The Blue Butterfly at the End
of the Loneliest Road
Notes on the ATVs, sand-dunes and biological diversity in the Nevada desert.
Updated June 27, 2014
This morning they broke into the truck, smashing the window and taking stuff, but that was in Barstow and now we're on the road, a warm breeze is filling the truck. Every auto repair shop in the next two hundred miles is closed for Memorial Day weekend, but Jane finds a guy who'll fix the window in North Las Vegas. His name's Steve and Steve will wait for us – he has ordered pizza to complement our arrival.
In a Russian accent with the crust in his hand, “You hear they're opening up Fremont Street to Prostitution?"
Steve is a big guy with a big loud Las Vegas shirt, and he has a shrine to Al Pacino’s Scarface in his shop. I ask if he’s a fan. He says as if embarrassed, “Scarface is just the name of my dog. This is to remind me of my dog.”
While his workers install the window, he says, "The idea of Vegas is anything goes, that's the way Fremont Street used to be. And now they’re going to bring it back. The hookers will be clean and there will be a lot of police, but they want to market the city for adults again."
Our talk with Steve about freedom is breezy, because breezy is how you talk freedom in Las Vegas.
I look out the door of the shop – North Las Vegas is nothing like the new-money facades of the Strip. North Las Vegas is run-down and haunted by vagrants and mid-day drunks. “Rough neighborhood,” Steve says.
Looking out the door, he says, “Is a funny place, Las Vegas. Money, money!”
I was thinking about Steve's words - how he says Las Vegas instead of Nevada: but Las Vegas is also a product of a state that extols the virtue of freedom.
Almost out of North Las Vegas, and an old lady waves at us like something is wrong with the truck. I pull over and a big white trash bag is stuck underneath. I crawl under and I yank it out and I hear a singe sound, the smell of flesh.
Back in the truck I tell Jane that it was a plastic bag and that I accidentally hit the tail pipe with my arm. And she says it’s first degree.
As we pull off the main road, and head north, Jane bandages my arm with gauze and antibiotics as I comment that we have no music for the next 1,800 miles, because of the thieves.
We are for now homeless. The truck is packed with our belongings. The kayak, strapped above, is stuffed with my uprooted cactus and succulent collection. For years I pried cuttings off the ends of succulent plants at the beautiful Huntington Gardens of Los Angeles and regrew the cuttings in small pots. These plants are a reminder of a city that took me fifteen years to love. None of them are native to Los Angeles, but these plants, like the human city itself, are a collection of immigrant hybrids and subspecies and unusual specimens. Wherever I go, I’ll grow Los Angeles with me.
Los Angeles was our home – our friends, our habits, our blue sky . To leave it is to redefine our lives. The kayak makes the truck look like a sailing ship, I like to think. But with our belongings the truck is weighed low to the ground, like a merchant vessel with ceramics, and the seas beyond are of sage.
We head north on the Great Basin Highway – three hundred miles of sun and sage. Tomorrow will be two-hundred and eighty more, west on what Nevada calls 'The Loneliest Road in America.' Together the two roads can amiably be called consistent.
We're following a farm truck, which ejects a rock from under its wheels. I have time to say to Jane, 'Don't hit us rock!' It thuds against our white merchant-ship, a hole through the headlamp.
Resignation to this fate improves the mood of the traveler, but today as travelers we are also movers, and there should be no such thing as happy moving-travelers.
Weariness and resignation are the Nevada interior. Las Vegas and Reno are poor indicators for the rest of the state, because Las Vegas is more associated with the Southwest and Reno with the Sierra Nevada’s. The Nevada Interior is the center of America's largest desert: the nearly cactus-less, nearly sand-less, largely cold, somewhat olive drab desert called the Great Basin. Hundreds of miles of basin and range, juniper peaks divided by flows of sage flat. The color of the Earth dull, the sky a brilliant blue, and the road straighter than a lizards line to the other side, a land resigned to having a dullard terrain, none of the mystique of the Arizona deserts, none of the color of New Mexico, and defined mostly by its grades so gentle as to offer a dozen hundred mile views an hour.
Hardly unspectacular, these two roads remind us that America still possesses somewhere beyond. On an African Safari, the endless views are a lie created by the photographer and sold by the outfitter, for the game park is tiny, surrounded by reality. But Nevada is truly vast, and these lonely roads are so empty and serene they make your heart like before the roller coaster goes down.
The Loneliest Road in America itself is Highway 50, which begins near a small town called Ely, on the border of Utah. It ends near Reno and Fallon, on the other side.
Nevada is the most mountainous of America's states, 200 ranges in the state. Because Nevada is the Great Basin, most of the lower elevations are like ocean surface, devoid of texture. The mountaintops in this land then are like islands, and biologically they are alpine havens, stirring with life.
One such mountaintop island has been designated a National Park. We spend our evening here in the high elevation of Great Basin National Park, which is filled with alpine colors. From this height, the deep mountain shadows beyond reveal the character of Nevada’s ranges. Isolated by the flattening nature of loose sediments, each north-pointing range is its own entity: animals tend to stick to the ranges themselves, so that the great in-between is nearly lifeless. The island-like nature of this land is revealed by the animals, who would unlikely survive a journey across the valley floors. Central Nevada then, is more Galapagos than desolate – its life stirs among the clouds.
At the second-floor lounge at the Ramada, the waitress says Chablis like Shab-less and she says Merlot like Myrhh-Lot. We enjoy dinner to the purr of slots below us. The amount of casino-entertainment in this distant town is astounding, and – with nothing to offer outsiders and no links to other Nevada towns, Ely, a border town, is primarily a getaway for Utah folks. Ely, then, is a reminder that even Mormons lavish their sins.
We watch the fruitless struggles below us - Mormon gambling struggles - while discussing our own homeless fate. The slot-machine player is addicted to the high of nominal monetary pay-off; he encapsulates the lowest man can become: Pavlov's dog tapping on a machine. Slot-players all have bad skin and many more have the chain-smokers cough and bad taste in clothes.
Below, a woman in a big oversized t-shirt hears the clink of coins, and she stands up waving her cigarette in the air and doing a Homer Simpson dance. With her other hand the coins come out into her ice-cream pail. She is on top of her world. Sixty-five dollars, maybe? Another four hours more, little conversation, few thoughts, many quarters.
This homeless fate is maybe not so bad. When you leave what’s not important behind, when you have no gardens to tend and few belongings, when you have no music, no entertainment and all that is left is you and your life partner, then the idea of home really strikes you. The more you gather, sometimes, the less you remember that home is really an ongoing conversation with family than a physical place.
The next day I notice the elevation in my breaths. The air is crisp, and we in our low-slung truck; we're going west on the Loneliest Road in America. The press maligned this East-West road through Nevada in the 1980s as the most awfully dull road in America. Time Magazine and the American Automobile Association both panned the road as unremarkable if not outright dangerous to motorists.
The State of Nevada - ever cunning in turning sage into gold, turned that Yankee-Doodle moniker into something malleable. The tourism board developed a ‘Highway 50 Survival Kit’ and then gave the highway a name. Like Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway, colorful names have improved the collective image of Nevada’s hardest-to-sell regions.
Most of the land in Nevada is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, or what we call BLM land. That sounds like bureaucracy, but the existence of BLM land is one of the coolest parts about living in the United States.
Sixty-eight percent of Nevada is public BLM land. The idea behind this free land is that it is there for everybody. A place where you can do pretty much whatever you want. American land that you don't need to own in order to harvest. In fact, BLM land is where free-range cows graze, and miners mine.
These open lands are different from both the national parks and monuments of the United States, and the public lands of Europe. America's national parks have strict rules; Europe’s mountain ranges have established designations for the type of entertainment that is encouraged. But American BLM land, which is located primarily in 12 western states, is where you go if you need to walk on stilts in a clown costume. BLM land is where you take your shotgun, your rhapsody, your soapbox, your journal. BLM land is your own canvas: it is old, and nearly untouched.
In Austin, a gentleman with thirty pens in his overalls offers us a pamphlet of his city, which happens to be the geographical center of Nevada. Mike "I lost my lungs, that's why I have to drag this canister around" works in a roadside building, welding all day. "This was just a hobby," he says, showing Jane a coyote pelt, which "an Indian friend skinned for me." He says, "Coyote pelts are like socks, you see?" He turns over the dead thing, revealing the complete outers of an animal. "When you kill a coyote, you just slip the fur off the body."
Mike trades things. He trades for rocks, gems, corals, knick-knacks and steel. From all of this, he welds knives, bracelets, clocks.
"When my health went, I turned my hobby into my business." He rolls his chair from his welding room out to greet us, dragging his air. Mike reveals Austin to us through his collection of old photographs. He left here in middle age, but open spaces and freedom led him slowly back home.
"How is the Toiyabe Cafe?" I ask.
"Greasy spoon, just like the other one, but it's fine," he says.
The Toiyabe Cafe is dark and with the fragrance of the decay of burger meat and with that mold smell you only smell in dark corners of small town buildings. On the green wall and in the windowsills hang clown and buffoon dolls, and the bust of a pronghorn antelope. All seem to stare eerily, as if from beyond the grave conspiring for our fries. By the bathroom, the sign says:
Question: God, Why Didn't You Intervene at Columbine when all those children were murdered?
Answer: God: Because they don't allow me in the schools.
The owner of the Toiyabe Cafe interrupts us with questions while we read Mike's pamphlet. The owner's hair is mostly missing up front, but like a wild shag rug in the back. His skin is the color of the chicken you forgot was in the fridge. How come a man so lucky to live in the sun is so pale?
Maybe the myth of the wide open is wide-open spaces. The farther from civilization, the closer the houses, the tighter people cling. Here in Austin, where homes are like sardines cropped by a sea of sage, you see that country people are little different from city people, only with less data by which to judge the world - small country towns breed indoor people too.
Reading the pamphlet that Mike gave us is like reading any small town scribe legitimizing the lifestyle of his town ('When I left the rat race, I realized how little the rats missed me being in their race') but this part I read twice:
Central Nevada is the last place in America where freedom is truly free.
The theme of freedom inundates the human experience in central Nevada, and this pamphlet is just one small hint. But what happens when wide open country spaces feel the pressure of the world's growing population? Do the rules of freedom change as the world becomes more crowded?
I am thinking back to that breezy conversation with Steve, the window guy, about freedom. Little do we know that soon, Jane and I will get caught in the middle of a raging debate about the changing nature of freedom in Nevada. As we head west, we’ll land dead-center in a debate that is sparking violence and hatred and lawsuits. A debate that involves off-roaders, out-of-state environmentalists, a serpent who hisses in the wind, and a group of Indians, whose sacred spiritual lands have been taken from them.
The hill slopes upward, and we cross through millions of giant green caterpillars in furious slow motion. What I want to say to the caterpillars is slow down, enjoy life, why inch along so fast? But instead we just ride over them.
The ones that we don't run over are tomorrow’s hummingbird sphinx moths, one of the largest insects of the North American deserts.
Up in elevation again and the road is all orange butterflies. A handful slap to juice against the truck, but millions more curve up and over the road like a vast hooved migration.
I don't know about this area, but for some reason it attracts butterflies and moths.
Some people think the word butterfly is a once-whimsical mispronunciation of a type of insect that seemed so free. In old English, this sovereign creature was thought to be named for its lighthearted disregard for gravity. Before English settled on its name, they say the butterfly was the 'Flutterby.' But other etymologists point out the Old English word was ‘buttorfleoge’, a word that in the old European languages means roughly ‘milk thief.’ This latter explanation holds more water, because northern Europeans thought those heavenly creatures stole their milk.
While some butterflies adapt to changing conditions, the majority of the world’s butterfly species (there are about 18,500 species in the world, but only 750 in North America) are sensitive to change, and unable to adapt to quickly changing environments. Because of this, butterflies are often used by ecologists as indicator species - when they dwindle, it means other dwindling is on the way.
The Loneliest Road leads downward, the high mountain flora fades and the landscape is more and more alkaline flats. The weather warms. And then, over a hill, for the first time on the entire Loneliest Road we see trash: beer cans, plastic fast-food bags, half-eaten sandwiches chucked into the scrub: The end of the allegorical Lonely Road. For while civilization is still many miles away, I know the trash indicates what's on the end of this slope.
It's called Sand Mountain, and it's the second largest sand dune in North America. Sand Mountain is a seif-dune, and was molded from the sands of dried up Lake Lahontan. In the Pleistocene, this sea covered the Great Basin.
Sand Mountain is BLM land, and it has been designated in part for the use of off road vehicles. The uniquely steep, soft and rolling grades of this mountain of sand have created a dreamscape for gasoline-powered fun.
As we roll into the Sand Mountain Recreation Area, we see off-roading at its finest: homemade dune buggies wheelyin' it up steep slopes and Hondas soaring in mid-air. Loud fun at sixty miles per hour.
But remember this: Sand Mountain is the size of about four Home Depot's. Sand Mountain, next to Nevada itself, is over on aisle 8, between the screws and the grommets.
I take a walk into Sand Mountain town, a mess of RV's and trucks, people with toolboxes under the hoods of dune buggies and four-wheelers. There are 7,800 off-roaders at Sand Mountain this weekend, the largest crowd here in history.
An elder couple cooking some hot dogs and drinking Buds invites me into their camp to ask me how I hurt my arm. Both are deeply tanned. The purple beer can coolers say Happy Daze, Happy Wayz. The man shows his missing teeth when I say, “tail pipe burn.” Flipping the hot dogs, he says, “We don’t go up there,” Referring to the towering dunes above. “We jus’ puddle around the base here.”
By the end of this weekend, 26 injuries will be counted. Rumors of deaths on Sand Mountain are whispering through the village.
A BLM representative will later write, ‘I… wanted to let everyone know that fortunately there were no deaths this weekend. There were a number of serious injuries; head trauma, broken pelvis, open ankle fracture, severe lacerations and some less serious injuries; dehydration, pipe burns, broken collarbone, etcetera. To my knowledge, even the worst injury - head trauma to a child - had a good prognosis for a complete recovery. And in case anyone asks, yes, the child was wearing a helmet.’
It was reported that the BLM rangers responded to these injuries with heroism and efficiency, in some cases organizing quick air rescues. Moaning off-roaders were flown out in helicopters and patched up.
But why then have the off-roaders been attacking the people who’ve been wiping their brows and bandaging their wounds? Why have the off-roaders been pelting the BLM rangers with eggs?
The answer is a complex one, and has to do with Nevada’s reputation as being the freest state in America, and the reality that it is also the fastest growing. The answer also involves a butterfly. A beautiful butterfly, which transforms from the sand in late summer, the males glowing a pale blue.
In the evening Jane settles with her feet up, reading an Andre Dubus collection in the truck. Before I leave, she asks, "Why are some sports so clearly part of a certain socioeconomic group?" and I begin a walk up the side of the dune, along the forbidden zone - a marked line where hikers are free to go but motorized vehicles firmly restricted.
That the off-roaders do not respect this line is obvious, because there are tracks everywhere, cutting into the brush. Off-roaders have even scarred the desert study area, a sensitive species section far from the main dune area that includes colorful wildflowers and the recently pillaged remains of an old Pony Express station.
To many of us, this idea of the sand dune conceptualizes the American southwest. But sand dunes are few and far between. Their rarity and their unusual geologies create unusual diversification in the living kingdoms. Dunes, like islands, attract unique plants and animals. Think of a sand dune as like a little rainforest, only more beige.
Walking up this dune, I feel like an outsider, trespassing on someone else’s property. Motors are screaming by the dozens, sand is flying in the air, radios are playing below. The stink of gas and oil, the shouts. As a non-motorized walker, maybe this beautiful dune was not designated for me?
I see a man riding a four-wheeler slowly, photographing the brush along the way. His behavior seems odd, him being the first ‘duner’ I see without the throttle gunning. I approach him and ask, “Excuse me, are you the ranger?”
He says yes, he is. His name is Dean. He looks like a Stormtrooper in his helmet and goggles and white desert clothing. Dean was hired by the BLM five years ago as the resident plant ecologist. He is personally responsible for the plant management of five and a half million acres. “Which is why I’m always lagging behind,” he says.
I ask about the attacks, about off-roaders going after the rangers with eggs.
"Not just eggs," Dean says behind his helmet and goggles. "They've also smashed through the window of the ranger truck with a rock."
Despite the threats and violence, Dean respects the off-roaders, and is clear that his duty is to balance their interests with the other duties of the BLM. "Usually they spend an hour or two riding, and then they come back down, but I'm over there on the back side all day, and they know I'm out there, and they keep an eye out for me, because you know it can be dangerous way out there."
The off-roaders are angry, because the BLM rangers are regulating Sand Mountain in order to protect species' that have allegedly been threatened by off-roading. The sand mountain blue butterfly is not on the endangered species list, but it is on its way to being listed. The off-roaders are doing everything they can to stop this from happening. And this fight is raising the temperature around here.
Off-roaders have been run down and chased away by environmentalists nearly everywhere. In Southern California’s Imperial Sand Dunes, a hotspot for the off-road circuit, the BLM closed much of the dunes in order to protect a threatened plant species called Pierson's milk vetch.
As if refugees, the off-roaders fled places like California, which were filled with ‘extremist environmentalists’. The answer became the last place in America where freedom is truly free. Off-roaders began turning to the giant Sand Mountain at the end of the loneliest road.
The problem with the California exodus means weekends like this – thousands of off-road vehicles. Heavy traffic.
Sand Mountain is the only known home of a subspecies of the Pallid Dotted-Blue Butterfly (Euphilotes pallescens). The contentious violence-inducing butterfly offshoot is called the Sand Mountain Blue Butterfly.
Extensive off-road use, possibly in addition to invasive plant species; maybe even drought, means the landscape of Sand Mountain is changing rapidly. But what's clear is that off-roading has been directly responsible for decreasing the habitat of the blue butterfly.
So obvious, that the same environmental group that had been forcing off-roaders from the dunes in other southwestern states are back again, getting fired up to....sue the BLM. The country's most aggressive environmental organization, The Center for Biological Diversity is a small group from Tucson, Arizona whose mission is keeping any endangered species alive. Their chosen method, lawsuits.
I ask Dean, isn’t it completely nuts that these environmental groups actually sue your agency?
Dean says, “The reason they might sue us is that the BLM is not supposed to authorize any actions that would allow a species to get listed on the endangered species act."
Dean is precise in his words, and as a public officer, he never reveals personal feelings, like a soldier he serves. He says, "The BLM should not authorize any recreation if it degrades the habitat. On the other hand, other groups could equally say that the BLM is not managing this public land on a multiple use basis. You see, the Bureau of Land Management is charged with the task of managing the multiple use of public land, so we are supposed to allow recreational activities while protecting cultural resources as well: wildlife, wildlife habitat and planned diversity. They sue us because they feel we are not doing the job we are supposed to be doing.”
I tell him that Jon Crowley Jr., who is considered the off-roader’s expert on the Sand Mountain issue, told me that the BLM and the environmentalists have “no baseline to know if there is any decline” of the subspecies. Crowley contends there is no scientific evidence to prove that the butterfly is being harmed by off-roading. He also contends “…the Endangered Species Act goes too far to protect subspecies. There are only very slight variations between subspecies of Euphilotes pallenscens.”
Dean says that the butterfly exists on a thousand acres of habitat. I ask him where. He says, “This is it. Right here.” Between the grommets and the screws, there is a piece of dust. That is the blue butterfly habitat.
He points to the area around us, which is just sand.
”A couple years ago, this was all Kearney buckwheat, which is the larval host plant for the sand mountain blue butterfly. But with the increased traffic, they’ve taken out a lot of it.”
Dean shows me a BLM map depicting an aerial view of Sand Mountain. The detail of the map is astounding. Dean has gone so far as to make notes about individual remaining Kearney Buckwheat plants.
He says, “We are seeing older plants on Sand Mountain, but no younger plants. So there is no regeneration of the Kearney buckwheat.” He says that the plant needs to be protected, and the BLM needs to manage its recovery through restoration planting. The Sand Mountain Blue needs the Kearney buckwheat to survive.
I tell Dean about the claim that Jon Crowley Jr. and the off-roaders are making. That there is no evidence of any decline whatsoever, that there is no conclusive study and no conclusive research.
Dean says that the BLM research is ongoing, and that some groups tend to take their research and use it as if it were a complete study.
The map I am seeing is an important component of the BLM’s research.
“We've mapped the Kearney buckwheat, so we can say we are confident we have the correct data on that part of the equation. But we don't have absolute proof of what percentage the Kearney buckwheat habitat has declined.”
Dean pulls off his gloves and switches off the motor. He says, “But based on its incredibly small area in the first place, it’s better to be conservative, to anticipate the possible outcome and try to avoid getting yourself into a situation that would require enormous amounts of money to try to preserve. If we just keep shrinking the habitat by each percentage amount in order to establish that indeed there is an effect and the butterfly is getting endangered, what would be the point when you’re down to five-percent of the original habitat.”
Looking at this sand, seeing the action around us, you have to think it’s very unlikely that the devastation of the local plants around the sand dune are created by something else other than off-roading. Common sense says that the burden of proof lies with the off-roaders.
Dean doesn’t allow me to photograph his map. It denotes a new set of proposed boundary lines for off-roaders and is therefore a quite contentious piece of evidence in the mounting conflict between off-roaders and environmentalists.
His plan falls under a larger issue, because he has been encouraged by Bush’s controversial Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior who ultimately affects BLM policy. Norton believes that environmental issues should be handled privately, between local groups, whenever possible.
In a letter to his local congressman, John T. Doolittle, Crowley Jr. writes, “I am very excited that President Bush was…reelected, and that Republicans have an increased majority in the House and Senate. I am hopeful that much can be accomplished during the President’s second term. I am writing today to ask for your help in protecting our ability to use off-highway vehicles on public land. Specifically, we need legislation to reform the Endangered Species Act, and release Wilderness Study Areas.”
Some rather wayward groups don’t agree with Crowley Jr. at all. And in Washington D.C., a concurrent debate over the future of the endangered species act is awakening.
A lot of people have strong words for his ideas. Some strange bedfellows are descending on Sand Mountain, in a debate where off-roader violence has only focused more national attention on a very small butterfly, which sprouts its wings and then dies.
So many butterflies, they have these big spots on their wings. Sometimes these spots have developed images of pupils. These fake wing eyes don't mimic the lifeless-looking butterfly eye. These eyes, they mimic the menace of the reptilian eye.
The peacock butterfly, a favorite of Eurasian collectors, evolved a number of wing-eyes, in all sorts of unsubtle colors, a dozen ways to spook a predator. But when it shows off its viper eyes, it rubs its legs together and the sound it produces is the hissing of a snake about to strike. A butterfly masked as a serpent.
In the late evening, Jane and I drive down from Sand Mountain to the desert study area, where we spend time cautiously looking between the wildflowers and atop the rocks. We are city people, the two of us. We buy lattes. So while it may not surprise you that I have learned something of lizards, it does surprise me that my wife and I can do this together and it's not even as a joke. She pointing at the stupid reptile and saying, "Gorgeous turquoise!"
While the lizard is still frozen, we share comments on how beautiful the dune is, the way it looks like a sword, or a snake.
Rochanne Downs, the cultural director for the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe knows why this giant sand dune looks like a snake. She speaks with the sweet humility of a small-town leader, her words endearing and eloquent.
Over the phone a week later, she says, "Sand Mountain is actually a live being, there is a serpent that lives there, it came from out of the mountains and traveled to Tahoe Lake, Mono Lake, and then Walker Lake, but the meat of his body died and he was injured and his home was empty and he had been moving slowly ever since. So he buried himself under the sand and made his home at Sand Mountain." A snake masked as a sand dune.
Mrs. Downs says that Sand Mountain is a special spiritual place for all the Indians of the Great Basin. It is a place only the elders and medicine men of the tribes are allowed to visit. She reminds me of the fact that the BLM's job - a central component of their task - is to protect the cultural heritage of the Native Americans.
But things have changed since the off-roaders started crowding into the tiny Sand Mountain area. "You can't go out there anymore and pray over a two-stroke motor," she says.
Sand Mountain is one of the only dunes in the world that emanates a strange sound. It sings, it hisses, it makes sounds, and for years these strange sounds attracted the curious from the farthest ends of the earth. To some, this is a geological event; sand rubbing against sand. In the days when Indians migrated across the Great Basin valleys, this hissing became a part of their oral tradition.
Mrs. Downs says that these days, the hissing of the serpent can no longer be heard. Too much engine noise.
Her tribe has taken up the cause of the blue butterfly. She says, "People think Nevada is just a waste area that you can come to and thrash and leave, but that's not true. The desert is beautiful. My ancestors took care of these lands and I don’t want to let down the future generations of my people."
This sweet voice, it cracks and she says, "It is all around us, everywhere. It may not be the largest of mountains, but it's there and it is a serene place."
I ask her why take the side of the blue butterfly over the off-roaders? I mention that the off-roaders who come to Sand Mountain are one of the largest economic draws for the entire county.
"When a doctor uses his tools, he will always use a scalpal for example. But when our medicine men are doctoring somebody, they will use things they’ve never used before. Say the Kearney buckwheat for example. There may be a case where an Indian doctor will need it for some yet unknown use. The visions will tell them to come to Sand Mountain. If it's not there when we are called to it, then we’ve failed and we’ve lost something for all our future generations."
To Mrs. Downs, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe is a name the federal people gave them because they just happened to be hanging out around this area at the time. Because they were hanging out, the government set their reservation here.
But in fact, her tribe is part of a much larger network of related tribes; the designation the government gave her people is not the designation her people gave themselves. These tribes she considers the Great Basin tribes; all were wanderers. The whole of the Great Basin was connected by networks of a common people.
To the off-roading groups, Mrs. Downs and the Indians of the Fallon area are an impediment to their recreation. And Jon Crowley Jr. knows just how to punish them.
He says he wants all off-roaders to boycott the tribal gas station, which is an important source of income for them. He emails me, 'If I was in their shoes, and REALLY believed in the serpent and what it meant to me, my family and my ancestors, I would fight to have the mountain put completely off-limits. But that is not what we see. For a point in time, they would talk about the serpent, but not ask for anything regarding it. But they would agree with the environmentalists that a thousand acres should be closed to protect the butterfly. Huh? I thought that Sand Mountain was an important spiritual place for you? Looks like [The Native Americans of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe] are being used by the environmentalists to further their agenda, not necessarily [theirs.]"
I read that quote to Mrs. Downs. She says, "Jon and I have debated many times, we do have our little gas station here and I am a firm believer in economic development, if our gas station is going to be boycotted then obviously that is not good for the well-being of our tribe and the money that needs to go to educating our children, but at the same time, as tribal people, we cannot sell out on our culture in order to make money."
Mrs. Downs pauses and then says, "We have a responsibility to protect our culture."
She had left Western Nevada for dreams of other places. She went to school in California and never planned to settle down in her hometown. But when she came to visit her family, "I went to Walmart and I ran into a friend that ended up being my husband."
The first day she returned home, she was hired to work on Indian affairs. "Everything has a reason," she says. "Everything in the world has a purpose, nobody has the right to take something away from everybody else. Nobody's recreation should impede on something’s right to exist."
She pauses and then,
"Jon Crowley might say now 'don’t climb on our churches, those are our buildings', but Sand Mountain is our church, it is our sacred place. People may think it's strange that we believe in a serpent in the sand, but that doesn't give them the right to take our church from us."
After I talk to Downs, I read over Crowley Jr.s emails. One moment he says that the ESA goes too far in protecting a subspecies. But then he says that the subspecies is not in danger.
If Crowley Jr. believes so strongly that his group can manage the Kearney buckwheat on which the blue butterflies depend, then why does he also deny that the butterfly is even being harmed? It seems he is saying, there is no evidence that the blue butterfly is in decline but here is our plan to save them. And why does he, the unofficial mouthpiece of the OHV community, have such bad words for the people who live in the area he wants to recreate in and...organize the protection of?
Still, I want desparately to believe him. So I give a call to Jon Crowley Jr.'s ultimate foe - the guy who he calls an 'Environmental Extremist' The one man who is most responsible for driving the off-roaders off the sand dunes of America. The press calls Kieran Suckling a warrior against the Department of the Interior. Gray Wolves, Sea Otters, whatever - he has been a thorn in Washington D.C.'s back for years. My logic: maybe Kieran Suckling is as irrational as Jon Crowley Jr.?
Kieran Suckling is the embodiment of the unrelenting environmentalist. He is the policy director at the renowned NGO: the Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling leads a team that has been successful in helping 329 species gain federal protection. Despite what Gale Norton may think of him, Kieran Suckling has just been invited to the White House.
It all started in 2004, when staff from the Department of the Interior fed the news of the butterflies' destruction to Daniel Patterson, the desert ecologist and program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Around the same time, Patterson emails me, " I also talked with Rochanne Downs....about their very valid concerns about off-road destruction of Sand Mountain values." In response, Patterson visited Sand Mountain to study the shrinking habitat of the Kearney buckwheat.
I ask Suckling what's his beef with the off-roaders. And "is this really more of a culture war between two very different social groups?"
"The offroaders might see that there is a culture war, but we certainly don't see it that way. We don't have anything against any group. We work to protect the nation's most important species wherever and whatever they are. Polar bears in Alaska, beach mites in Florida, butterflies in Nevada. The only principle that governs where we seek to protect endangered species is where endangered species are located. The problem is that there are certain kinds of ecosystems – coastal, beaches, old growth forests and sand dunes that invite the kinds of problems we have with threatened species."
He continues, "That’s why its not surprising that there are endangered species battles at Algodones Sand Dunes in California, or the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah or at Sand Mountain in Nevada. These are small, isolated ecosystems that are easily disturbed."
"So you mean a place like Sand Mountain is maybe like an island?"
"An island that is a shifting habitat that changes as the wind blows, the structure changes over time. One thing that's important for conservation purposes is that it's not really sufficient to say that there is one area you need to protect, you have to deal with ecosystems processes such as wind. That’s why we're involved. I don’t have any particular beef with the offroaders."
I ask Suckling about Jon Crowley's Jr.'s plan in which off-roaders will save the Sand Mountain blue butterflies from extinction by adopting Kearney buckwheat communities and protecting them.
Suckling says, "It's frankly a stupid plan that ignores everything we know about conservation planning. The unique thing about these areas is that the location of the vegetation is constantly changing. When you are talking about managing a dune system, you aren't just talking about managing an ecosystem but the ecosystem processes. So you cannot just put a fence around a small area where a species occurs. Come back to that area in 15 years and it will be under 15 feet of sand. You have to manage large landscapes that are big enough to capture that ecosystem process. These plants have evolved to live in a highly dynamic landscape. Little boxed in areas don’t work…little zoos don’t work. These are not zoo animals. You need an environment that is allowed to evolve naturally. Some plants will die and some will get buried, and that’s fine…but you have to protect it enough so that you have that right balance."
When I ask him what and how he wants to accomplish at Sand Mountain, he says, "For the BLM to develop an ecosystem management plan for the entire dune system that ensures the ecological process can continue so the species are allowed to thrive. Once we establish that, only then can the areas that are not critical be used for other purposes. We want the BLM to start from the perspective of the ecosystem."
Over a year ago, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups petitioned the Department of the Interior (the BLM's head office), to list the Sand Mountain blue as endangered or threatened. The result is today's warring factions. The BLM approached the problem the way the Department of the Interior's Gale Norton would like these things settled: Unenforced guidelines about where the duners should and shouldn't ride.
The events at Sand Mountain mimic the debate in Washington DC., because our Secretary of the Interior wants BLM policy to be freer, more multiple-use based. Endangered species questions should be resolved locally, less lawyers. Think: people-first. Think: off-roaders should be responsible for saving the species. Crowley Jr. and the off-roaders are encouraged by this, because it means the survival of the butterfly is more up to them.
But the problem is, Norton keeps losing. And Suckling keeps winning. In court, each time a Norton policy affects a wolf or a sea otter or an owl, Suckling draws his sword.
I ask him, "I understand the Center of Biological Diversity uses lawyers and lawsuits a lot, isn't that kind of backwards?"
"We litigate as a last resort," Suckling says. "If you look at Algodones, for many years, environmentalists and scientists tried to argue with the BLM about what needed to be done and they said, 'we will not do it.' And when the agency says we refuse to do it, that’s when you go to court. I certainly hope that the BLM has learned its lesson and be more receptive at Sand Mountain, but if at the end of the day the agency refuses, then we have no other choice."
I say, "But Jon Crowley Jr. says the endangered species act needs to be reformed?"
"No, I think he doesn’t like it precisely because it does work. The Endangered species act is successful because it changes the way we manage the land. When he says let's reform it, he means let's gut it. It is a very successful act precisely around off road issues such as this."
I ask him, but why should we save subspecies?
“At the Center for Biological Diversity, we don’t just look at the species. We look at the subspecies and populations. Because if you look at the patterns of extinction, it begins with the populations, then the subspecies, and then soon enough the species is gone.”
In a less populated world, a sole off-roader rummaging across a dune is of no consequence. It is these vast numbers and their collective preference for small biological islands, that make them guilty of damaging ecosystems. Regular off-roaders, who tread thousands of miles through the wilderness, are often regarded with little concern by environmentalists. Their route, no impact. Those off-roaders are many times our environmental leaders, our cheerful outdoorspeople.
As other countries adopt more complex species laws, they'll read the stories of the metamorphosis of the American west, from a lonely and tranquil west, to a grown-up and complicated place of ranchers and lattes.
In art, tranquility is so often illustrated as a dark and wet place lit by the awkward flight of butterflies. The world of butterflies, like birds or orchids, exists alongside us as something infinitely complex, unimaginably colorful, intensely strange, and yet altogether unknown by us. They are odd. They exemplify uselessness. They employ something we call love dust, literally a dust on the wings, a chemical potion of lust.
Fabric trendsetters study their wing designs for next year's color combinations. Some color-experts hunt butterflies in the tropics. With a gun-like tool made by color-engineer company Pantone Inc., they 'grab' butterfly colors and enter them into their computers.
Some butterflies have a foot-long wingspan. These live eight months, and their wings are adapted for high altitude. Others migrate across continents.
But the Sand Mountain blue is just a small butterfly, only an inch wide. It falls in a genus of four species. It is one of six subspecies. Its habitat is a thousand acres, it is close to extinction. If anything, its distinction is that some people call it the Star-Spangled butterfly. That's because the colors of the females' wings look like the American flag.
Writer Vladimir Nabokov dedicated much of his life and creative passion to these blue butterflies of America, the sub-family Polyommatinae, of which the Euphilotes are a genus. He spent years reclassifying and amending their taxonomic breakdowns. In his novel Lolita, the main character had a nickname; Dolly. In Greek, Dolly means chrysalis - that in-between time, between when a butterfly is a voracious and infantile eater, a caterpillar devouring his world. Between when he sprouts wings and becomes responsible to the next generation.
This whole debate is really about one thing: should our endangered species be managed by our human caterpillars or our human butterflies?
In the warm evening sun. I kick a Coke can in the air and it goes whizzing, spitting out sand into a spiral. A dozen engines above growl like injured dogs. Jane, with her bare feet now on the dashboard and her book to her nose looks at me. She looks hungry. “Dinner in Reno?”