Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, talks with Carson Rogers about the beauty of the desert ecosystem and the challenges it faces to survive.
Christopher Norment: The animals that I focus on—the Inyo Mountain slender salamander, black toad, and four types of pupfishes—all are completely dependent upon aquatic habitats, and so have become relicts in an arid world. Without enough water they (like humans) will suffer and disappear. The amount of surface water in the Basin and Range country of California and Nevada, where my book is set, has fluctuated tremendously over the last several million years and the fortunes of the salamanders, toads, and pupfishes have waxed and waned with the advance and retreat of these waters. Imagine standing above Death Valley 150,000 years ago and looking out over ancient Lake Manly, which was six hundred feet deep and eighty miles long. Lake Manly—and Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, and Tecopa Lake, on and on—would have been stunningly beautiful, part of a widespread Pleistocene “sea.” The fishes and amphibians that lived in or near these lakes, or along feeder streams, must have prospered. Now these waters have been replaced by desert and salt pan playas, and “my” species have retreated into refugia, where they persevere, sometimes against great odds.
CR: Why is the issue of desert conservation important right now?
CN: There are a number of reasons, particularly in regard to the American Southwest. First, there still is an influx of people into the region, and they all need water. Clark County, Nevada—home of Las Vegas—and Maricopa County in Arizona have both experienced exponential population growth over the past few decades. This growth is unsustainable and places increasing pressure on the region’s resources, particularly water—and the growing demand for water will in turn affect aquatic ecosystems and the organisms that depend upon them. The increasing need for water will only be exacerbated by climate change and its associated droughts. Decreased flows from the Colorado River and low levels in Lake Mead also pose a problem. California, Arizona, and Nevada all need the same limited waters, and there will be conflict over this resource. Other issues, such as solar energy development, may also be important in some areas, but at the moment population growth, water use, and climate change are the biggest conservation issues facing the region.
There is one positive thing to say about this dire situation, though. It does offer us the opportunity to think creatively and courageously about conservation, ecology, population growth, and economics. We must change how we think about desert waters. As I write in Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, “there is water enough in the desert if you live properly.” The problem is, most of us have not done so, and we show little inclination to change our ways.
CR: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to the desert and the creatures that live there?
CN: I do not believe that there is one “greatest threat,” but rather that the threat depends entirely upon the particular desert species and ecosystems that you are interested in. For the aquatic ecosystems of the Basin and Range country and the species that Relicts of a Beautiful Sea describes, the greatest threats are overpumping groundwater and ill-conceived surface water diversions. In some situations, though, invasive species such as exotic crayfish and mosquitofish may be a bigger issue. But for other species such as the desert tortoise, solar energy development poses a greater risk. Ultimately, though, the biggest threat to the desert comes from human shortsightedness, stupidity, error, and (occasionally) malfeasance.
CR: You pose the question: “Why should anyone concern themselves with a species that few people know about and even fewer will ever see?” What would your answer be?
CN: This is a question that anyone interested in conserving biodiversity in all of its “forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (that’s Darwin) must deal with, and there is no one set of answers that will work for all species, or for all people. There are good, pragmatic reasons for preserving the species that I write about, as well as all of the other rare species that inhabit this world—reasons that are in the best selfish, material interests of humans. In some cases they may provide services that help protect ecosystems that are important to humans. They certainly act as environmental sentinels, warning us of danger, and suggesting how we might manage our water and future more wisely. And they also provide a window to the natural world, an understanding of how evolutionary, ecological, anatomical, and physical systems work.
But it is not just a matter of cost-benefit analyses, of dollars and cents and balance sheets. For me the most important value of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders, black toads, and pupfishes is the way that they have endured in the face of so much adversity—adversity induced by the natural world and by humans. They are in some ways very fragile creatures, completely dependent on water in an arid world. Yet they also are tough and tenacious. I suppose, then, that for me these creatures work as metaphor and inspiration. They help me go on, and one of the reasons that I wrote Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is that I hope the stories of these animals will do the same for others.
CR: You focus on six desert species: a salamander, a toad, and four different types of pupfishes. What made you choose these particular creatures? Continue reading ‘Interview: Christopher Norment on the beauty of the desert ecosystem’ »