Saturday. A beautiful, clear, crisp day. The kind that used to become magically more so the further out West Charleston you got, out past Durango, where the road became a thin stretch through the desert, winding around hills to reveal the awesome beauty of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where Vegas was left behind entirely.
Today it’s not like that. It’s trafficky, and there are rows of houses built halfway out to Red Rock, and as you drive you need to be keenly aware of dozens of bicyclists and runners, motorcyclists weaving in and out of traffic, construction signs. You’re barely past the last subdivision when you see the model-airplane landing strip on the right side of Highway 159, and then a traffic back-up on the turn into Calico Basin, and then a longer stream of cars in line at the official Red Rock entryway, each awaiting its turn at the toll both, where $5 gets you a lap on the one-way, 13-mile scenic loop drive. What you’ll see, from your car, or even on a quick walk down a well-trodden trail, is a lot of other tourists today.
Twenty years ago, according to the Bureau of Land Management, about 20,000 people per year visited Red Rock Canyon. Now, more than a million people per year make the drive to see something natural and un-Vegas just outside of Vegas. Twenty years ago, the little Visitor Center was plenty good. And although construction is now under way on a $23 million newer, bigger center, fee-collection area and more parking, all of which are meant to be accommodating to both visitor and environment, a nature-loving part of me wants to say that this little Visitor Center remains just fine; there’s no need to make this area more inviting to tourists.
I have this thought when I am literally stuck in a traffic jam in the small parking area; I have come for a rendezvous with 199,818 acres of nature, and I am being honked at by someone waiting for my spot. As I walk up the small hill to see the old center, which is still open until the new one is completed in 2010, I see bulldozers and backhoes fenced off on the adjacent site near stacks of cinder blocks, which are on their way to becoming an 8,000-square-foot indoor center plus 15,000 square feet of outdoor displays, walkways, an observation deck and habitat areas, according to the BLM. A sign says, “We apologize for the inconvenience ...”
The new Visitor Center will have educational exhibits meant to showcase the outdoor experience, which at this moment is one of bumpers and backhoes. Does nature really need us to showcase it?
Bob Taylor, field manager for Red Rock Canyon and Sloan Canyon conservation areas, assures me that this is the best way to protect the area.
“The old adage is, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But it’s also true that if you don’t build it, they’ll still come,” Taylor says. “Our concern is the city has grown, and we have not had the ability to keep up.”
By building educational exhibits, he says, they hope to teach stewardship to the millions of tourists who pack in picnics and footballs and the occasional can of spray paint to deface the rocks. “We want to try to instill an environmental ethic for the Mojave Desert and not just Red Rock,” he says.
And realistically, I see the point. But in recalling years when I hiked quietly, alone, on marked trails here, taking nothing in and leaving nothing behind, I lean toward a more extreme idea. Why not close the loop to cars and run in a tram with visitors, limiting what they can carry in and controlling the overall amount of visitors?
Taylor says there was a study about doing just that in 2001 and the outcome was that “yes, we need it, but the economics ...”
The tram start-up is expensive, and the capital improvement for parking to board the tram would require a 7.2-acre parking lot, plus a place to store and service the tram. Still, Taylor says, “We’re looking at all of that right now.”
Until then, however, the plan is to build and educate. In fact, when U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the federally funded exhibit center last spring, he was quoted in the Review-Journal saying, “We need to make sure that our children are connected with nature ... There’s a term that is used, which is ‘nature deficit disorder.’”
There’s another term that’s used: bullshit.
The irony of preserving nature by building in the middle of it can’t be ignored. Repaving and accommodating more visitors seems like less of a good idea than building a sturdy gate with a “No Motorized Vehicles” sign. We could bike and hike in, and let nature deficit disorder cure itself.