|What is it that this park is missing?|
|The answer is in this picture somewhere...|
The centerpiece of the park, and the destination for the vast majority of visitors is Lehman Cave. I discussed Lehman a few weeks back, and the self-imposed rules of our trip required us to do different things than normal. One choice would have been to explore one of the other 25 caves in the park but we definitely were not prepared for such an undertaking. There is also a spectacular limestone arch in the southern part of the park, but we just didn't have the time this trip. We headed up to the end of the road beneath the cliffs of Wheeler Peak.
On the way up, we had a marvelous view of the northern part of the Snake Range and Mt. Moriah (12,072 feet). An impressive detachment fault system is exposed on the flanks of the mountain, and is the destination for numerous geology field camp mapping expeditions.
|Mt. Moriah and the Northern Snake Range|
The removal of cows from the park has meant that riparian habitats have begun to recover, and the vegetation cover on the mountain slopes has been changing. Eventually, the deer, and perhaps bighorn and elk, will become the dominant grazers. I don't know how the cacti will do; they usually thrive in cow landscapes, but I don't know if they compete well in other situations. They sure are pretty when they are blooming!
|Prickly Pear Cactus|
discussed in the last post, Wheeler is entirely within Nevada, and it is a dominating presence in the region. I think Nevada should just trade Boundary Peak to California for another casino somewhere and celebrate Wheeler as their distinctive mountain. It has a lot of geological personality.
|Wheeler Peak from Mather Overlook|
First of all, the "Great Basin" refers to the hydrologic province that covers practically all of Nevada, in which no water flows into the Pacific Ocean. The water from the three hundred or so mountain ranges in the state flows into the adjacent basins and either sinks into the ground or evaporates. There is no "great basin" as such; Nevada is probably the most mountainous state in the union. The Basin and Range Province covers some of the same territory, but is a much larger landscape that spills over into Utah and Arizona.
There was a movement decades ago to designate a park that could represent Nevada's unique landscape. Death Valley National Monument (a monument at the time; today it is a national park) preserved the driest and lowest parts of the province, but Death Valley is in California, and one could not mistake the barren peaks and valleys as being similar to the typical mountains of Nevada. At first, they couldn't quite decide which mountain range should be preserved. As I understand it, three ranges were finalists: the Toiyabe Range near Austin, the Ruby-East Humbold Range near Wells, and the Snake Range, which was eventually chosen. I think any of these would have been a great choice, and I would even ask: Why not all three?
The Ruby-East Humboldt is a high glaciated range with some lakes, and a wildlife refuge on the adjacent lake on the valley floor. The Toiyabes are more typical of the Basin and Range, in that while very high, there was little in the way of glaciation, and little connection with the Rocky Mountains or Sierra; the forests are primarily pinyon, juniper and mahogany. Both of these mountains are rugged and beautiful. But the Snake Range won out in the end, perhaps because the National Park Service already had a presence with Lehman Cave National Monument.
But the new park ended up not having a 'basin' in it. An appropriate park designation would have included the adjacent valley floors and even another mountain range (the Schell Creek range, perhaps) to preserve a complete example of the province. The central focus of Death Valley, for instance, is the valley floor. The original boundaries were much larger, in fact. Because of political realities (an anti-environment president was in office, and the "Sagebrush Rebellion" was in full swing), the proposed boundaries shrank until they were palatable to the Republican legislators (the compromise included the grazing exception as well). Wouldn't it have been nice to see what at least one major valley in Nevada looked like without cattle grazing? Imagine, for instance, what other animals visitors could enjoy. The valley floor would also preserve more cultural features. The remains of the westernmost known Fremont Culture village is found close to Great Basin National Park (the Baker Archaeological Site).
|Why isn't this valley part of Great Basin National Park?|
|Picture by Mrs. Geotripper|
Oh yeah...my title alluded to an "Oh s**t moment in science (I'm still striving, hard, to keep my blog family friendly, but the word is so appropriate here). Another wonderful and distinctive aspect to Great Basin National Park are the Bristlecone Pines. These trees cling to life on the highest slopes of Wheeler Peak and other mountains in Basin and Range. They are small trees, and live up here because they can't compete well in lower, warmer climates. But if you want to talk about persistence and tenacity, these trees stand alone. They can live for thousands of years, and a tree in the White Mountains of California has survived for 4,700 years, the oldest non-clonal life form on the planet.
The bad moment? Back in the 1960's Donald Curry (a graduate student who went on to a very distinguished academic career) was working on efforts at tree-ring dating and determining the timing of the "Little Ice Age". He was coring bristlecones in what would later become Great Basin National Park. His coring tool broke, and he asked permission to cut down the tree to retrieve the data from the tree rings. The forest service decided the tree was not significant and gave him permission to do so. They cut down the tree, and analyzed the rings. To their abject horror, they discovered they had just killed the oldest living organism on the planet, perhaps several hundred years older than the Methuselah Tree in the White Mountains.
What a thing to be remembered for. To his credit, Curry advocated for the establishment of Great Basin National Park.
|A bristlecone snag in the White Mountains. Even after death, the wood may resist decay for thousands of years.|