Lines in the Sand: Young Biologists Save the Threatened Desert Tortoise

The sun creeps over the jagged Coxcomb Mountains, Joshua Tree National Park’s eastern-most border, and falls lightly onto the valley floor ahead. Chris Collins steers a battered Marine van down a narrow, bumpy gravel road. The vastness and seclusion of the surrounding Colorado Desert is breathtaking. But Collins and his five post-graduate volunteers are silent as the scenery unfolds. It’s just another slow morning in Southern California.

Collins, Joshua Tree’s resident Biological Science Technician, stops the van, puts on his Revos and kicks open the old door. The temperature is already rising here in the Pinto Basin. Sturdy creosote bushes and fuzzy cholla cactus eke out a sparse, patient living here despite scorching, rainless days with mercury stuck in the hundreds. Rugged brown mountains surround the Basin, comprising the eastern half of the park’s 700,000 total acres.

The six young biologists have assembled here, as they have every morning for the last four months, to pace the blistering desert floor in search of the desert tortoise. Listed as a threatened species in 1990, Gopherus agassizii has spent milleniums here and throughout the southwest with nary a predator.

The past century, however, has been hard on the tortoise. Biologists say urban sprawl is to blame for the tortoise polulation’s steady decline. The park’s vast and trackless wilderness has been an oasis from human development for the pre-historic reptile. Nearly 200 miles east of Los Angeles, the desert pavement seems half a world away from the nations’ second largest metropolis. But Joshua Tree’s serene Pinto Basin is ground zero in a war of attrition between cactus-hugging environmentalists and developers who have proposed construction of the world’s largest solid waste landfill just one mile southeast of the park’s border.

“It’s a battle,” Collins says definitively. The 30-year-old wildlife researcher grew up in nearby Riverside and spent his adolescence scrambling up many of the 4000 rock climbing routes in the park’s western half. After Northern California’s Humboldt State and park service stints in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, Collins began working in Joshua Tree in 1990.

“Just picture it: the Pinto Basin, a vast, pristine area set aside for protection since 1936. Move south a mile and a you have this big dump, a huge hole in the earth, the largest dump in the world. Putting these two pictures together in your mind, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?'”

Collins has spent the past three years censusing the desert tortoise with Park Ecologist Jerry Freilich, employing everything from hand-held global positioning units (GPS) to SPOT satellite mapping. The Tortoise Team expanded this spring when the five Student Conservation Aides joined the fray. A rag-tag group of twentysomething bio nerds and outdoor freaks, the SCAs have come from as far as Scotland to be footsoldiers in this messy, protracted war.

“If it takes an endangered species, a cute little tortoise, to save the Basin, then that’s fine,” SCA Jacinta Beehner, a 23-year-old graduate student at Washington University, says. “That’s probably the main wrench in the whole Eagle Mine Landfill project.”

* * *

Kaiser Steel Corporation began open pit mining operations at Eagle Mountain in 1948. Iron-ore from the mine was smelted into steel and used in Oakland’s shipyards, in automobiles and construction. Operations ceased in 1983 when the ore was spent, leaving three open pits. The Hoover Dam, the largest arch dam in the United States, would fit with room to spare within the largest.

Palm Springs-based Mine Reclamation Corporation, Inc. (MRC), began leasing the abandoned mine in 1988. The company began acquiring necessary land use approvals from Riverside County and the Bureau of Land Management the following year. Together with Kaiser Steel Resources, Inc., and Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation’s second largest waste disposal company, MRC proposed the $90 million Eagle Mountain Landfill in 1990.

“That pit that was created has left a terrible scar on the earth and that should be reclaimed and remediated. We will restore those original contours,” Richard Daniels, MRC President and CEO says.

The scope of the Eagle Mine Landfill proposal is staggering. Twenty thousand tons of household trash a day would be delivered by train and truck from six southern California counties. Imagine a football field of compacted garbage 40 feet high. Every day. In all, the landfill “footprint” would cover 4,654 acres. Some 839 million tons of garbage, up to 60 per cent from L.A. County alone, would be dumped in the pits over the project’s projected 115-year lifespan.

“When you look at the issues of solid waste, there are sights that are good and there are sights that are not. You want sites that have large seperation of groundwater and that are in arid climates,” Daniels says. “At the closest we’re about 350 feet from groundwater. State law only requires five. Plus we’re building this state of the art 12 layer lining system. All the infrastructure is in place with the Southern Pacific rail line. It is really an ideal spot.”

The Eagle Mine Landfill proposal, Specific Plan #252, is a behemoth of legal text involving a smattering of state and federal agencies. The original Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is, according to Daniels, 22,000 pages long. “That’s eight feet of paper stacked,” he says.

MRC secured a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management (known within dissenting ranks as the Bureau of Livestock and Mines), gained 17 of 20 necessary state and federal permits and submitted their proposal to Riverside County. Initially rejected by the county’s Board of Supervisors, it was later approved on Election Day, 1992.

But San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell stopped the project dead in its tracks last July when, in Case Decision No. 662907, she “set aside and declared void” all of Riverside County’s approvals and MRC’s development plans.

The suit pitted the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), a non-profit citizens action group, and other activist groups against MRC. In all, six plaintiffs and petitioners brought MRC and its partners to task over a litany of environmental issues. After seven months of deliberation, McConnell suspended all activity related to the development of the landfill project and directed the preparation of a new Environmental Impact Report.

“We kicked their butts,” Brian Huse, Pacific Regional Director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a non-profit citizens group, gloats. “The court issued a writ of mandate that told the MRC and Riverside County that they had to go back to the drawing board and produce an EIR that actually says something.”

McConnell’s mandate calls MRC and BLM’s conclusion that “the project will not have a significant adverse effect on the [park]” unsupported by the record, and rebukes company claims that “tortoise impacts appear mitigable and nonsignificant” as groundless. “Nowhere is the impact on the desert tortoise that live in the [park] addressed — in fact, no survey of that population has been taken,” she wrote in her decree.

While MRC, BLM and Riverside County regroup and rewrite their dense proposal, the Tortoise Team continues its survey of the delicate desert biosphere just over the ridge from developers. Though Freilich and Collins contend that their intensified tortoise censusing is not directly related to MRC’s looming development plan, park officials make their opposition to the project clear.

“The lines are drawn in the sand,” Freilich says.

* * *

Gohperus agassizii is a durable beast. Capable of up to a year without water, Freilich says that the desert tortoise is able to sit out entire seasons deep within its burrows. Though census work is complicated by the tortoises’ ability to disappear beneath the scorching desert floor, Collins and crew patiently pace the Basin with scientific precision.

Utilizing a wildlife censusing method known as distance sampling, Collins has led his volunteers on countless treks. As point man, Collins walks a one kilometer line from a known departure point while SCAs and local volunteers fan out behind him, scanning the desert floor.

When a tortoise is spotted, it’s location perpendicular to the line is measured and marked. A GPS reading of longitude and lattitude is taken, the tortoise is measured and weighed, tagged and released. The entire proces takes about ten minutes, but for the Tortoise Team, who may go days without seeing a tortoise, it is the highlight of a very long, very hot day.

David Rees, 25, who left for Joshua Tree just days after receiving his master’s degree in cold and soggy Peatland, Scottland, says that it is the tortoises’ resilience that impresses him most.

“It’s amazing that something like that has evolved and can survive out here. The odds are stacked against them in the desert, but they have managed it for a long time,” Rees says.

“Here you are in all this beautiful, remote, rugged and inhospitable terrain and there’s this animal that’s older than your grandparents,” Collins says. “You just have to stand back and respect it for a while.”

Freilich reports that, so far, the park’s tortoise population appears healthy and numerous despite the species’ regional declines.

“We have large numbers of tortoises. I don’t see huge signs of mortality — sick tortoises or dead ones all over the place. I haven’t seen anything that says they’re in trouble in the park,” he says.

And the Tortoise Team wants to keep it that way. But MRC’s proposal, they insist, poses a very real, very large threat to the Basin’s population of the threatened species. In addition to potential problems with wind blown trash and air quality degradation, Collins says that increased predation is the real threat to the young tortoise population.

“Predators increase due to power lines, roads and especially trash. They all increase raven populations. And ravens are a known predator of juvenile tortoises. We know as a fact from years of census work in the Basin near Eagle Mountain that the raven population right now is very, very, very low,” Collins says. “They’re trying to convince all parties that their management of this largest landfill in the world will not lead to higher raven populations.”

But Collins and his colleagues don’t buy it. Nor are they convinced that MRC’s other promised environmental mitigation, including a 30 foot fence to protect the park from stray litter and a lechate and methane collection system, are sufficient protection for the pristine Basin. Daniels insists that the project’s rigorous environmental controls go far beyond current state and federal guidelines.

“We are working very hard to be sure we impact the park zero. We don’t have lights outside at night to preserve the wilderness experience. We’re working with the Park Service to be sure there’s funding to study the boundary. We are going to provide funding for a park ranger to monitor the area. And if we find some unforseen impact in the future,” Daniels promises, “we’ll be sure that it is corrected.”

“One of the frustrating parts is, you know, people waving their hands and jumping up and down about legitimate environmental concerns over potential what ifs, what ifs, what ifs about our project. But if they just knew where their garbage was going today, they’d look to us as saviors,” Daniels concludes.

Clearly, humanity must find something to do with its trash. Americans produce four pounds of it every day. Greater L.A. wrestles with the disposal of 630,000 tons of solid waste a week. Solid waste disposal has become such a critical issue in California, the state has mandated recycling of 50 percent of the trash stream by the turn of the century. But where Not In My Back Yard is the prevailing attitude, landfill proponents have sought increasingly marginal areas. Deserted areas.

“The word desert to me always meant a lack of, nothing there. Before I came here I pictured sand, just wide open , nothing else. But it’s nothing like that. Nothing at all. There’s so much life in the desert,” Beehner says. “There is a huge philosophical difference between the proponents and the opponents”, NPCA’s Huse says. “They’re coming at us with ‘Hey, this is the best landfill anyone’s ever seen.’ And we’re saing, ‘Yeah, but it’s in the wrong place.'”

Right or wrong, MRC’s Eagle Mine Landfill project is moving full steam ahead. The company will spend the summer reviewing the new EIR draft with all related agencies and citizens. Daniels plans to submit a final proposal for Riverside County approval by Spring, 1996.

“What possible benefit could there be for the National Park to have the world’s largest dump a mile from the border?” Freilich asks. “None the less, it keeps comng back. There are billions and billions of dollars involved in the profits of making this landfill so, sure, I think it’s something worth fighting for.”

* * *

Collins and the Tortoise Team have finished censusing for the day. They have come to a rock face in the heart of the park’s Hidden Valley, dubiously called Gunsmoke. It is an after-work hangout for park employees and a gathering spot for avid climbers. They come from all over the world to practice here where the routes are tricky but never more than a few feet above the desert floor.

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” plays on an old box as a dozen or so neon-clad long hairs and smoking German climbers offer one another chalk, tips and mutual support. Collins and Rees alternate clinging to the chalk-streaked fissures, moving crab-like across the lateral route. Strained and sweating, Collins lunges at tiny handholds, making slow, hard-earned progress. He falls a few feet, but hops back on the rock time after time.

“Doesn’t matter how hot or tired I get out there in the field,” Collins says catching his breath. “I never get tired of the tortoises. We’re doing some groundbreaking, innovative research here and we know that its really going to help these critters.”

Tim Browne, 23, an SCA who came for the climbing but stayed for the desert’s beauty, calls his experience with the Tortoise Team in Joshua Tree transformative.

“All these people want to bulldoze the desert. They’re in such a hurry. But these tortoises live by the century, not by the minute,” he says, pausing to watch the sun fall over the distant, imaginary Pacific. “There’s really something to be learned from that.”

This article first appeared in Swing Magazine

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