Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 1.
Issue Home
Past Issues
Pomona College Home
Related Links
White Sands National Monument
Carlsbad Caverns
Casa Grande Ruins


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.
Mission accomplished.

Saturday
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 table.

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 hold-outs.

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.

Sunday
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 oaks.

Animal sightings: trout and a rainbow-colored greater earless lizard.

Monday
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 production.

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.

Tuesday
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 feet.

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 impact.

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.

Wednesday
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, however.

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 confidence.

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.

Thursday
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 drinking supplies.

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 city’s landfills.

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 the States.

Friday
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.”

Saturday
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?
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
Top of Page Pomona College Magazine • 550 N. College Ave, Claremont, CA 91711 • Contact us for editorial matters