National Geographic : 1987 Jan
Management (BLM) to formulate a program-the CaliforniaDesert ConservationArea Plan-toguide recreationaluse while accommodating, to an extent, ranchers,miners, and the military. The desert encompasses parts of the relativelycool, high Mojave and the lower, hotter Sonoran Desert. CaliforniaDesert, A Worldly Wilderness light vibrates over the white surface of a playa at sunset. It is a land as open to the eye as the surface of the moon. T WOULD BE STRANGE, of course, if others didn't see the desert differ ently. For many it is not a place of hushed and intricate beauty, but a dreary stretch of wasteland between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. A vacant lot awaiting development. "There's nothing important out there," a driver told me at the start of the Barstow to Vegas motorcycle race, yelling over the racket of his engine. "We're the ones making something useful out of it, putting this race on." The desert's usefulness is thought to lie, variously, with its considerable mineral wealth-borates, gypsum, gold-and its strategic reserves of molybdenum, tung sten, and lanthanides. Or with its depend ably clear, sunny weather, eminently suited to the testing of missiles and aircraft. Or with its reservoirs of alternative energy sunlight, wind, and hot groundwater. Or with its capacity to serve as an unfenced recreation area for a burgeoning population eager to escape the congestion and foul air of large cities. These differing views of how best to use the desert were first brought into sharp focus early in the 1970s-with an explosion in the sale of off-highway vehicles. Interstates 8, 10, and 15 and California 14, the major routes into the desert from the populated coast, were now jammed on Friday nights with motor homes and recreation vehicles. Some pulled trailers full of equipment: gyro copters, land yachts, ultralights, motocross bikes, and dune buggies. Once lonely places like Jawbone Canyon and Johnson Valley in the western Mojave were suddenly full of noise, dust, and people. Ostensibly much of the initial disagree ment over desert use was between vehicle operators and wilderness advocates, or between desert cattle ranchers and envi ronmentalists. But real differences of opin ion were more broad based. People living Barry Lopez is the author of Arctic Dreamsand Desert Notes. Craig Aurness's photographs have illustrated GEOGRAPHIC articles ranging from the Pony Express to troubled Mono Lake.