Art exhibit focuses on desert life in peril

Thursday, September 26, 2002
Copyright Las Vegas Mercury

There, in the pushed-sand crater of a track made by a rogue off-road vehicle, a Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard appeared to be crawling from the dune. In reality, the lizard was frozen in the new crater, half emerged, its spine broken and its forearms unable to pull the paralyzed weight of its body free. It died, eventually.

Andrew M. Harvey, who came upon the creature moments after its crushing, took a photograph. A few minutes earlier he'd captured on film the track-maker, an ORV rider just exiting an off-limits (to vehicles) protected stretch of the dunes clearly marked by signs. The two photos appear in Harvey's traveling Algodones Dunes photography exhibit, which is in Las Vegas this week through Sunday at the Katherine Gianaclis Gallery on Boulder Highway. Harvey, a Los Angeles-based photographer, spent more than a year walking and photographing the dunes. "It's beautiful," he says. "When the sun comes up there, and when the sun goes down there, it's magical".

Some of the photos show a vastness of wind-rippled dunes; desert trees and rare plants such as the beautiful and odd, purple-flowering spaceship-like "Sand Food"; insects such as the furry, pale Andrew's dunes scarab, which Harvey says hadn't been seen since 1972 but one morning showed up next to his sleeping bag; and animals, such as the fringe-toed lizard. All of these plants and creatures live in the closed-to-vehicles part of the dunes. Other photos show the lifeless, track-covered and vehicle-inundated part of the dunes open to ATVs and off-road vehicles. The difference between the two is literally the difference between life and death.

The Algodones Dunes, which stretch along the Mexico-U.S. border, is the largest dune system in California at 40 miles long by five miles wide and, in some points, 300 feet high. They are created by wind-blown sand from the Salton Sink and move southeast one foot per year.

Harvey's traveling exhibit is intended to show people the beauty of the dunes, but also to warn them of the Bureau of Land Management's plans to turn the entire dune system into one big lifeless corduroy of tracked-up sand with no limits placed on gas-powered beasts of mass destruction.

In 2000, the BLM was forced by lawsuit to close 49,000 acres of the dunes to off-road vehicles to protect the Peirson's milkvetch, which grows nowhere else in the world. That closure protected 54 percent of the dunes and left 46 percent open to off-roading. Apparently, that wasn't enough, and now as the BLM updates its management plan for the dunes it is suggesting reopening the closed areas to off-road vehicles.

Harvey says this would destroy an entire, one-of-a-kind, island-like ecosystem. And that is wrong. "It's very hard to survive out there," he says. "These plants and animals have evolved specifically for that area. I find great beauty in that--it's that fascination and appreciation of the struggle they've gone through and the diversity that they represent."