The Amargosa


The chef at Las Vegas’ Luxor hotel has a special recipe for dates:  pit them, stuff the sweet, succulent fruit with cheese, and wrap them in bacon. It’s a recipe that takes skill, planning, and a certain panache.

But what’s unique about this hors d’oeuvre isn’t just its sweet and savory flavor, but the fact that the dates come from China Ranch, a small date farm located on the Amargosa River in eastern California.  The ranch is run by Brian Brown, a date farmer whose passions extend beyond the culinary to include preserving the wild and scenic Amargosa- the only free flowing river in the Mojave Desert.  Brown is also a resource conservation advocate for the Amargosa Conservancy, a non-profit whose mission is to protect the river.

So what’s so special about a river that meanders through Nevada, trickles into California, and runs dry at a sandy lake bed -- called Badwater -- in Death Valley National Park, the lowest and hottest place in the United States? 

“The Amargosa is an Ice Age remnant,” explains Brown.  “There are perennial wet flows where animals and plants have adopted some very unique genetic abilities to cope with the hot, dry conditions.”

Animals that live in the Amargosa, like the desert pupfish that can survive extreme conditions, including warm oxygen-starved waters, are capable of adapting to new environmental conditions in a few generations.

Amargosa River photo taken by David Lamfrom

But the pupfish aren’t the only organisms that thrive along the Amargosa River.  It’s also a critical migration stop for birds seeking juicy insects, shelter and nesting sites in the mesquite and willow bushes that line its banks.  Plants clinging to its banks and the rocky uplands prosper even among naturally occurring chemical and mineral loads that would stifle most species.  Brian Brown wonders if this kind of genetic ability could one day be put to human use.  Could we learn how to raise fish like tilapia in harsher conditions by studying desert pupfish or find crops that could be grown with minimal impact in an arid environment by learning about the ecology of desert plants?

History has also left an indelible mark along the Amargosa.  Native Americans gathered chert -- a hard rock made of quartz -- for projectile points and scrapers and hunted and gathered along its sandy banks for thousands of years.  John Fremont, Kit Carson, and Brigham Young wandered through the river’s thickets when our nation was still in its infancy.  The Old Spanish Trail, an important trade route between 1828 and 1850, funneled livestock and goods between Santa Fe and Los Angeles.  Nineteenth century prospectors searched for the mother lode and in the early 20th century the Tonopah and Tidewater railroad chugged along the Amargosa’s banks, leaving behind only blackened railroad ties, broken bottles, and rusty cans.

This precious natural and historical resource is threatened by unsustainable levels of groundwater pumping. This threat is all too familiar to Amargosa Conservancy Board Member Mike Cipra. 

“If we take more water out of the aquifer than is replaced, we’re going to draw down our rivers and our springs,” comments Cipra. “Without water, none of us can live out here: not people, not animals, not plants. It’s strange that the place where the Amargosa ends is called Death Valley. It could just as well be called ‘life valley’ because this area has an incredible concentration of rare plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world.”

In 2009, portions of the Amargosa were designated a Wild and Scenic River. This protected the heart of the river. But the Amargosa Conservancy is concerned that the Bureau of Land Management, the agency with jurisdiction over a large section of the Amargosa, isn’t proactively addressing looming conservation concerns.

Several key sections of the Amargosa remain unprotected, but that may be about to change.  Two years ago, the Amargosa Conservancy worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM to remove tamarisk on an ecologically sensitive, two-mile section of the Amargosa that didn’t receive Wild and Scenic designation under the Public Lands Omnibus.  It’s an area that’s rich in history, bird life, mesquite and pupfish and one that would be protected under Senator Dianne Feinstein’s new California Desert Protection Act of 2010, legislation that the Amargosa Conservancy and many other conservation organizations support.

“The California Desert Protection Act of 2010 is a visionary piece of legislation that protects precious waterways like the Armargosa River and adds important lands to Joshua Tree National Park, The Mojave National Preserve, and Death Valley National Park,” states Cipra.  The National Parks Conservation Association’s Desert Program Manager, David Lamfrom agrees, “Protecting the Amargosa also makes economic sense for the small towns that dot the Mojave Desert along the California-Nevada border. These are areas where tourism is the life-blood of the economy. People stay here, people return here. A conservation culture based around the river has arisen in these small Southern Inyo communities. This is a special place, with special people to steward it.”

Back at China Ranch,  it’s dusk when the sun slips beneath the canyon walls and the breeze rustles the date tree leaves. Brian Brown is scanning the Amargosa at a place where he often sees coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. He’s working with the BLM to establish a nature trail on a five-mile stretch along the Amargosa from the ranch to the small town of Tecopah.  When completed, the trail will have kiosks that educate visitors about the ecological, geological, and historical significance of the Amargosa River.  “It’s a great area for a nature trail,” muses Brown, as he gazes across the sandy wash lined with mesquite and willows. “You can have a streamside experience right on the edge of the hottest, driest place on Earth.”

Seth Shteir is California Desert Field Representative at the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, California.