Monday, August 15, 2011

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Crystal Spring, courtesy of Judy Palmer, Amargosa Conservancy
By Cyndi Souza

Located in the middle of nowhere, according to our visitors, is a place like no other in the world. Literally. In an area smaller than Disney World there are at least 26 species of plants and animals that exist here and no place else on earth. In Caribbean-blue spring pools, you will find desert fish that have survived here for thousands of years, more than 250 species of birds, and unique plants. It is Nevada’s best-kept secret. Never heard of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge? We know. We hear that all the time.

As you leave the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, the landscape immediately becomes a dry, harsh, vast, and sparsely populated desert straight out of a Stephen King novel. Not a place where you expect to see rare flowers, tundra swans, and water that is thousands of years old and referred to as "fossil water." That is why most folks drive right on by on their way to bigger and better things (or so they think).

The beauty and serenity found in this oasis, the largest in the Mojave Desert, is an unexpected surprise to all who visit. Sit a while and listen to the melodic calls of birds, linger over crystal-clear waters filled with iridescent blue fish, or scan the rocky mountain tops for desert bighorn sheep. If you are more the scientific type, there is much to ponder here as well.

Devils Hole. The name itself creates a certain curiosity. To the casual observer it looks like just a water-filled hole. The surface is small, only about 66 feet long by 15 feet wide. But what you don’t know is this 93-degree year-round pool of water is at least 500 feet deep, and the bottom has yet to be found. But what visitors find most fascinating is that earthquakes occurring around the world affect the water in Devils Hole. Just 20 minutes after the recent earthquake in Japan the water began rising and falling, six inches up then six inches down from its normal level. In 2010, the 7.2 earthquake in Baja created a mini tsunami and was actually captured on video.

If history is your thing, there is Jack Longstreet, a local gunslinger whose cabin built from stones awaits you. The nearby spring pool is often called the boiling spring because of the fine white sand bellowing up from the depths below.

Fall colors, photo by Cyndi Souza
Restoration, recovery, those lost forever, and the future

The refuge land, prior to 1984, was privately held. It was utilized for farming, ranching, peat mining, and almost became a housing development. This most likely led to the extinction of the Ash Meadows poolfish and possibly the Ash Meadows Montane Vole.

Reestablishing a healthy ecosystem and historic populations of native species has been challenging, but a proactive restoration program is achieving success. Today, not only have the desert fish of Ash Meadows benefited from restoration efforts, but many native plants and trees are beginning to flourish.

The area also is frequented by a wide diversity of migratory birds, so you might even see tundra swans or rare European migrants like ruff, unusual sightings in the Mojave Desert. More than 239 different species of birds have been recorded in Ash Meadows, in addition to 27 species of mammals, more than 20 species of reptiles, five amphibian species, and greater than 330 species of flowers and shrubs.

In 2009, two new species of bees were discovered that may only exist in Ash Meadows. One can only surmise the fate of this species and many others, if conservation efforts to protect endangered species had not been successful.

See more photos of the refuge here.