Sand Mountain's Uneasy Truce
The Furrow Magazine, story & photos by Laura Read
AT THE EDGE of a muddy salt flat on Nevada’s section of U.S. Highway 50, a cream-colored mound rises from a mosaic of desert shrubs, looking like a dune of the moon. Neither a mirage nor a transplant from outer space, it is a 600-foot-tall, naturally produced wedge of sand. For 3.5 miles from peak to floor, its main ridge winds along a wind-scoured knife edge, catching the morning sunshine on one side and shielding murky blue shadows on the other. To some observers, from a distance the curving line looks like a serpent’s spine.
Ninety miles east of Reno and 400 miles north of Las Vegas, Sand Mountain is a crossroads of intense interests – and the subject of a fragile truce. West of the mountain is the marshy Stillwater Wildlife Refuge, a stopover for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, a popular duck hunting area, and an ancestral hunting ground for Native Americans. To the east is a bombing practice range set up by the nearby Fallon Naval Air Station, which is home to pilots training in the elite U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School also known as “Top Gun.” About 26 miles away is Fallon, a city of about 9,000 and the center of a network of dairies, alfalfa farms and beef cattle operations.
Fragile Agreement A decade ago, the BLM addressed a dispute that was roiling among three Sand Mountain stakeholders— off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, conservationists, and Native Americans — by splitting the 4,795-acre site into designated parts. The Sand Mountain Blue Butterfly Conservation Plan was an attempt to balance recreation access, rare plant and animal species habitat, and Native American ancestral sites. Today the factions maintain an uneasy peace.
Melanie Hornsby, an outdoor recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Sand Mountain recreation site, makes sure the 150 or so rudimentary camping sites, the interpretive signs, and the other facilities are in good shape. Every weekend, crowds OHV riders inhabit the site. Vacationers throng there during holidays like Easter and Halloween, when a light parade and trick-or-treating activate the scene. “One person driving by on Highway 50 once told me it look like Disneyland,” Hornsby says.
A 2004 study estimated there were 56,000 visitor uses of the mountain per year, a number that was up by 40,000 from visitor usage in the 1980s, according to the BLM Conservation Plan report. “On big weekends, it’s like having a fully functioning city out there,” says Ken Tedford, mayor of Fallon.
Next to all of the buzz, about 1,700 acres the mountain is closed off to motorized use, according to the BLM plan. There, every summer a new population of tiny Sand Mountain blue butterflies is born. Protecting the species is important for both OHV riders and butterflies. A BLM interpretive panel at the site explains why: “Success in protecting the butterfly reduces the possibility of listing it as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” it states. “If listed, OHV use would be significantly impacted at Sand Mountain.”
One off-road user website calls for a boycott of Native American owned businesses in Fallon, hoping to pressure Tribe members against forcing further closers at the mountain to protect their cultural sites.
“It’s a challenge to manage for multiple uses of a resource,” says Dean Tonenna, a botanist with the BLM. “There are a number of issues,” Improving people’s appreciation of the dune’s story is one of the missions of the BLM’s 2008 plan.
Ancient Grains The mountain’s materials are much older than the shapes of its immediate surroundings. Its sand particles – composed mostly of feldspar and quartz – originated 100 miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountain range bordering Nevada and California. Over centuries, cascading snowmelt settled downstream in Nevada. About 14,000 to 10,000 years ago great shallow lakes filled much of Nevada and other parts of the West. When the lakes shrank, roaring winds lifted up the sand from the dried-up basins of Lake Lahontan and whirled them against a southern flank of the Stillwater range. In time the winds shaped the sand dunes into the cones and ridges we see today.
And yet, compared to the millions of years of geologic time, “the dune field as a whole is fairly young,” says Nicholas Lancaster, an emeritus research professor at the Reno-based Desert Research Institute. “You can see the shorelines of the lake high up above the dunes, especially on the southeastern side.”
Researchers have classified dunes around the planet into six general geometric forms. The Sand Mountain dune series contains many of the the forms, each shaped over time by different wind speeds and currents. “There are parabolic, linear, traverse, star dunes at the site,” says Tonenna. “Star dunes are rare. You can see the one at Sand Mountain from above, but can’t easily sense it when you are standing on it.”
Linear dunes resemble the Paiute’s sleeping serpents, their crowned spines curving as if draped over bumpy ground. Star dunes look like mammoth sleeping creatures suitable for a “Star Wars” set.
Robert Gott, owner of UTV Addiction, an off-road vehicle rental company based 90 miles away in Reno, has been riding OHVs for more than 20 years. He graduated from using early VW dune buggies to quads and then on to today’s roll-bar-protected ultimate terrain vehicles. “I love Sand Mountain,” he says. “It’s just so special because it’s an anomaly. You can ride the sand dunes during the day, and shoot out on the Pony Express Trail (a historic jeep trail) to grab lunch at Middlegate Station (a historic café 25 miles away on U.S. Highway 50).”
One of Gott’s favorite spots is a wind-carved hole near a high slope the off-roaders call the Super Bowl. “Where the wind drops the sand, there’s a vortex it all times that’s about 150 to 200 yards in diameter and 20 to 60 yards deep,” he says. “The sand changes shape, but the giant bowl never fills up.”
Dune Tunes Appearance and composition are just the beginning of the mountain’s quirks. It is one of only 30 in the world to “sing.” In North and South America, and in Hawaii, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, under certain conditions a few singing sand dunes produce noises from within. Their vocalizations can sound like the drone of a high jet engine, the hiss of a power line, or the gurgling of an Australian digeridoo. Scientists relate the phenomenon to a couple of factors: percussive sound bouncing through the lighter surface sand off of dense wet sand layers deep within the mountain; sand grains of similar size impacting each other; and dry air. Conditions are not always right for hearing the noise, but once you hear it, according to observers, you don’t forget it.
“If I were to describe it, it’d have to be as a ‘cold whisper’,” says Gott. “There’s something so beautiful and mysterious about it.”
To Jane Moon, director of Tourism in Fallon, “the ‘humming’ is an extremely faint and musical, guttural, almost chant-like, sound.”
Donna Cossette, registrar at the Churchill County Museum and a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, heard of the mountain’s percussion when she was young. “It made the sound of a snake or a rattle,” she says.
WHEN THE OHVs THROTTLE down, and nighttime steals the desert’s heat, critters get busy. “The place is alive at night when many nocturnal species come out,” Tonenna says. “There are tracks everywhere.” Rodents share territory with jackrabbits, cottontails, scorpions, and beetles. “The kangaroo rats’ long tails drag behind them as they go from place to place, leaving linear features in the sand.” In winter, long-horned owls hoot a feathered version of Morse code — long-short-short-long mating calls.
Plants and animals have adapted to the desert climate – its fierce wind, arid soil, hot days, and cold nights. The fourwing salt bush produces “winged” seeds that get to new locations by catching rides on the wind. “The needle and thread grass has thin strands like hair that move gently in a breeze” Tonenna says. “You have to be there at the right time of year to see it. It doesn’t last for more than a couple of weeks.” There are also greasewood, Nevada ephedra, Indian rice grass, and Galleta grass, and, “there’s a very beautiful lily – a sand lily – that grows way on the tops of ridges behind the sand dune,” Tonenna says “It comes out around Easter – blooming from March to April. After that you won’t see it because the whole plant dries up.”
A perennial shrub with more than 15 minutes of fame is the red-barked Kearney buckwheat. The Sand Mountain Kearney buckwheat habitat is the only place in the world where the Sand Mountain blue butterfly lives. Its 1,700-acre habitat is the focal point of the 2008 BLM plan. The butterflies emerge in mid-July to live in 10-day cycles through mid-September, according to the BLM plan. The plan restricts OHV usage to 21.5 miles of trails and closes 1,700 acres on the dune as protected butterfly habitat.
FULLY APPRECIATIVE of the scientific explanations of the place, the Churchill County Museum’s Donna Cossette says that Native Americans, whose ancestors have populated the region for more than 10,000 years, think about the mountain in different terms. “Its original name is pronounced Kwazi,” she says. “It’s a sacred place. We would seek out that location for prayers or healing. Oftentimes with these kinds of places you may leave with something you didn’t intend.”
Although she does not visit Sand Mountain today without a purpose, the mountain still figures large in her mind. “I remember going there in the 1970s when I was about four or five years old,” she says. “I sat at the base of the dune where the greasewood and Kearney buckwheat met the sand, and dug holes, all the while thinking