The Snake Valley and Great Basin National Park—A Western treasure

October 30, 2017

Kara Hall

Before the expedition I had never really even heard of Great Basin National Park, let alone made the lonely highway trek to its unassuming location among the sage brush sea that has found its iconic imagery into every Western imagination. From the highway the Great Basin and Snake Valley area seem to be a sea of lonely monotony, only interrupted by simple groves of a few trees and abandoned mechanical equipment of all varieties. Named for its lack of drainage, the rivers and streams of the Great Basin rarely find and outlet to the sea and thus its water collects in shallow lakes, marshes, and mud flats to be evaporated back into the dry and hungry desert air. The phrase "water is life" takes on a physical meaning here, taking its place at the dinner tables and community discussions across the valley as its members remain unified and defiant against the Las Vegas water grab scheme that has its eye on the remaining aqueduct lying wait underneath the thousands of acres of the Snake Valley.

Water in the Great Basin region has a history dating back to the time before Lake Bonneville, whose shorelines can be seen at home in the Slat Lake Valley as well as 10 miles from the Great Basin Visitor's Center where a lapping shoreline was evident 15,000 years in the past. As ice age glaciers, ever moving and carving, occupied the high peaks of the region, the air was cooler and gave rise to bristlecone forests that date up to 3,000 plus years of age. At a bristlecone grove near the Wheeler Peak hiking trail we strolled through trees standing older than Christ and human history, more dead than alive and as beautiful as ever. The growth of these trees is characteristically slow and highly able to adapt to their environment, as groves appear from 9,500 to 11,000 feet in elevation. It seems we can take a lesson from the bristlecone pine, as adversity is its most driving force in fostering its life-force through millennia of change. The growth rings of trees and their ability to record the past is evident in bristlecone pines as their ring data has contributed to the history of past climate conditions in various regions, and thus its change over time. Analysis of such growth rings in the bristlecone has improved the accuracy and precision in the radiocarbon dating of ancient organic materials found in many other places.

Similar to that of the ocean, the Great Basin sits wide and foreboding, an inlet sea of desert with archipelagoes of high elevation mountain ranges that host a broad range of life that would simply not survive int he harsh lower elevations. These ranges effectively become a desert oasis for its many dependents, as well as humans like us that come to enjoy hiking and taking part in another manifestation of "America's best idea."

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine

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