2,400 Miles, 2,100 Feet Underground, 225 Million Years
and a Million Bats!
Pomona students and faculty embark on an
environmental adventure in the American Southwest.
By Cynthia Peters
Over nine days last May, a group of Pomona explorers traveled 2,400
miles across the Southwest, 2,157 feet into the earth, and 225 million
years through geologic time.
Led by the intrepid Rick Hazlett, the Pauley Professor of Environmental
Analysis and associate professor of geology, the 19 field-study
travelers included current students, recent graduates, professors, and
staff. Our goal was to meet with experts and others on the frontlines of
environmental issues and to learn first hand about the region’s
politics, ecosystems and people.
As we traveled under bright blue skies, new landscapes unfolded around
every corner. Faceless bureaucracies became agencies of people trying to
do their best. And people whose views some of us vehemently disagreed
with became real and three-dimensional.
After 600 miles our first day, White Sands National Monument (WSNM),
near Alamogordo, NM, is a wonderland of glistening, white sand dunes, 60
feet tall and made of gypsum. From a dune top, we see nothing but an
endless vista of blowing sand ringed by purple mountains. Despite warm
temperatures, the sand is cool to our bare feet because of a high water
Ranger Kathy Denton gives us an inside look at the complexity of park
management at WSNM. Among the highlights are the unique environmental
issues presented by neighboring Holloman Air Force Base on the White
Sands Missile Range. In recent years, she says, the clean-up of
misplaced munitions has improved. Still, she cautions us to steer clear
of any metal or wire we might find lying in the sand. “People have lost
body parts,” she says.
Despite the occasional stray missile, however, the park’s number one
concern is dealing with invasive, non-native species. Until recently,
the African oryx was problem number one. From 1969-1977, 93 of the
antelope were imported to the area, with the idea that hunting would be
good for the local economy. With no natural predators, however, the
population soon grew to 4,000 animals, who caused extensive damage to
the natural landscape. It took the Park Service five years to remove the
animals, and the effort involved such measures as an oryx-proof fence,
ATV drives, helicopter lifts, and finally, the extermination of the last
After hearing about the incredible variety of jobs that have made up
Denton’s 20-year park service career—from law enforcement to exotic
wildlife management and from fire suppression to search and rescue—at
least three students begin to seriously consider the National Park
Service as a potential career path.
Today‘s animal sighting: bleached earless lizard.
The area around White City, New Mexico, where we begin the next day, is
a junction of three ecosystems—the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains,
and the Chihuahuan Desert. This convergence, as geologist and Pomona
lecturer Michael Queen explains, makes the area one of the most
geologically, ecologically and culturally diverse in existence. The
Guadalupe Mountains, to our west, contain one of the best-preserved
Permian-aged fossil reefs in the world. Formed a billion years ago and
lifted with the growth of the mountains, this massive reef now towers
some 10,000 feet above the desert floor.
Later we head south into Texas for a hike in McKittrick Canyon, home to
remnants of an ice-age woodland and a year-round stream. The trail
begins in the desert, but further up the canyon, we find 20-foot madrone
trees with characteristic bright red bark, Ponderosa pines and some
Animal sightings: trout and a rainbow-colored greater earless lizard.
After hearing from a range of specialists at the Bureau of Land
Management (BLM), we visit a tamarisk tree removal site on the Delaware
River. The spread of the invasive tamarisk (aka salt cedar), introduced
from Asia in the 1800s, devastates water resources. Ray Keller, the
range conservationist, explains what it takes to get rid of these
notoriously hard-to-kill trees— chopping, burning and finally, spraying
with a powerful herbicide. Already, the cleared banks sport resurgent
native grasses and cottonwoods.
At another site, among natural gas pumps that look like heavy metal
tinker toys, we begin to understand the phenomenal amount of money
involved in the New Mexico oil and gas industry. Gene Knight, BLM
enforcement officer for oil and gas, and Paul Evans, environmental
protection specialist, tell us that the closest well is pumping about
$80,000 worth of natural gas per day. Oil wells, he adds, may cost a
million dollars to drill and pay for themselves with a single month’s
At an archeology site, we find several Indian grinding holes as well as
old Indian roasting ovens, with clear evidence of carbon build-up from
early fires. Our discoveries include sherds of black and white pottery
and brownware that Jennifer Perry, assistant professor of anthropology,
estimates to be, respectively, about 800 and 1,400 years-old.
As we wrap-up, cave specialist Jim Goodbar urges the students to
consider a career with the BLM. “It’s where environmental science meets
the road,” he says. “You don’t do it for the pay. You do it because you
love it, and you can have a real impact.”
Animal sightings: Texas horned lizard, scissor-tailed flycatcher, biting
flies, and a leopard lizard.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to 100 known caves—including
Carlsbad itself, with 30 miles of known tunnels and 500,000 visitors per
year, and Lechuguilla, the nation’s deepest limestone cave at 1,597
Cave Resource Manager Dale Pate explains that in earlier decades, the
National Park Service ’s focus on providing access and services at
Carlsbad led to a large underground lunchroom and a sewer line running
over one of the tunnels. Today, says Pate, the focus is more balanced
between access, protecting natural resources, and lessening human
When we enter the cavern, we are unprepared for its vast size. The
cathedral-like Big Room, 750 feet down, is more than six football fields
long, with incredibly high ceilings. There’s no sensation of closeness,
just vast, peaceful space filled with amazing formations. The path
twists past wedding cake columns the size of trees, past undulating
flowstone, and under delicate spires resembling chandeliers.
Our after-hours tour, led by geologist Queen, is the highlight of the
day. The cavern lights have been turned off, so we walk the three-mile
path by flashlight. Under our handheld lights, the fantastic formations
lose none of their ability to awe.
By 7:15 a.m., we’re headed to the site of Project Gnome, the first U.S.
underground nuclear test in 1961, part of a study on peaceful
application of nuclear explosions. Once there, we pile out to see the
only things to be seen—a round of cement and a monument marking the spot
above the explosion’s epicenter. Those who expected an impressive
crater, or any other visible sign of the forces that once rocked this
desert floor, are disappointed. We do see a large desert spiny lizard,
Our host, Norman Rempe, principal engineer with the Waste Isolation
Pilot Project (WIPP), is adamant, during our questioning, that the
detonation “didn’t hurt a fly.”
At 9 a.m., we present ourselves at WIPP, the nation’s first underground
repository for defense-generated transuranic waste. ("Transuranic"
refers to those manmade radioactive materials that are heavier than
uranium, such as plutonium.) Having received the required security
clearances from the Department of Energy prior to our arrival, we are
outfitted with equipment belts, hard hats, powerful headlamps, battery
packs, and a canteen-size self-rescuer—a breathing assistance device. I
don’t know about the others, but for me, the name does not inspire
To enter WIPP’s repository, 2,157 feet below the surface, we take an
open-air, double-deck elevator. As we speed downward, it gets so dark
you really can’t see your hand in front of your face, and we quickly
turn on our headlamps.
Our first impressions of the mine itself are that the corridors are
larger than expected—in fact, they're 13 feet high and 33 feet wide—and
that the air is surprisingly fresh. Soon, we’re zipping down dark
corridors on electric carts, with walls of salt crystals sparkling under
our headlamps. There are few lights other than the headlamps and carts,
but it doesn’t seem oppressively dark. Everything is white and grey,
like being inside a black and white movie. After several long corridors
and an airlock, we reach the room where the nuclear waste is being
unloaded and stored. For some reason, in such enormous quantities, it
seems menacing, though Rempe has convinced many of us that storing it in
a salt mine may in fact be one of our best options for the time being.
Afterwards, Carrie Fields ’06 admits that she was fascinated by what she
had seen. “I was pretty disturbed in ways, but it’s nice that these
things can be stored safely at places other than Hanford. I was really
weirded out by the nuclear waste and all the signs. It was really
interesting to get totally contradictory information from difference
sources and try to sort through it.”
Just before dusk, we return to Carlsbad Caverns for the nightly event
that has become such an attraction that its name is capitalized: Bat
Flight. From an amphitheatre about 100-feet away from the black cavern
mouth, we wait as the cave swallows disappear into the cavern and the
bats begin to stir. At first just a few of the Mexican free-tail bats
begin to fly out, swirling between the amphitheatre canyon wall and the
opposite cliff. Then there are hundreds of thousands, so many that the
rust-colored cliff above the cave flickers like TV static as the bats
circle out, up and then over our heads and into the cool night.
Afterwards, in preparation for the following day, we sit outside the
Visitor Center as Heather Williams, assistant professor of politics,
talks to us about maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants in
Mexico), colonias (squatter settlements), and environmental problems
along the Texas/Mexico border. As we walk to our cars, we can see the
oil rigs lit up like Christmas trees, across the Basin.
Leaving Carlsbad, we head east to El Paso, Texas, to meet with members
of the City Planning Department. The city and county have just 717,000
residents, but with Ciudad Juarez just across the Rio Grande, the
metropolitan area has a population of 2 million plus. The intertwined
issues of these two cities are exemplified by the 250,000 people who
travel between the two cities every day.
El Paso’s biggest issues, we learn, are national security, water and air
pollution—all of which can involve cooperation with Mexico. As part of
our visit, we tour a gleaming water treatment plant. that produces 60
million gallons per day, eight months a year, and learn that it will
meet only half of El Paso’s water needs when it reaches full capacity at
80 million gallons. A desalinization plant is also on the drawing board.
Across the border at the Instituto Municipal de Investigacion y
Planeacion—the Ciudad Juarez planning office—we learn that water, air
pollution, the local economy and urban sprawl top the list of concerns.
Incredibly more than 100,000 residents are without running water and
more than 200,000 people have no sewage treatment. Already Mexico’s
fifth largest city, the population doubles every 20 years, outpacing the
city’s ability to build adequate infrastructure.
By 2010, the city anticipates a water crisis unless new resources are
found, despite the fact that Juarez residents use an average of only 87
gallons of water per day, as compared to El Paso’s individual usage of
150 gallons. A planned pipeline will allow the city to mix brackish
water from the west with clean aquifer water in an effort to bolster
A slightly surprising environmental issue is old cars. More than 300
used cars are imported to Juarez per day. Because they’re normally in
such bad condition, Juarez’s pollution is as heavy as El Paso’s, despite
fewer vehicles. There are also four million discarded tires in the
Joint efforts between the two cities, we learn, include an air quality
committee, a bi-national bus project, and cooperation on border-crossing
issues. Following dinner with planners from both cities, we had back to
We begin the journey home with a 300-mile drive from El Paso to Wilcox,
Arizona, where we spend the evening sharing thoughts about the trip and
trying to understand how all the pieces fit together.
“Every day of the trip felt rewarding,” says Dan Driscoll ‘ 05. “We had
access to people and places we’d never have seen otherwise, people like
those at the BLM, Norbert Rempe and Harold Nicholson [formerly with the
U.S. Geological Survey]. We didn’t know how to react to some of the
things they said, but you have to learn how to get information… It was
great to be learning so much without the worry of getting a grade and at
the same time as the professors.”
Erika Bylund ’04 agreed. “We definitely heard from some people who had
opinions different from our own value system… I thought it was really
beneficial. At Pomona, we get to read about it but never get to hear
directly from the other side.”
For Gene Fowler, associate professor of biology, the trip brought “a
sense of scale in terms of what it takes to support the way we live,
from the wells across the New Mexico landscape to the huge water
treatment plant that serves less than a third of El Paso and none of
Juarez. At WIPP, it was the millions of dollars it takes to deal with a
relatively small but tremendously important problem. The sheer scale of
what it takes to sustain life as we know it is huge.”
The last stop of our odyssey is Casa Grande Ruins National Park, home to
a Hohokam village dating to 1300. Located along a tributary of the Gila
River in the Sonoran Desert, this sophisticated agricultural society had
a complex system of irrigation canals. The park’s centerpiece is the
massive Great House, two-plus stories of melting adobe with exterior
walls up to five feet thick at their base. The ruins were the first
archeological site to be preserved by the federal government, in 1892.
Animal sightings: round-tailed ground squirrels and cactus wrens.
Throughout our travels, we saw many examples of the conflicts between
land use and preservation, but none have been quite so jarring visually
as Casa Grande. As we exit the national park gates, with the Great House
still visible in the rear view mirror, we face a giant Walmart, ready to
serve people in the new, nearby subdivisions. Three-hundred-sixty miles
later, we’re back in Claremont.
“We saw in everything,” says Wayne Steinmetz, Carnegie professor of
Chemistry, “a view of the past, present and clear indications of future
issues – water in particular – that were sobering if not frightening. If
you look at Juarez today, is that our California tomorrow? I’m not
convinced it’s that far away. What are our limitations?