop to watch a cautious coyote who exits stage right. No sooner is he gone than in trots four wolves, one by one, who wander down to a carcass in an open ravine of low willows. Our vantage above on the only plowed road in the park is stupendously close. Shauna calls in the sighting on radio to a wolf researcher, and then reminds us to be quiet so we don’t contribute to habituating the wolves to human presence. We are craning out one side of the bus, drawing a bead with cameras, recorders and wide eyes on two gray and two black-furred yearlings. Ultimately, howls of wiser elders emanate from beyond the tree line calling them back.

This is what we eight classmates--five women and three great guys--have come for. Our wolf encounters are punctuated with assimilating the story of their lives from reintroduction in 1995 to today, their affect upon prey and their pivotal role in the ecosystem, a phenomenon called the “trophic cascade.”

Wolves sit atop the food chain as “apex carnivores” and scientists are still studying their affect, direct and indirect, to all life around them, including plants. We also encounter herds of bison that once numbered 26 but now roam to the tune of 3000. We watch small packs of coyote traveling the road, avoiding wolves and waiting their turn to scavenge. Joining in the scavenging on wolf kill are ten other species, from Ravens (the first to arrive at any wolf kill) to Bald Eagles.

I’ve never thought of the U.S. national bird as a scavenger, but there up the hill they are fighting other foragers for a bite. Without the structure of a guided field institute class, I would never have turned into an avid wolf watcher, grasping basic wildlife biology, nor would I have trekked to the top of a cinder cone in the Mojave with the Desert Studies Center to see lava flows from three different eons, or gone telescoping at Joshua Tree with an astronomer.

To find answers to the myriad questions poised at the boundaries of my knowledge of the natural world, I’ve always preferred oral and experiential learning. For those looking to stretch their science comprehension, like me, there isn’t a better forum for digesting bite-size pieces of knowledge, from geology to ecology, anthropology to botany.

As a lifelong econo-eco-traveler, I’ve found these seminars at field institutes to be the best values going, particularly when compared to upscale fees charged by Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions and the like. On our second day, we stand road-side listening to howls across the valley from far off packs across either side of Little America.

“This is the most contested piece of wolf real estate in the whole park,” says Shauna. “More wolves kill other wolves here than in any other spot.” After the howling subsides, our snowshoes and poles come out and I am psyched. I have never snowshoed before, but have always wanted to. I need help with the rubber straps that hold my boots to the red plastic rectangles which in no way resembles the sinuous wood and leather snowshoes of yore.

We follow in the literally hoof and paw prints of bison, elk and coyote across a rolling open field to a tree line of aspen and Douglas fir to the former den of wolf #9, nicknamed Cinderella. We stop three times so that the least fit among us remains comfortable and Shauna doles out installments in Cinderella’s history. “Today, her descendants comprise more than 70% of the wolves in Yellowstone. While wolves typically live three to four years, Cinderella mated with wolf #21, ‘Don Juan,’ and they lived together for six years.”

I manage not to back up in my snowshoes and so do not fall over. We kneel before Cinderella’s abandoned den as if in homage. Looking in, I toy with the idea of crawling in. “If you don’t know scat, you don’t know scat,” says Shauna as she holds out hand to finger size identifications to animal droppings.

We learn that there are seven distinct wolf howls with different meanings (the fear howl is said to sound like a wailing woman; there’s even two-note howls, and they can harmonize). Wolves sense of smell is a 1000 stronger than humans—they can literally smell illness in other animals, even in humans some say. The factoids collectively collide in my brain, but I have high hopes of retaining a fair amount of what I am learning.

Through multiple x65 scopes set up on tripods, we’re once again watching wolves from a pullout, but this time it’s the world’s most famous pack, the Druids. They take turns breaking snow high on Specimen Ridge until suddenly they change course racing after elk that run five miles faster. Thus, it is, usually, the ill, weak and old elk that wolves take down. Interestingly, wolves tend to respect elk that stand their ground, yet a pack still manages to kill at least two elk a week in winter. While reduced in number, these are still the largest elk herds in North America. Now they stay longer at higher elevations for safety the theory goes, and this seems to have resulted in a rejuvenation of willows and grasses, through more even foraging and less foraging in areas where they are more vulnerable to wolf attacks—this is a possible trophic cascade affect.

As we watch through the scopes and binoculars, the Druids do not get their elk. But they are nonetheless blessed with great fortune for this year five of their pups survive when most in other packs died. Within days of returning home, the official mortality numbers are released. The wolf population is down 27% for the park as whole, but in the north, where I am, it’s down 40%. The 17 wolves I saw were nearly a quarter of the wolves left on the northern range. It is hard not to believe that these numbers won’t factor into the possible delisting of the endangered status of the wolves that is before the federal court, and the Interior Department Secretary to take wolves off the list--though 15 years of monitoring will follow.

When it comes to the survival of field institutes, class fees are apparently not enough. It takes a creative combination of support by park associations and public membership, book store sales, grants, and groups like Elderhostel to maximize usage. aquatic songbird—submerge and walk underwater to feed on insects and fish.

Though the snow is coming down heavy, the bison do not shake it off because the air trapped between flakes acts as an insulator giving them the appearance of a “snow beard.” We squeal at the classic sight of a magpie riding a bison’s backside where it feasts on insects that live in its fur. We are snowshoeing up the west side of the creek across from three of the largest land mammals in North America--bison. We pass a tree with an oval of missing cambium rubbed off by bison scratching their coats against the bark. And there, caught against an edge, is bison fur. In the snow sit six-tined mature elk antlers shed in spring before they can grow a new set. 

Taking turns, one on either side to hold the awkward weight, we pose for photos with the antler rack before heading back to lunch at the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Log cabin bunkhouses accommodate up to 26 students for each of 130 seminars here at the institute’s campus. While Lamar Ranch relies on solar power for much of its energy needs, the Mojave’s Desert Studies Center is completely off the grid. I’m enchanted to vacation where cutting-edge energy solutions are at play. In the ranch classroom we bag lunch it, and then feel pelts and look at skulls.

It’s our final day, and we disparate ed-venturers, hailing from Santa Fe to Washington, DC, from Georgia to Iowa City, have bonded on the northern range, in Little America. We’ve become comrades, braving the cold, sharing common values about parks, an appreciation for wildlife and the delicious respite of warm indoors after long days of learned fun.

My way home is north through Paradise Valley, north like the Yellowstone River flows, past osprey, wandering elk and train cars piled high with coal, between the Gallatin and Absakora Mountains that I first saw from the air, and now envelope me as the gray skies that have kept the winter temperatures relatively mild begin to show some blue.

My world feels so rich on this return journey, my spirit touched by the wild, the wooly, Yellowstone. # # #

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Especially after a rain, the night air on Vieques is filled with the incessant love songs of the Coquí. These loud love cantos Come from the Coqui’s vocal sac, which swells to amplify their calls. The Coqui songs we hear are male mating calls, first to warn off other males and then to attract prospective females.

Coquí is the word that was given to these frogs by our native Taino Indians. As such, the Coquí is a symbol of Puerto Rico, and an important part of our island culture. Three species are native to Vieques.

The most common Coquí on Vieques has two distinct calls, the first call sounds like Chu-RE', Chu-RE; hence its common name in Spanish: Coquí Chur-RE and their second call sounds like a stalling car: 'Keh-keh-keh-KA'. This is the sound males make to warn other males away.

Collectively, the Coquí sound produces the same decibel level as a running lawn mower, though much sweeter in tone—5 basic tones to be exact. They are loudest in the early evening, before dawn, and when it is humid. These nocturnal predators and lovers, spend their days sleeping. Their nightly hunts include eating ants and spiders among other bugs. Singing duels occur when one male challenges another. The loser is the first to miss a beat of cadence.

The Vieques Fish & Wildlife Refuge has surveyed the island & Confirmed what our ears have told us, that we have a healthy native Coqui population. Our three species, on average, range from the half inch Pitito to the most common Coqui that is two inches from snout to vent.

Unlike most frogs, the Coquí’s toes & fingers are web-LESS, as they do not require water to live in or to reproduce. Coquí females deposit their eggs on leaves and males take care of the eggs once laid. These eggs bypass the Tadpole Stage and emerge with limbs as independent froglets.

Our native Coquis reproduce year round, but it is said their collective songs peak during the wet season. A wet season is what we have been longing for after the drought & water restrictions that have our land & gardens parched. Like the Coquís’ scientific genus- name, which translates into “free toes,” many of us humanoids feel especially footloose and fancy free under the spell of the enchanting night music of the Coqui. I think of their cantos as the sweetest lyrics on our Isla Nena. 

Here’s hoping that there will be rain and a Coqui chorus of male mating calls by the time you hear this.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

SOJOURNING IN THE DESERT: The Nature of National Park Volunteering

My first desert was the Rub Al-Khali in Saudi Arabia, where my father worked as a geologist, and where I spent formative childhood years. I was not to make the desert my home again for another thirty-three years when I began to live and work in America’s desert.

Each spring of the last ten years, I have been part of a volunteer wildflower project in national parks. The project is my husband’s and now over 350 of his watercolors are on the NPS web site under Traveling Artist Wildflower Project. Many are flowers that I scouted for him as I learned to solo hike in the wilderness and contend with my fear of snakes.

Our path to living and working in national parks has been an untraditional one. Upon high school graduation, I bought a sleeping bag rated for 30 degrees below as if the wilderness were my next destination. But that took decades. National parks as our springtime home occurred in middle age when the prospect of the children we hoped for was gone, and my husband and I began to explore the other eggs in our basket of dreams.

You might think of us as middle age dropouts, though in truth what made our dream possible was our self-employed, low-budget lifestyle, along with renting out our house back east, returning in debt and working hard to pay that off each year.

Volunteering in national parks became the convergence of many different dreams. The land had always been important to me—from wearing a homemade conservation education placard on the playground for the first Earthday to organizing public land beautification in my own Washington, DC neighborhood.

I inherited no aptitude for science from my father, whose example started me on this journey with the land. But in living among national parks, my understanding of landscape and ecosystems evolved. I learned bite size pieces of natural science by taking classes at a few of the field institutes at national parks like Joshua Tree and Yellowstone. First I chronicled my experiences in letters, and later promoted conservation and environmental awareness through radio essays and articles. In the early years we hopped from park to park, as many as five in a three-month season. Eventually longer stays at a single park were more satisfying and less stressful. A few parks we returned to—Carlsbad Caverns, Canyonlands and Capital Reef, with the Mojave Preserve south of Las Vegas becoming our mainstay.

Each year we left earlier and earlier, and stayed longer. One year we went during fall as well, which meant different flowers in bloom—Saltmarsh Aster and Alaklai Crucifer, sunflower family perennials reblooming if there was a late summer rain, and a chance to experience the desert in another season. During the months back east, random images from my digital archive of photos, taken at what ultimately added up to a dozen national parks, would flash across my computer in screen saver mode. These reminders of our western park life were transported into the heart of our urban existence, and I began to enjoy telling people we were “bi-coastal.”

We didn’t need the same instant gratification as drive-through visitors or those constrained by the desire to jam in as much as possible during a few days or a week. We were there to stay for awhile. We were already off the beaten track, not at the top ten most visited parks, but the ones I would put on a “B” or “C” list. This meant hiking without running into anyone, no crowds, open roads, and still gobs of geological grandeur.

I’ve felt the length and breadth of this land flow through me as I traversed so many of our United States on our annual drive cross country to national parks. Driving to a park assignment meant seeing windmills still pumping, rough-hewn juniper fencing, an oil derrick in the middle of a corn field, and one ecosystem slowly giving way to another. Favorite stretches still stick with me—Highway 40 west of Albuquerque, the rolling ribbon of Route 180 across west Texas, Route 261 through the Valley of the Gods, Utah. And, most importantly, the towns—Torrey, Moab, Alamogordo, Nipton, and Carlsbad—near national parks whose amenities would define our access to simple pleasures like fresh produce or library books.

We have sometimes followed ancient routes of exploration, migration, trade and communications or military action to get to these parks. I would think of the early Anglo explorers who might cover just 20 miles a day, perhaps with a long line of mules carrying woolen goods from Santa Fe to the coast, while we covered 450 miles, vistas flying by, framed by the windshield. Sometimes, I’d be so over stimulated from the views leading up to the park that I’d hide indoors with a book my first days. Once settled in, the enduring landscape outside our front door became ours too, ours to hold any time of day or night. The luxury of this was implicit, especially in parks with no lodges of their own nor nearby motel.

There’s nothing like becoming intimate with a whole new horizon, such as a forty mile sunset over the Clark Mountains of the Mojave Preserve. We’d arrive looking like the Beverly Hillbillies: our pickup truck mounded with bicycles, cooler, gasoline canisters, clamp lamp, linens, radio, star chart, cheese grater, audio books, scrabble, and a multitude of sundry items to outfit a usually barren accommodation with a bit more comfort. I felt like a migrant worker setting up house in so many locations with bare necessities.

All this park homemaking fell to me, and I enjoyed the nest building, other than arriving at a dirty house. On grocery runs, I would track down a thrift shop or a yard sale for a rug for beside the bed, pans to replace ones with flaking Teflon, lamps to read by. Living at high elevations, like at Guadalupe Mountains, finally those cake mix directions on adjusting temperatures when baking over 3500 feet were relevant.

My role with the Traveling Artist Wildflower Project was evolutionary. Foremost, I was an eagle eyed flower scout, but also the trip organizer and researcher, marketing and grant writing assistant, helpmate and cook. Being an adjunct to my husband’s project was an interesting shuffle in the dynamic of our marriage, for my career had generally been more lucrative than his; and, I welcomed this shift.

Because our housing arrangements varied so greatly, we tried to arrive with no expectations. Sometimes we lived off the grid in a research facility where it was a major drain on the solar batteries if someone left the coffee maker on. We also lived in an 1840s adobe house overlooking the Rio Grande, a dry walled shed without a bathroom, many a nice pre-fab house, former army officer quarters, as well as a Civilian Conservation Corps built stone house that had the feel of a monk’s cell. It had beautifully white washed adobe walls, a bare ceiling bulb which moths, large and small, whirled around in the evenings while we read, and two iron army cots pushed together with old mattresses clad in blue striped ticking. At Zion we had to camp. Other times, it was group house living, with everyone else a twenty-something—kids who could have been ours. The anomalies to life back east could be dramatic. We lived without television but with hanta virus. We lived on a former underground nuclear test site where residents were offered free annual radiation tests. We lived with huge spiders, and once even a baby scorpion that crawled across my pillow while I lay reading.

We could go three months without a drop of rain, but a five minute spell; or arrive to find a late last snow and the sere desert fogged with rime. The wind could blow sand so insistently grains would lodge between my teeth. Out here guns were recreation not urban violence, and people, including park volunteers living on the cheap, hunted on public land for their daily meat. We lived with a kind of scarcity and isolation that evoked an earlier era, a simpler lifestyle. For entertainment, we might start a scrabble game over breakfast, continue it over lunch and finish it with dinner. We’d make up different rules, work collaboratively to fill all four corners of the board. If we weren’t on the trail eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches hiding from the sun in a declivity, we would siesta during the heat of the afternoon, then go back out until the sun went down.

In the early years when cell service from parks was rare, we used our own walkie-talkies, and there was limited internet access from the park office. Library privileges were a boon. Being far from medical care didn’t matter until my husband broke a crown while we were at Bryce Canyon, and had to drive the two-plus hours to Cedar City to get it fixed.

Arriving at each park for the first time was like starting a new job, laced with fear. Each park had its own management culture with different rules accentuated. Some rules weren’t clear until you broke them. Sometimes we felt resented for our independent status, for raising funds to support our work. Among the unspoken tensions, that varied from park to park, was that volunteers were making it easier for management to not fill vacant staff positions. Yet there were also staff and others who went out of their way to share something special. At Capitol Reef the maintenance manager, a Mormon church elder, took us out horseback riding. An astronomer who was a park contractor at Joshua Tree took me to a hidden spot to watch an ancient spring equinox ritual: the sun coming through a crevice in boulders above us and arcing across a flat stone into a hand-carved pocket.

From park insiders and locals came all-important tips on where to find treats: unadvertised fresh smoked trout for sale two towns over out of a cheese factory; the free day-old wholegrain bread for the taking at the community center; and local honey sold out of a self-serve trailer. Tips on trails, the locations of ancient rock art and granaries not on any guide, and favorite spots helped us sort the plethora of options: “When you get to Grand Staircase-Escalante don’t miss the hike to the Lower Calf Creek Falls,”…which turned out to be a glorious 126 foot waterfall at the end of a three-mile trek on a very hot sandy trail, and well worth it.

Water in the desert was always worth searching out for the respite and the flowers one was sure to find. I’ve hiked an old sheep herder’s trail, along the still visible wheel ruts of the Butterfield Stage Coach, and in footfalls of the Old Spanish Trail, my solitary strength augmented by UV filter sunglasses, SPF 45 sunscreen, and a boatload of supplies on my back.

I thought I was roughing it, living an empty hour’s drive from a grocery store. I would lie down and read along the trail to keep my husband company while he drew, getting comfortable on rocks using the padding of my backpack. Often all it took was shade to get comfortable. I was finally living my dream of a rural western life.

To better understand the land, I read John McPhee and other famous naturalists to learn the words to describe landscape, the poetics of naming and defining, the terms of geology and biology, and I listened for regionalisms: washboard road, fossil water, escarpment, talus, endemic, refugium, desert varnish, alluvial fans, bajadas. I learned the colorful common names of the local native flora: Pink Ladies, Bastard Toad Flax, Princes Plume, Teddy-Bear Cholla, Paintbrush, Mormon Tea, and Western Wallflower.

By returning to the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands I saw how the Sego Lily could uniformly be cream one spring and pink the next—the scientific conjecture was that this color difference was due to precipitation. And, I learned that it was the plant community which defined which desert we were in—Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave or Great Basin.

Woody Guthrie’s line from his timeless song of my childhood: “This land is your land…this land is my land,” resounded in my mind. But lots of other people felt that way too—miners, rancher, and townspeople. And some, quite vocally, didn’t like the park service, and let me know it.

The anti-federalist mentality of the west had found an accessible target in public land managers. I learned quickly the importance of understanding place beyond its natural beauty, that there was always a dynamic between “townies” and “parkies,” as I thought of them. Much antipathy was focused on the conversion of private land to public at the Mojave Preserve—a relatively new unit in the park service. Locals would complain that the National Park Foundation or Nature Conservancy had swooped in and bought land before any private owner could, and then donated it to the park. This fundamental distrust seemed to be intrinsic to the prototype western personality.

The politics of land management in the west was another education. I wager not many east of the Mississippi know that in states like New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, the federal government owns well over 50% of the land, which is managed by the Interior and Agriculture Departments. State culture imprints park culture in places like prideful Texas and Mormon-dominated Utah. In New Mexico, the diversity created by the dominance of Hispanics and Native American culture was a welcome relief.

Politically, living in parks mostly meant living in a “red” state. Living in parks also meant acknowledging the first residents, the indigenous peoples. I would hike to see ancient Native American petroglyphs and pictographs, saddened to see where defacers had come in and sawing off panels to sell; to see the stone-built Native American granaries still standing, hidden under ledges. 

Park land before it was used by homesteaders, miners, ranchers, or for a fort or encampment, was most likely tribal land first. The townspeople today who expressed their violation by the federal government rarely seem to acknowledge that their forbears were trespassers on Native American land.

Parks are where all these layers of history co-exist and are at least brought to light in handouts or the visitor’s center, such as at the Mojave Preserve’s beautifully restored Mission Revival railroad depot (the building a piece of history itself). The park communities we lived in primarily housed park rangers, though many lived off-site, commuting long distances. Other residents were a mix of researchers, “SCAs” (Student Conservation Association volunteers), “seasonal” (temporary summer staff), and more traditional volunteers whose jobs were helping in the visitor center. There were occasional temporary residents, like the roving firefighters who came in for a prescribed burn and seemed like modern day outlaw cowboys. And there were the perennial invasive species eradication workers—a dismal starter job for somebody with a biology degree.

Because of the competition for limited onsite housing, we sometimes had to find a place to live outside the park. We’d look for commonalities to make overnight friendships for the duration, and found easy camaraderie with the researchers and the SCAs. Some friendships formed over shared meals or memorable hikes have lasted, and we meet up out west or they visit D.C. and stay with us. 

The serendipity of human contact could bring the vastness of America down to human size, especially when I met a ranger at White Sands who turned out to be my high school principal’s son. 

Some insider knowledge was sobering. We befriended a law enforcement ranger at Canyonlands and heard about search and rescue versus recovery missions, mostly over cliff sides. When he came to D.C. to be decorated for heroism we went to the ceremony.

The more common downside of park living was not life and death scenarios, but that it could take a gallon of gas to go buy gas. Pre-9/11, we worked at two parks on what was then the very porous Mexican border where the interdependence of the communities on either side was very evident. It was at Organ Pipe Cactus that I first saw a group of illegal immigrants coming across. A ranger later told me that 1500 poured through per week as tracked by satellite photos. We saw water jugs spray painted to match the sand.

At Big Bend, the little town of Santa Elena, directly across the Rio Grande, bought its electricity from the park because they were so remote from Mexican infrastructure. It’s hard not to have your politics affected by exposure to such border realities. Being easterners we were regularly treated to rude comments, which we generally took in stride, not wanting to reinforce negative perceptions of Washington, DC.

The animosity towards a park could be dangerous, as when my husband was instructed not to go into the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in his park uniform, never alone and never, ever, at night. Parks exist in a context of not just the history within their own boundaries, but more broadly of the region. There is a strong sense of connectivity and responsibility to the past in areas, now sparsely populated, that once held more people before conversion to public land.

Many locals took their history seriously enough to found a surprising number of one-room museums in their small towns, including Shoshone, Searchlight and Barstow. These eclectic collections captured life before the parks, from Paleolithic bones to ranch relics, ore samples to grain grinding stones called metates. Just like the sensitive issue of unrepatriated Native American remains, environmental management issues could be contentious. While visitors from afar appreciated park staff, attending public meetings with the community, I witnessed the fundamental distrust from the environmental activist quadrant. In essence the parks could get verbally swatted from all sides.

The first few years we lived in parks, we were startled how white both staff and visitors were. Coming from a diverse city and a highly integrated neighborhood, it was an adjustment we had to make, but it bothered us. The exceptions were parks in northern New Mexico. Mixing with foreign tourists or even an overseas volunteer could easily be the most diverse and cosmopolitan experience to be found in the middle of nowhere. While volunteers do quite a few unusual jobs like archeological scuba diving, dusting the Statue of Liberty and picking up turtle eggs, few are self-starter projects like my husband’s.

The support of the now former chief of interpretation was sometimes a critical door opener, but mostly it was the willingness of an individual ranger in interpretation or natural resources at any given park who decided it was worth his or her time to fit in something unique that would surely add to their work load.

Living and working in proximity to wildlife is one of the greatest gifts of national park residency. It takes living in parks to log encounters like my first and only Gila monster sighting. It was dusk, our last hike at Big Bend and there it was lumbering across a sandy wash. I knew how rare the Gila were to see (it was another seven years before I saw another, this one a captive on display, its knobby skin leaving patterns in the sand like those in a Japanese garden).

At Carlsbad Caverns, I woke before dawn to watch 200,000 bats swishing overhead into their cave, including the stragglers after the sun had come up. Hordes of visitors were relegated to watching them fly out of the cave at dusk before their 45 miles drive to the nearest motel. At Carlsbad, I also helped band cave swallows, untangling their trembling bodies from the net stretched to catch them.

My scorpion and snake encounters gave me bragging rights, and bespoke of my sensitized peripheral vision. One week, I saw five endangered Mojave tortoise—more than I had seen in three spring times. At Agate Fossil Beds, I watched a huge 40 poundish snapping turtle dig a shallow hole in a dirt road and lay eggs. Hiking where there were mountain lion warnings, I would carry a fist sized rock in my pocket.

One had to get used to being in proximity to wildlife if not contact. I liked to be the lead hiker, to have my view unfettered. That is probably why I saw snakes. If I averaged one a month I felt lucky—and that sighting usually lasted just a second or two as it slid away. Snakes didn’t want to encounter me anymore than I did them. The mantra in snake country is to always look before you step or set your hand down. Rare was the long languorous look at a huge rattle snake, but I had it, and my hiking buddy’s picture of it is on my fridge to prove it.

No matter how long we stayed in a park it was never enough time. There was always another trail I wanted to hike, a sense of so much yet to learn and discover. In my decade in the parks, I came to appreciate common disparaged flora like the creosote bush, whose density and height might fill the distance with yellow blooms and greenery. And, also to see flora that did not bloom every season but only in a spring following a year of heavy rains—the Joshua Tree’s football size blooms in profusion. And, to experience a once in a 100 years blooming, after unprecedented fall and winter rains, when dormant seeds sprang to life, and the wildflower profusion made international news. I relished finding a new to us species, an uncommon one, or a surprising multitude: the first Ajo Lily we’d ever seen; Supreme Sage—a rarity among a common desert genus; 25 brilliant orange Mariposa Lilies along a single trail; the spark of color up a cliff that turned out to be an Alcove Columbine. It was the thrill of being a flower hunter or discovering idyllic growing conditions in the midst of an arid setting—like at Zion, where I found a Shooting Star growing in a drip garden on a cliff side.

Our experience living and volunteering in national parks—begun quite simply as an offer to exchange botanical illustrations for housing—has ultimately led us to opportunities on public land managed by other Interior Department agencies—the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including caretaking a historic ranch. But, after ten years of being bi-coastal, my need for friends, community and a blue-state social life has become too necessary a component of my daily life. And, I am tired of the long haul cross country. So our public land assignments are shorter, and consequently we fly in like the visitors, though I can name the mountains as we fly in. 

Back in D.C., I don’t have to go down to the Washington Monument or all the other memorials managed by the NPS to indulge in a national park foray. It turns out there is a piece of national park in my own backyard—a one block square of it—Ft. Bunker Hill, a high point, that once guarded the city during the Civil War. The trees I see from my kitchen windows grow on that high point. I was thirteen when I saw my cousin perform in a naturally set amphitheater there in a production put on by a local theatre group. Now a neighbor has started a non-profit to help restore the amphitheater and clean up the park. I probably won’t join this effort, having already done my stint of urban public space restoration. My conservation aims are more tied to the unspoiled now.

My dream is to go further afield—to volunteer and live in national parks in other territories, other countries. We have taken a step in that direction. Soon, we are going for a month to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge on the island Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s mainland, where my husband will paint tropical native flowers. This adventure will be in ecosystem so different from the American Southwest. It will be lush, green, temperate.

After having crossed the deserts, we will find ourselves on the shore of what might be another promise land.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The Green sea turtle nesting season is about to begin here in their number one nesting locale in the whole of the archipelago of Puerto Rico. Females are expected to be climbing ashore in June, with September being their peak nesting month. Keeping a watch out for the Green turtle nests are a core group of volunteers with Ticatove—a community-based non-profit conservation group here. Last season, they helped track 275 nests on Vieques shores. Known as graceful and powerful swimmers, Green females —that’s hembras de verdes en Español —migrate as much as 1500 miles—swimming at more than a mile an hour—to return to our shores. Greens can’t crawl backwards and this has led to dramatic rescues by volunteers who have to help these hembras de verde. Also, unlike fresh water turtles and tortoises, sea turtles can’t retract their legs or head into their shells. Because of this, they can easily dehydrate in the sun and die, necessitating an assisted return to the sea. La Tortuga Verde is the second largest native sea turtle species en Vieques—and has a top shell that is oval and heart or corazón shaped that is mottled brown/olive. Their whitish underside gives it the Puerto Rican nickname of “Peje Blanco.” Talk to Refuge biologist Francheska Ruiz-Canino about how to recognize a Green sea turtle and she’ll tell you to look at the face & head. If it has a pointy or beak-like shape, that’s a Hawksbill. The Greens are distinguished by a round face. Greens & Hawksbills juveniles are the mostly commonly seen sea turtles when snorkeling. Green Tortugas live 80+ years on average and are the only sea turtle to eat sólo las plantas. They graze in underwater meadows of sea grass and algae. Their diet, high in fiber and low in protein, contributes to their slow growth and slow sexual maturation, which can take 20-35 years. Remaining loyal to their breeding, nesting, feeding and sleeping sites, they return to these specific spots year after year. Mating takes place, perhaps, nine times in a season, at about two-week intervals, but not every year. The females usually dig nests on the same beach they hatched from, where the eggs will incubate for about 2 months. Nests vary from 75 to 200 eggs, depending on the age and health of the mamá Verde. If you noticed stakes & yellow tape protecting nests on Sunbay, Caracas and La Chiva during early June, those are protecting Leatherback eggs. Greens are one of the siete sea turtle species who predated and outlasted the dinosaur. So if you want to support these ancient creatures who live around us, consider getting involved in sea turtle conservation. # # #

Friday, April 20, 2012


It was T.S. Elliott who wrote that, “April is the cruelest month,” in a poem called The Waste Land. With the lack of precipitation this winter, those of us who look forward to southern Nevada's grand display of spring wildflowers, are inclined to agree with that still famous line. This year’s usual roadside and wilderness displays have, indeed, been cruelly disappointing. Every April, I make my pilgrimage to what is a holy-land for me – the Eastern Mojave Desert and its incredible array of native flora. This time around, I was told not to expect much more than the mistletoe that sucks life out of trees. But, back I came to volunteer as a botanical artist at Lake Mead National Recreation area. A few days into my flower search, at the eastern foot of the Muddy Mountains, among parched hills resembled the bleached vertebrae of long dead cattle, were a profusion of several kinds of violet colored Phacelia flowers. To my surprise, damp soil led to the alkaline banks of Bitterspring, pooled with water. These cone shaped flowers popping out from hairy stems were mana. A yellow-cup Camissonia brevipes stood nearby, a signal tower of nature's call for diversity. Here was flower power on the Bittersweet Trail. Further-on, a grove of Cottonwoods, shaded the deepest pools in a brackish stream with long tentacles of algae, thriving in the current. The Mojave Desert, while not awash in blooms, still seemed magnificent with its spots of floral color. In the desert, it can take so little to feel that ones hopes are met. Even with their modest blooms, I feel the power of flowers. You can find flower power for free during National Park Week, April 21-29. There are no admission fees at Lake Mead and Death Valley, all week long. Entrance fees are waived, again, at all of America’s nearly 400 national parks on June 9th, for Get Outdoors Day. # # #

Friday, April 15, 2011

THE LAND I LOVE: National Parks Week

It’s National Park Week, and I’m declaring my love of our very own Lake Mead National Recreation area, which is entrance fee free this week. I’m rejoicing that for us…wilderness begins at our city’s edge with hardly a transition. Not everyone is surrounded by such land riches. Many international visitors prize us, in part, because wide open spaces on our scale don’t even exist back home, for them. I love that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, because for me that means there’s hardly anybody out there when I get off the beaten track or go off road. There lies my refuge, where I can feel the explorer, become the one who can brag about the huge tortoise she nearly tripped over, who escapes her stress by walking it off on the trail. This year, thankfully, our shores will finally rise at the rate of two-to-four feet of water a month, because of stellar snow pack in Colorado. But, I’m diving in right now….figuratively. It turns out that what grows in Lake Mead is supposed to stay in Lake Mead. Quaggas, to be specific. And, they are surprising scientists. On the positive, they have made our water 13% clearer. But the dreaded quaggas are clogging water intake pipes and valves. They’ve even covered the B29 lying at the bottom of Lake Mead, according to Diving - Biologist Bryan Moore, who tracks these invasive hordes. If final approval come, Hoover Dam’s managers will test Zequanox downstream, in May, as a possibly effective quagga killer. Lake Mead is working hard to keep the quaggas from hitchhiking on boats to foul other freshwater ways. These pesky muscles are Mainly a problem for the thousands of boats moored at marinas. Not so for the day or weekend use boats, who, usually, aren’t in still waters long enough for quaggas to attach. Its volunteers who’ve been pulling the invasive Sahara Mustard plant throughout the early spring to give our native wildflowers the room They need to grow. During National Park Week, Lake Mead’s 4000-plus volunteers will be honored for their contribution of donated labor. My admiration grows for those who bend their backs for conservation, while I only lift my fingers. From my perch in Boulder City, I recall my favorite time on the Big Blue Below: Shore camping with friends on a remote site reached only by their boat. You, too, can turn your next visit to Lake Mead into a favorite memory. You’ll find it Entrance fee free during National Park Week through Sunday, April twenty-fourth. Or you can challenge your boundaries, as I am planning to do, by walking across the 900-foot high new bridge. That unique perspective is free year round. # # #

Monday, May 24, 2010



Do the roots of my western adventures go back to my Irish grandfather? An engineer of a New York City train, he had been the driver and valet for Bret Harte, a famous writer of western-pioneer stories and plays. Were my grandfather’s dreams influenced by his employer’s literary portraits of the American west? Such questions linger and drive my curiosity in the stories we tread upon in our daily lives…including the origins of Las Vegas.

Today is an anniversary for Las Vegas, for one-hundred and five years ago the first sale of land lots by William A. Clark and brother J. Ross Clark took place. William was a newly elected U.S. Senator from Montana with wealth from copper mines in his home state when he purchased the eighteen-hundred-acre Stewart Ranch in the heart of our verdant valley.

There was no railroad linking the largest community in the Great Basin—Salt Lake City—to the important trade center of Los Angeles, when the 1900 Census listed just 30 residents here. With plans to build that link between LA and Salt Lake, one-term Senator Clark and his younger brother bought the Angeles Terminal Railroad.

The Clarks raced the Union Pacific in developing their rail line only to become equal partners in the newly name San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad: named San Pedro for the port that, even today, ranks as the 4th largest trade gateway in the world.

The birth of Las Vegas township dates to that first land auction on May 15, 1905. The auction had been touted with special low train fares and a rebate for buyers. One thousand turned out in the high heat.

The Clarks fed Las Vegas’ growth by adding a rail line to serve Goldwell and Tonopah, during the mining boom period that revived Nevada’s national stature. That rail bed now lies beneath Highway 95 north to Beatty. Dozens of spurs lines once connected Nevada mines to the Northern, Central and Southern rail lines crossing the state.

Their legacy was sealed with the newly named Clark County in 1909. With the building of Hoover Dam, our region enjoyed prosperity while elsewhere the Great Depression was endured. Steam engine trains bustled with supplies converging on Las Vegas en route to Boulder City and the Dam.

We are one of only two states with a train in our state Seal. And it was placed there before we even had a railroad—call it wish fulfillment.

Las Vegas grew on the shoulders of boomtowns it came to eclipse. But, railroads, ranches, and mines remain our legacy. Today, gold is king again, and coal ore is the number-one commodity transported by rail.

William Clark retired to a lavish mansion in Manhattan, while my grandfather had his hand on the throttle of the Bronx to Coney Island train. Ross Clark, whose idea it was to build the Salt Lake to LA line, remained a formative leader in land and water rights here; through his public legacy is over-shadowed by his big brother.

We are all given opportunity to peer at what lies buried, to remember how this world of ours evolved, even if but to turn over a rock and look at our community’s origins and our place in it, more closely.

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This essay originally ran on KNPR Network

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Discovering the Rail Way

I listened to the trains rumbling in the night as a child. My older brother rode boxcars across the country on his way home from Vietnam. Getting off at the train yard near our house, he walked through the back door during dinner to great excitement. Romance about train travel was still common then.

Decades later, the trains rolling in the night worked there way into my dreams when I lived south of Las Vegas in a desert town that abutted the tracks.

While the role of mining in shaping Nevada remains more present, the role railroads played, is forgotten by most. These rolling monuments to our past still carry an enormous amount of freight through our valley, but the sad fact is that passenger trains no longer even stop in Las Vegas.

Trains were not just lifelines, but built Nevada’s towns and its commerce, making mining, ranching and agriculture more economical. A novelty experience to us today was once the main means of transporting people and goods across the country. Until the early 1950s, ninety-percent of US mail was transported by railroad.

The dominance of trains was transformed not only by the waxing and waning of mine fortunes, but also by the birth and growth of our highways. By 1980, forty-two railroads bisecting our nation were consolidated into seven. Passenger rail became a nostalgic experience, which I enjoyed when I came of age, and rode the west Coast Starlight—still considered the most scenic train ride in the U.S. More recently, I rode the historic Nevada Southern Railroad out of Boulder City.

While the original Boulder City Depot now stands at the Clark County Museum, seven miles of the Nevada the Southern Railway still vibrates with the wheels of a vintage restored train that runs on weekends. Hop aboard in Boulder City and ride in comfort on restored green velvet seats. The historic Boulder City Branch Line also features an outdoor museum including a vintage postal car. Step inside and perhaps recall watching many a western featuring train robbers going for the postal car.

For nostalgic rides reeking of the old west you can also hit the historic passenger trains in Elko, Ely, Virginia City and Carson City. Other communities, like Goodsprings, are working to get old rail beds turned into recreation corridors. You can walk the Historic Rail Road Trail in Lake Mead National Recreation area as an alternative route to Hoover Dam. A regional distinction are the many railroad ties that ended up recycled into ranch fencing and walls, such as at Walking Box Ranch.

Some say there is still no better way to explore the U.S. and relive our expansion west than by train. Our transcontinental passenger rail, Amtrak, has recently had its highest ridership in decades.

I’d like to ride all five of Nevada’s historic trains, but until then, I’ll content myself with my yard art of old train bits—a spring coil that could break your foot, rail stakes that prop up plants and pots on my deck, as well as a section of rail I use as a boot scraper. Trains will always be useful to me.

AIRED ON KNPR Network MAY 8, 2010

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Leatherback Sea Turtles are BACK

Leatherbacks, besides being the largest sea turtles in Vieques and the world, dive deeper, have warmer body temperatures, widest ranging migration, have the oldest evolutionary roots, and are more numerous than any other sea turtles. At 4 to 8 feet, the adult leatherback can reach weights of 500 to 2000 pounds. Giants of the sea they remain in size, habits and history.

These reptilian relics were once prevalent in nearly every ocean. Yet worldwide, female leatherbacks have decline more than 50% in the last thirty years. These days, small nesting populations in Puerto Rico range from 30 to 90 females a year—with an estimated 19 to 37 females expected to nest on Vieques beaches this season.

Unlike other sea turtles seen in Vieques’ waters, the leatherback’s shell is rubbery-like, not bony hard like all other species. Ridges along the leatherback’s flexible shell give it a more hydrodynamic structure, helping them to dive up to 4,200 feet/1,280 meters deep, and for up to 85 minutes. They have been officially listed as endangered since 1970.

Sadly, plastic bags at sea look like leatherback’s favorite food: jellyfish. They also feed on sea urchins, squid, crustaceans, tunicates, fish, blue-green algae, and floating seaweed. As much as eleven pounds of plastic has been found in the stomach of a single leatherback. Plastic can block their ability to digest, and they starve. These inky blue carnivores can live up to 45 years, if they do not fall victim to humans, directly or indirectly.

Vieques’ National Wildlife Refuge biologist Mike Barandiaran said, “How can we not have deep respect for these amazing creatures who grace our waters and beaches. Their ancestors go back more than 100 million years.”

Along with Mike and the Refuge, Julian Garcias’ group TICATOVE is tracking and studying local leatherbacks with the help of volunteers trained by Mike Evans, the manager at Sandy Point Nat. Wildlife Refuge (Saint Croix), and others at their long-established leatherback program.

A new set of community volunteers have recently attended their first training. Volunteers are critical especially since the only two biologists assigned to Vieques were let go by the Commonwealth Government. This included, “Erick Bermudez, who continues to work hard with me in the conservation of these endangered species,” said Julian Garcia, President of TICATOVE. “We are grateful for the grant support received this year from Biologist Carlos Diez, Coordinator of PR Sea Turtle Conservation Project in the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.” Because of this grant TICATOVE members will be providing more assistant to the valiant conservation work being done in the DNER Natural Reserve Puerto Mosquito Biolumnest Bay and municipal areas by Edgardo Belardo.

Monitoring and patrolling is critical to protecting nests and baby sea turtles, and the new volunteers are working with more experienced members to protect these giants of the sea that are currently nesting on our beautiful island.

“Everyone on the beach can do their part by not disturbing nests, which helps maximize hatchling survival,” reminds Julian. “Do not disturb stakes on the beach and avoid stepping on nesting sites. Please do not let domestic animals run loose on the beach, and do not consume turtle products.”

Making Baby Leatherbacks: FACTOIDS
• Leatherbacks reach reproductive maturity earlier than most other sea turtles.
• They mate at sea when females are about 9 -15 years old.
• Females come ashore to lay their eggs.
• Females nest an average of 5 to 7 times within a single mating season.
• Their eggs are laid almost always at night in clutches of about 60 – 120 eggs.
• After incubating for 60 to 65 days, hatchlings emerge usually at night.
• Nest building leaves a large area of disturbed sand, when the female disguises the nest.
• Females return to the nesting beach areas they sprang from every 2-3 years to lay their eggs.
• Variable temperatures inside the nest determine the sex of the hatchlings: as in “Hot girls and Cool guys.”

Why Are There Less Leatherbacks Today? MORE FACTOIDS:
• Humans: exploit them for their eggs and their meat;
• Fishing: they get caught in nets, trawlers, lines and gears used by commercial fisheries;
• Coastal Development: nesting habitat is lost or degraded;
• Beachfront Lighting: disorients hatchlings;
• Other Animals: native and non-native predators (including mongoose and dogs off leash on the beaches) eat eggs and baby turtles.
• Food Depletion: degradation of their foraging habitats;
• Floating Trash: marine debris and trash at sea, ends up in their stomachs; and
• Accidents: they are hit by watercraft, commercial and personal.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I proclaim my lifelong love affair with trees, today, on Earthday. Trees are part of my internal landscape, entwined in my childhood memories of adventure and exploration: Surveying territory from the perch of the highest tree in the neighborhood; Games of imagination in a tree fort.

While I no longer climb trees, here in our vast desert, cooling shade can be as exquisite a pleasure as childhood games once were.

Many trees like our ranch favorite, the Cottonwood, live longer than we do. Our state tree, the Bristlecone, is among the oldest trees in the world. Early explorers and frontier folk carved names and dates onto tree trunks, creating historical graffiti.

Today, trees make cities more livable. Las Vegas plans to double its tree canopy in the next fifteen-years. That’s a lot of shade on the horizon. Turns out parked cars need shade too, to reduce evaporative emissions from leaky fuel tanks and worn hoses. More shading trees in parking lots will be required.

You might say that every tree is a kind of air filter, helping us reduce our carbon footprint—the amount of carbon pollution our lifestyle creates. Leaves absorb carbon dioxide, and with water from the tree’s roots make a powerful sugar that it stores and feeds on, ……Releasing oxygen back out through their leaves.

We’ve come a long way from the handful of native tree species originally growing at the oasis that became Las Vegas. We’ve achieved biodiversity with introduced trees that have become common, and through decades of tree fads. Thirty-years ago, fast growing Mulberries were popular. Twenty-years ago, we were hip to Eucalyptus, African Sumac, Pines & Plums. Ten-years ago, we wanted Ash, Elm and Pistach. Today, the trees of choice are ones that are the most sustainable & drought tolerant with the least pollen, and recommended by the Southern Nevada Arborists and Master Gardeners.

We’re learning that “topping trees” tends to slowly kill them by scalding their interior. I know the heartbreak of losing a fifteen-foot tree that I planted as a two foot sapling, because it was pruned badly.
As we transition to turfless yards, we need to remember that turf once held water for our trees, and without turf, we need to adjust our drip emitters. We’re finally adapting our aesthetic sensibilities to the ecosystem we live in—the arid desert—to appreciating our native Mesquites, Acacia and Desert Willow.

Step into your internal landscape, walk among your tree memories and consider joining the great tree-loving fraternity. Hit Henderson on Arbor Day, April 30th for a tree giveaway. Or, turn out this weekend for Earth Day activities. Or stay home with Follow our link to American Forests’ green calculator to size-up your carbon footprint. Zoom into Nevada on our link to the cool tree maps in the “The Atlas of Global Conservation.”

Tread lightly this Earth Day, and acknowledge trees as valuable members of your community.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Flora Portrait: Botanical Artist Volunteers at Refuge

“It’s great every day to be able to walk out into a sun filled landscape that holds new flowering plants for me to learn to identify, draw and paint,” said botanical artist Donald Davidson from his perch in the sand.

After ten years of volunteering in national parks and wildlife refuges across the American southwest, Donald Davidson arrived at the Vieques Refuge to do a month’s work—the beginning of what he hopes will be a long-term relationship with the island’s flora and its residents.

“My focus is on those plants which are of ecological importance,” he says. “It helps to understand the botanical history of Vieques.”

There are many different vegetation types on Vieques, in part because just 11,000 years ago it was physically connected to the islands that surround it. This was during glacial periods when the climate was thought to be drier and cooler, and sea levels fluctuated drastically.

During the 19th century, most of Vieques was tragically cleared of its dense forest under the direction of the colonial Spanish. The ruin of the native forest was so extensive, that by 1851 timber had to be imported. This clear cutting profoundly disturbed the native ecosystem, reduced the natural habitat for both flora and fauna, and caused the rivers in Vieques to dry up. Sugarcane came to dominate the entire island, and as that industry died out, the drier eastern side where grasslands came to dominate was then used for grazing cattle. As both the plantation and ranching eras came to an end, the island thickened with invasive species. People introduced Mesquite, Acacia, Tam-tam, Brazilian Jazmine and other trees, which in turn was spread by the remaining livestock. This was followed by 60 years of military use, including severe bombing impacts by the U.S. Navy.

“Conserving biological diversity and restoring the natural equilibrium of the plants and animals on Vieques is a long term commitment,” said Mike Barandarian, Refuge biologist. “After two centuries of disturbance, it only makes sense that it will take decades to return this island to its natural balance, based on the available scientific data.”

As part of a mid- to long-term coastal forest restoration project on the Refuge, masters’ degree biology student, Franchesca Ruiz, a member of Ticatove (a local community based conservation group) and a Farjado native, commutes daily from the mainland to lead a work crew eradicating invasive species along Playa La Chiva.

To find and identify native plants, Donald has worked closely with biologist, and Vieques Conservation & Historic Trust (VCHT) and Ticatove member, Erick Bermudez, who has helped many understand the island’s flora and fauna, while guiding local school groups, Girl Scouts, and visiting academics, as well as during his six years with the PR Dept. of Natural Resources.

Other ongoing plant conservation projects at the Refuge, include the cataloguing and building of an actual and digital herbarium (samples of dried plants and seeds) collection as a reference resource by botanist Dr. Breckon of University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.

Vieques, at the center of an archipelago, is considered a land bridge between the Greater and the Lesser Antilles, and has many plants that originated in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean that have naturalized over many decades. In addition to those introduced by humans, birds continuously carry seeds from one island to another and excrete them, as do imported animals. Seeds also arrive on the wind and in storms.

Eighty percent of the 830 plant species on Vieques are now considered native. These cluster into 109 families—meaning they share genetic traits, just as in humans. There are 27 rare plant species on the island, five of which are listed as endangered because there are few living examples left. During a series of volunteer trips, Donald will draw the endangered species, as well as the ones to be propagated in the new Refuge greenhouses being built later this year as a partially sustainable community project.

Donald’s has so far created twenty botanical illustrations of plants from several of the six ecological zones here on the island—sub-tropical dry forest to subtropical moist forest. From the Mangrove forest he drew one of the four mangrove species, Mangle Botón, whose crimson flower is accented with a yellow stamen. Mangroves are one of Puerto Rico’s most endangered ecosystems, and are critical to migratory birds and the bioluminescent bay. From the beach vegetation, he drew the orchid-like low shrub with succulent leaves and olive-like fruit of the Borbón, as well as several others species commonly found in this zone.

Donald’s botanical images will be used for interpretive display at the Refuge’s new greenhouses that will propagate endangered and native plants so they be used in restoration of the land, as well as to sell to the public to encourage the planting of native species. Donald’s artwork will also be used in interpretive displays for the public at strategic points in the Refuge including along the boardwalk, to be rebuilt. An art exhibit of Vieques Flora has been mentioned for the VCHT museum, and at Ticatove’s new offices opening in 2011.

Workshops with children and adults are in the plans for his next volunteer assignment on Vieques; to show simple ways to depict what defines one flower or plant from another. “Art is an activity that anyone can do regardless of their experience level,” he says. “Teaching art as a way to teach conservation offers essential messages to all participants.” These include:
• Take pride in your natural heritage;
• Be inspired by your surrounds; and
• Understand that some plants are more important to Vieques’ future than others.

“Because forest is so important here, I look forward to drawing more flowering and fruit trees, and to document the importance of edible plants here,” says Donald. “Of course all the rare plants, too.”

“Discovering and drawing a plant I have not seen before is like the thrill of the hunt, but with the benefit of not taking something away. I draw on location not from photos or picked plants. The term is ‘en plein air,’” he says. “Art always gives focus to beauty.”

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Conservation at the Vieques Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico

"These eggs are intact." It was an exciting moment in a normal conservation monitoring activity-collecting data on endangered turtle nests from last year's hatching. But, there suddenly in the eroded bank of sand was a newly laid hawksbill sea turtle It was the first new hawksbill nest of the 2010 season. It would need intervention to survive.

By relocating the nest to a patch of beach that was not eroded and allowing them to finish their maturation, the endangered baby turtles' chances of survival during this early passage of life would be greatly increased.

These eggs would have been laid by an adult female weighting from 80-160 pounds (depending on her age), no greater than three feet in length, who would have excavated the moist nest using her flippers, laid her eggs, and then gently covered it over. Her eggs need about 60 days to incubate under the sand to mature and hatch into fully formed baby turtles about 2 inches in length.

During a follow up visit to monitor the relocated nest, the hatchlings were just breaking out of their ping-pong sized shells under the sand. But, unfortunately, the area above ground was covered with the sandy tracks of prime turtle hatchling predators-mongoose, night heron and ghost crabs.

That evening, five volunteers, including me, gathered to release the baby turtles. Wearing red head lamps (bright light contributing to the turtle's disorientation) and under a waning moon, the volunteers shepherded the 91 turtles towards the gentle waves. Those that make it on the next leg of their journey will live among the protective masses of floating seaweed, eating and sleeping. The ecological loss of an adult Hawksbill is enormous because it takes 20-25 years for it to reach reproductive maturity.

The sad fact is that only an estimated 1 in a 1000 turtles makes it to adulthood, which is why it is so important to increase their survivability. If allowed to flourish, one day they can be removed from the endangered species list.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I went on an energy diet just in time for today’s Earth Day. For ten days, I lived off the grid. Back in Boulder City, normal amenities seemed like absolute luxuries, especially a hot shower. I know most people aren’t as flexible as I am about such sacrifices. But sacrifices are on the horizon for us all, it seems, when it comes to water conservation. Federal water shortage restrictions will be triggered when Lake Mead goes down another 30 feet.

But first, let’s imagine snowy cold mountain meadows, because when we turn on our faucets, it’s from the alpine forests that our waters journey. The water towers for Las Vegas and 70 percent of the Inland West are actually 700 miles away in snowfall on the Rockies. In northern Nevada, the Sierras are the water towers. Snowpack is like a high-altitude reservoir; and forests are like water sponges, storing melted snow for the coming summer. But a warming climate is melting snowpack.

Unfortunately, our stellar sunny skies cause enough water evaporation from Lakes Powell and Mead to supply nearly 4 million people for an entire year. Evaporated water knows no boundaries and floats off elsewhere.

It’s a comfort to see Mt. Charleston snowcapped on the horizon, to recall the winter’s freak snow and our recent rain. I could almost forget the drought along the north end of Lake Mead, so green with compact creosote bushes it recalls Ireland, as crazy as that sounds, the high ridges of black basalt, the narrow green valley bisected by a single road rising to a rim, the charismatic big-headed sunflowers smiling back at me.

This is the aesthetics of desert greenery we are supposed to appreciate. It has been said that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the U.S. Agriculture actually uses the majority of U.S.’s water, not homeowners, though not here where residential use is over 50 percent. We don’t want a future of choosing between affordable food and affordable water.

We can adapt our habits more than we might want to admit. Gas at four-dollars a gallon taught us that. Perhaps it was growing up with Depression-era parents, but conservation is a natural habit for me. Even though I grew up back east, I can no more imagine replicating my father’s proudly maintained green lawn here in the desert, than I can fathom how in good conscience more Las Vegans don’t take the Southern Nevada Water Authority up on landscaping rebates. Perhaps they will see the light come July when Lake Mead is predicted to be within 17 feet of the federal water restriction level of 1075. We all will, if and when, the water emergency measures hit. It might be the instructive lesson we need.

Which green is more important—the pastoral grass lawn or the green ethos of conserving more water? Some people undoubtedly feel they deserve their lawns. Deserves got nothing to do with it, as the movie character played by Clint Eastwood, so infamously said.

Want to learn more about all the ways you can save water? Then hit the Springs Preserve this Saturday for the free “What on Earth” event. And, next time you feel the wet of water…appreciate it’s value…it’s only increasing.

# # #

Airred on KNPR April 22, 2009: see archive to click and listen

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I went on an energy diet just in time for today’s Earth Day. For ten days, I lived off the grid. Back in Boulder City, normal amenities seemed like absolute luxuries, especially a hot shower. I know most people aren’t as flexible as I am about such sacrifices. But sacrifices are on the horizon for us all, it seems, when it comes to water conservation. Federal water shortage restrictions will be triggered when Lake Mead goes down another 30 feet. But first, let’s imagine snowy cold mountain meadows, because when we turn on our faucets, it’s from the alpine forests that our waters journey. The water towers for Las Vegas and 70 percent of the Inland West are actually 700 miles away in snowfall on the Rockies. In northern Nevada, the Sierras are the water towers. Snowpack is like a high-altitude reservoir; and forests are like water sponges, storing melted snow for the coming summer. But a warming climate is melting snowpack. Unfortunately, our stellar sunny skies cause enough water evaporation from Lakes Powell and Mead to supply nearly 4 million people for an entire year. Evaporated water knows no boundaries and floats off elsewhere. It’s a comfort to see Mt. Charleston snowcapped on the horizon, to recall the winter’s freak snow and our recent rain. I could almost forget the drought along the north end of Lake Mead, so green with compact creosote bushes it recalls Ireland, as crazy as that sounds, the high ridges of black basalt, the narrow green valley bisected by a single road rising to a rim, the charismatic big-headed sunflowers smiling back at me. This is the aesthetics of desert greenery we are supposed to appreciate. It has been said that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the U.S. Agriculture actually uses the majority of U.S.’s water, not homeowners, though not here where residential use is over 50 percent. We don’t want a future of choosing between affordable food and affordable water. We can adapt our habits more than we might want to admit. Gas at four-dollars a gallon taught us that. Perhaps it was growing up with Depression-era parents, but conservation is a natural habit for me. Even though I grew up back east, I can no more imagine replicating my father’s proudly maintained green lawn here in the desert, than I can fathom how in good conscience more Las Vegans don’t take the Southern Nevada Water Authority up on landscaping rebates. Perhaps they will see the light come July when Lake Mead is predicted to be within 17 feet of the federal water restriction level of 1075. We all will, if and when, the water emergency measures hit. It might be the instructive lesson we need. Which green is more important—the pastoral grass lawn or the green ethos of conserving more water? Some people undoubtedly feel they deserve their lawns. Deserves got nothing to do with it, as the movie character played by Clint Eastwood, so infamously said. Want to learn more about all the ways you can save water? Then hit the Springs Preserve this Saturday for the free “What on Earth” event. And, next time you feel the wet of water…appreciate it’s value…it’s only increasing. # # #