Why Monitor


A few years ago when I started leading wilderness backpack trips, I offered to be a backcountry observer for the Needles BLM. Ramona Daniels, the Outdoor Recreational Planner, suggested that I could work with her as a volunteer. They did not have backcountry rangers. Since I would be going to remote wilderness areas, I could monitor areas that were requested and report what was found. I would learn about the area before going there and then report on plants, animals, illegal intrusions, water sources, and archaeological sites or artifacts.

The Whipple Mountain Wilderness was known to have several unusual features including saguaro cactus, a palm tree, and caves. A grove of saguaros had been documented 15 years previously by helicopter and was not know to have been seen since. Only the general area of this grove was known. This grove was of interest because saguaros only grow in the area of the Sonora Desert that has rainfall every summer and not in the Mohave, where in some years there is no rainfall. 

On my first attempt to find this grove, after covering some difficult terrain, I thought I was one canyon away from the site. Reluctantly I decided not to push the limits but start back since the time to find the site was unknown and my food and water supply were limited.

On the second trip at the end of a long day we shouted, hugged, and danced when, in the distance, we saw a single huge saguaro cactus. We were able to confirm that we had found the grove before we had to stop and find a campsite to spend the night. The next day we counted 26 saguaros, 22 were in the shelter of a cirque and 4 were outliers like sentries at the four points of the compass. There was the full range of the old, large, and multi-branched down to the young, small, and single stemmed.

On that trip we saw a big barrel cactus with the top chewed off and teeth marks where the pulp had been scraped out. At the time we thought that this was the work of one the to two big herbivores that live there, burro or big horn. Later I learned that the sheep split the cactus with their horn and eat the succulent pulp. This is rare enough to suggest that it may not be very rewarding.

On another trip in Whipple Wash we found a single lonely palm tree on a ledge at the side of a wash. There was a tiny spring with a trickle of water at the base of the tree. Further up this wash there was a tall single stem saguaro high on a ledge of the steep wall of the wash. Like the palm tree, the cactus had a spring source to account for it being there.

Native Americans have occupied the Mojave Desert for thousands of years. We have encountered village sites, rock mortars, petroglyphs, cave shelters, campsites, artifacts, and ancient trails.

On one trip we found a series of pottery and china shards, one with an image of a blue bird perched on a wild rose stem. We followed the trail of shards to a trash dump with a metal double bed frame, the springs of a mattress, and the back part of a tricycle. At the end of this road there was a very old windmill. A small family must have lived here.

Army training centers from World War II have left major imprints on the ground. We found the grids of training bases, airfields both large and small, tank tracks, 50 caliber machine gun shell casings, rusted machine gun belt links, and a tank canon shell. In Needles, within sight of the BLM, there is a WWII training center tank trap. In the Old Woman Wilderness there was a bent and rusted 20-gallon WWII motor oil drum far from any known training center.

In the Turtle Mountain Wilderness we found a sheet metal object that at first looked like a damaged propeller, then maybe a heater, or stove part. It was rusted from many years of exposure and had been damaged by falling from a plane or being blown around by many storms. I still do not know what this is or where it came from.

Bees both dead and alive in large numbers were found at many water sites. Most likely these are bees that cannot return to their hives either because their hive has been destroyed or because a commercial beekeeper has moved the hive.

Most of the springs on the USGS maps are dry. Very few are reliable water sources. Most of the springs that had ponds in the past were dry now. Some have been covered and piped into big game guzzlers or cattle watering tanks.

On one trip we found a spring site where there were two adjacent small spring ponds that years ago had been converted into guzzlers by wooden structures. A few weeks later at that site we found truck tracks, sawed tree limbs, and a huge modern plastic underground guzzler that had been installed. Access to the source spring had been sealed.

Between the Nevada border and the Mojave National Monument there is an open pit perlite mine that had be worked in the 1930’s. In that area there were industrial artifacts, an airstrip, and the raised bed of the Barnwell and Searchlight Railroad. While on a hike a few miles from there while walking in a narrow brush lined wash, laying exposed on the ground, I found a big obsidian core that must have wash out of the sand during a recent rain shower.

Not far from there, deep in the woods off of a little used dirt road that goes to a Nevada highway, I found a burned out 1970’s Lincoln Continental Coupe. My speculation was fuelled by realizing that this car, hidden at remote desert location, was across a state line and 70 road mile from Las Vegas.

We encountered two PVC claim markers that we took down and found that one contain a numerous variety of dead insects and the other had small dead birds. We followed the policy of the BLM in taking these markers down and leave them on the ground.

While at a campsite in another canyon we saw a helicopter land and the take off and later found the landing site. Nearby there was a natural shelter that could have been a hunting blind. Up that canyon there was a big game guzzler and a small black automatic camera. 

On another trip when looking for a car campsite we encountered a hostile man at an extensive campsite at the border of a wilderness. I later learned he was an illegal small game trapper.

The BLM supplies me with information about wilderness areas to explore and I make observations, take notes and photographs, and write reports. The BLM benefits by gaining information that they would not be able to get. What I learn from them lets me make better wilderness backpack trips.