Reclaiming the low country

  • USGENWEB ARCHIVES, FROM Natural Elementary Geography, Redway and Hinman, American Book Company, c. 1897
 

Look at a map of the original "New West" -- the transcontinental West of the post-Civil War period. It's easy to fixate on what we don't see. Big dams, open-pit mines, metropolises, freeways -- none yet exist. National forests and parks and bombing ranges -- not there.

On closer inspection, the outdated maps show something more: presences in the past that we seldom acknowledge as absences in the present. A phantom topography.

I'm talking about big blue blobs  -- the lost lakes of the lowland West. We are familiar with the reservoirs we built during the age of reclamation. We know the places we flooded. What about the places we drained?

How many of the drivers who take I-5 or CA-99 through the seemingly undifferentiated "Central Valley" realize that they traverse a self-contained drainage between Bakersfield and Fresno  -- the Tulare Basin? A basin that not long ago contained a lake that rivaled Lake Tahoe in surface area? Tulare Lake was a marshy refuge for migratory birds, endemic elk, even grizzlies. It vanished from maps after being drained of life and meaning. The lakebed became a cotton plantation.

On the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada, around the same time, flourishing Owens Lake became a ghostly salt flat after Los Angeles diverted its inflow into a pipeline. In Utah's West Desert, seasonal Sevier Lake became a permanent dry lake due to upstream diversions. In the lava-land of northeastern California, dike-builders and irrigators transformed Tule Lake from something large and round into something small and rectangular.

Due to the desiccation of these and other oases on the Pacific Flyway, the Salton Sea  -- the most spectacularly unnatural lake in the West  -- became prime habitat in the 20th century. Today, birds can't live with  -- or without  --  this toxic sump. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge operates an incinerator for the periodic mass die-offs of waterfowl.

The wetland West also disappeared from Westerners'  hearts and minds. Consider the Great Salt Lake: once a world-famous resort, a national curiosity, the American Dead Sea. Railroads built splendid bathing houses, none of which survive today. The "Greatest Snow on Earth" has replaced the Great Salt Lake as Utah's most celebrated feature. During the 2002 Olympics, the standard blimp's-eye-view of Salt Lake City showed downtown buildings backed by snowy peaks. For their part, city boosters did nothing to turn the world's gaze from the east to the west, from the mountains to the lake, from the high country to the low.

It may seem odd to call 4,200 feet  -- the historic average elevation of the Great Salt Lake  -- "low country." But in the Great Basin, that subregion of the West with no communication with the ocean, the low point of any local drainage is effectively sea level.

In relative terms, too, Utah's briny inland sea seems low next to the Wasatch Range. Six to seven thousand feet separate these contiguous yet disparate topographical features. In the minds of most modern Utahns, the supremacy of the high country seems obvious and natural. In 2006, the Utah Office of Tourism retired its long-running "Ski Utah" slogan, and inaugurated a new official tagline: "Life Elevated." When urban Utahns appeal to a bioregional identity, they speak of the "Wasatch Front," the "Intermountain West," or the "Rocky Mountain Region," never the Bonneville Basin, the eastern Great Basin, the Wasatch Oasis.Here's the lowdown: Westerners have a high-country bias. We care more about vanishing glaciers than vanishing vernal pools. The endangered shortgrass prairie of Colorado's less-than-a-mile-high East Side gets no love compared to the 54 Fourteeners. There are highpointer clubs and peakbagging guides; what about the low points? Who has visited  -- or even counted  -- all of Nevada's playas?

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...