September 29, 2009

Sleeping Beauty Valley: Heart of the Mojave Desert

Sleeping Beauty Valley (David Myers)

By James M. André and Ileene Anderson
Route 66 Pulse

In the heart of California’s Mojave Desert, at a place where the western Mojave transitions into the eastern Mojave, lies the Sleeping Beauty Valley. Encircled by the Kelso Dunes Wilderness and the Bristol Mountains Wilderness on the east, and the Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area on the west, the Sleeping Beauty Valley is one of the last remaining examples of pristine central Mojave Desert ecosystem. A place where one can still experience the scenic vista of an undeveloped valley surrounded by waves of rugged desert mountain ranges. Granted, the old Tonopah to Tidewater railroad grade is still visible as a reminder of the historic importance of this area in Mojave history – but very little else has changed in this valley for the last ten thousand years.

At the center of Sleeping Beauty Valley lies Broadwell Lake, a dry playa that is a remnant of the former extensive lake system that covered the Mojave during the Pleistocene. During the post-Pleistocene warming and drying, the valley became home to such iconic desert species as the desert tortoise which still calls the valley home. Due to recent rapid declines in desert tortoise population, these animals are considered threatened by both the state of California and the federal government. The Sleeping Beauty valley is a key linkage between the northern and southern populations of this increasingly rare animal and keeps both populations from becoming inbred.

Desert bighorn sheep traverse the valley from the rugged reaches of the Cady Mountains to the northern Bristol Mountains and beyond. Bighorn sheep depend on unimpeded access across the valley in order maintain viable herds in the adjacent mountain ranges.

The Sleeping Beauty Valley is home to more than 350 plant species, including several rare plants. Recently a post-Pleistocene relict plant species was “discovered” within the Sleeping Beauty Valley – the crucifixion thorn. This large and impressively spiny shrub is primarily leafless, as the leaves have been reduced to mere scales. It was much more common in the area that we now call the Mojave Desert during the wetter Pleistocene epoch, where its nutty berries provided food for such species and giant ground sloths and native camels. While those animal species died out or moved on with the warming and drying of the landscape, the crucifixion thorn persists along dry washes and edges of dry lake beds. The actual age of these plants is unknown because they have no “true wood” that can be cored and the rings counted. And though scientists have not studied this plant extensively, some believe it may well live up to 10,000 years.

In Spring of 2009, botanists discovered what is potentially a new species of lupine – those showy purple spring wildflowers that put up flowering stalks covered w/pea-like flowers. Specimens collected from the Sleeping Beauty Valley are different from the surrounding species, so additional scientific studies are being done to determine if it is a new species to science.

Why are all of these unique species found in the Sleeping Beauty Valley? In part, the lupine discovery underscores the fact that this region remains a biological frontier that is poorly documented. Botanists expect that additional inventory here will unearth considerable new discoveries to science. In addition, the valley lies within a fairly sharp transition zone between the western Mojave Desert, which enjoys more winter rains, but very few summer thundershowers and the eastern Mojave Desert, which counts on bimodal rainfall that includes some winter rains but consistent summer thunderstorms. Because of the differences in the rain regimes, the eastern and western Mojave deserts have some differences in the species that inhabit them. Because the Sleeping Beauty Valley lies at the crossroads of these two Mojave Desert regions, it supports plants and animals unique to the set of conditions found only at this transition zone..

In addition to its tremendous biological diversity, Sleeping Beauty Valley remains relatively unmarred by contemporary or historic human use. The T&T railroad grade is present, as is an existing powerline at the north end of the valley. The Old Dominion Mine is located on the western edge of the valley. Crucero Road, a washboard dirt road, originates in Ludlow and bisects the valley. Because the Sleeping Beauty Valley is relatively undisturbed by human activities, it is one of the few valleys in the Mojave Desert not yet colonized by invasive non-native plants that are so problematic ecologically in other areas of the Mojave Desert. Non-native plants are typically introduced with disturbance to the land caused by humans. From there, they often invade the landscape where they displace native plant species, decrease food and shelter available to animals, and have catastrophic effects on long-term natural ecological processes. For instance, weed invasions make the desert much more susceptible to large-scale fires that decimate those plant species unable to re-sprout after fire. Fortunately, the Sleeping Beauty Valley has very few non-native plants and has not been burned in recent decades. Indeed, it remains a rare example of a healthy and viable ecosystem.

The Sleeping Beauty Valley has immediate threats to its integrity. Applications for industrial scale solar and wind energy installations are rapidly moving forward, and will destroy tens of thousands of acres of rich desert habitat there. While the switch to renewable energy needs to happen to minimize global climate change, better places for industrial solar installations exist on disturbed lands close to the source of consumption, on roof-tops and over parking lots. Pristine desert lands at the heart of the Mojave Desert, like the Sleeping Beauty Valley need to be recognized for all their unique values and preserved.

James M. André is the Director of the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, UC Riverside

Ileene Anderson is a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity