Saying goodbye to the West

By Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

Posted: 04/16/15, Santa Cruz Sentinel

My first stop was Las Vegas. I’ve never been a gambler, and I don’t care for all the glitz. So after hanging out with some old pals for a couple of days, I set out to explore two wonders, both within 30 miles of the Las Vegas city limits.

The first wonder on my agenda was Hoover Dam. Marc Reisner’s epic book, “Cadillac Desert” (1986, Viking Press), later the basis of a PBS series about water in the West, offered an eye-opening environmental perspective on this iconic American structure. Since Hoover Dam’s construction in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, historians had long viewed the dam primarily as a tribute to American progress and ingenuity. At that time it was the tallest dam in the world, and until 1948, and its hydro-electric power plant was the world’s largest source of electricity.

No doubt, Hoover Dam remains an engineering marvel. Its completion inspired dam builders throughout the world, seemingly demonstrating that the chronic lack of water in the Great American Desert could be alleviated by bold dam construction projects.

But in “Cadillac Desert,” Reisner offered a startlingly different perspective, documenting how the Colorado River became “the most controlled, litigated, domesticated, regulated and over-allocated river in the history of the world,” according to a PBS website. Both the book and the documentary explain how dams and diversions on the Colorado River drastically altered the river’s natural flow as well as the ecosystems depending on it. By 1969, the mighty Colorado was reduced to a trickle where it naturally drains to the sea in Baja California.

I walked across the top of the dam along the Mike O’Connell-Pat Tilman Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2010. Still early April, it was already 91 degrees in the early afternoon. The view from the top of the dam offers terrific views plus firsthand comprehension of the enormity of this structure.

As I drove back to Las Vegas on U.S. Route 93, I was uplifted by the site of the desert in bloom. Even in this extreme climate, the native barrel cactus, beavertail cactus, Joshua trees and Indian paintbrush added to the colorful springtime show.

After returning to Las Vegas, I drove north about 30 minutes to experience the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my U.S. National Parks senior pass, which would have allowed me free access to the park, but the $7 entrance fee was still a bargain.

This 200,000-acre desert conservation area, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, was also in full bloom. Adding to the spectacular scenery, huge escarpments of Aztec sandstone grace the desert floor. Springs riddle the area, providing valuable habitat for native birds, including the red-tailed hawk, Say’s phoebe, and the cactus wren. Reptiles abound, such as the desert tortoise, two species of rattlesnake, and the chuckwalla lizard. Paleontologists confirm that some 200 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the area.

Today, native big-horn sheep, mountain lion and coyotes inhabit Red Rocks Canyon, along with wild burros and horses, descended from those that escaped or were abandoned by local ranchers, settlers, and Native American tribes.

The Red Rocks Canyon National Conservation Area is a marvelous contrast to Las Vegas, as well as a great respite for the city’s residents.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She can be contacted through her website,