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Taking Time to Look Closely : There is a world of treasures at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, but you need patience to appreciate the beauty of the wild.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two hours of hiking across rugged terrain in the morning sun has Chuck Boland complaining about the television generation. People expect instant gratification. That is the point he’s trying to make.

“To enjoy the desert, you have to walk in it and go slowly,” says Boland, a Bureau of Land Management naturalist. “You have to watch. You have to listen.”

Patience. It is more than a virtue at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, a federal wildlife preserve outside California City, two hours north of the San Fernando Valley. Patience is the reality of this place.

The landscape used to crawl with Xerobates agassizi , a native California tortoise. In 1973, the BLM set aside these 40 square miles in the Mojave Desert because the biome supported 200 tortoises per square mile.

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Today, drought, disease and human encroachment have caused that population to dwindle to some 20 per square mile.

So when visitors arrive, either for the guided tour or to walk a marked path, Boland doesn’t mind if they search for half a day without so much as glimpsing a tortoise.

“It gives them a sense of what’s really happening out here,” he says.

It also gives them an opportunity--if they are patient--to enjoy some of the desert’s other jewels.

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That lightness, that dry aromatic odor . . . one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sagebrush desert . . . something soft and wild and free.

--Willa Cather, from “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

Another dry winter has scared away most of the wildflowers. Life in the western Mojave runs its course in subtle grays and greens and browns.

This is the land of creosote, with its gnarled branches and small waxy leaves that deflect the sun’s full strength. The bushes reach to chest-height but not much higher, then die off at their centers and grow outward. They progress in sturdy fashion, in expanding rings across the desert floor.

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You must look closer to the ground to find vibrancy. The horsebrush is covered in tiny white wool and the prickles of the stubby cholla cactus shine silver and gold in daylight. Cheesebush leaves smell as strong as Limburger if you rub them between your fingers.

“You take what you can get,” says Carol Panlaqui, a member of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, a nonprofit organization devoted to raising funds for the federal area. “That’s the way it goes in the desert. One year is good and the next is not so good.”

And this long, low valley wavers in the heat, buttressed by the Sierra Nevada range to the west and the Rand Mountains east. A hollow wind blows, fluttering the odd, inflated seed pods that hang from the otherwise sparse branches of the paperbag bush.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily.

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--Lewis Carroll, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Few humans might venture to this preserve were it not for the prospect of spotting one of the armor-plated creatures.

They are land-locked turtles protected by high-domed shells. The Iroquois hold that mankind first found a home on the Giant Tortoise’s ever-expanding back. In fact, these creatures grow to roughly the size of a toaster. Sluggish with their elephantine legs, they poke about like short-sighted old men, eyes blinking.

During the summer, tortoises rest in cool burrows. A given creature will dig several burrows in the half-mile area of its home range. Summer burrows run shallow. Winter burrows, used from October through February, can extend 10 feet down. Only from March through May will the tortoises become truly active, venturing forth in the mid-morning and late afternoon, foraging for wildflowers and drinking from standing pools.

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“People like them because they are wild and they’re cute,” Boland suspects. “And they are different-looking.”

But the very highway that leads visitors here has proved to be the reptile’s downfall, says Bob Parker, a wildlife biologist for the BLM. Roads bring road-kill, which attracts ravens. The blackbirds quickly discover that young tortoises have soft shells and tasty meat.

Even more dangerous are people who come to mine and ranch and tear across the land on their motorcycles. And, Boland says, it occasionally becomes faddish to drive to the Mojave and bring back a pet tortoise. A good number of them are subsequently returned to the desert. They return with urban diseases.

The desert tortoise was placed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 after the BLM surveyed the tortoise population in all of its desert areas and found a 50% decline since the mid-1980s. According to a recent University of Florida study, a chief cause was a mysterious upper respiratory tract infection.

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The decrease proved even greater--as high as 90%--at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area. Boland explains that people are more apt to release pet tortoises at the preserve, and disease spreads quickly.

Until the Desert knows

That Water grows

His Sands suffice

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But let him once suspect

That Caspian Fact

Sahara dies.

--Emily Dickinson A black-tailed hare springs from beneath its bush and skitters, rocket-fast, ears pricked up, across the sand. These sightings occur less frequently now than in past years.

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Like the tortoise, the hare and other Mojave fauna have suffered from a deadly combination of natural and man-made conditions. Predators such as kit foxes and golden eagles have also dwindled.

Of all the creatures on the high desert, antelope squirrels remain plentiful. So do lizards, squirming across the sand or remaining absolutely still, blending into rock and sand as they sunbathe.

“We have a lot of people who come out here just to look at the lizards,” Boland says. “They’re the prettiest things out here.”

The zebra lizard boasts light and dark rings on its tail. Colorful blotches mark the sides of the uda . When sunning, this creature performs spasmodic pushups.

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The larger whiptail lizard uses its exaggerated appendage to slither along.

Boland warns visitors not to try to catch these reptiles. The energy a lizard expends fleeing from human hands can leave the creature fatally dehydrated.

“In the desert,” the naturalist explains, “the line between living and dying is very fine.”

Another lesson. People must learn to be respectful, he says, to enjoy from afar.

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Oh! that the desert were my dwelling place.

--Lord Byron Humans provide an interesting sight here. Visitors walk in awkward steps with their heads down, whispering, pointing.

It is a matter of searching for clues. Animal tracks. The flutter of a cactus wren. The rattle of a rattlesnake. Countless burrows dot the ground: large ones for tortoises, smaller for squirrels and mice, smaller still for the lizards.

A ring of grass and forbs betrays the location of a harvester ant colony. The ants, carrying seeds into their hole and tossing out the refuse, germinate a circle of land a foot in diameter.

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And there are scats.

Benjamin Altieri and his mother, Lisa, visiting from Berkeley, come upon hare droppings. The 7-year-old boy has a pet rat at home and recognizes the green pellets.

“We call them turds,” he says.

Coyotes leave larger grayish droppings. Owls regurgitate clumps of hair, fur, feathers and bone. Tortoise scats are cigar-shaped and can be used to determine which direction the reptile was traveling.

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“Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or to make deserts bloom.”

--Adlai Stevenson

Turds are fine, but Benjamin wants to see a tortoise.

Some mornings, if Boland knows that a school group is scheduled to arrive, he will survey his preserve, checking near burrows, looking for tortoises so he can bring visitors back later in the day.

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“They’re ecstatic when they see a tortoise,” he says.

On this morning, hours of searching bring no such ecstasy. That’s the way it goes in the desert. Benjamin and his mother must satisfy themselves with examining a stuffed specimen on display in the parking lot.

The BLM has considered increasing its tortoise population by artificial means. Bringing in food, such as alfalfa hay, has not succeeded at other sites, Parker said. The tortoises became ill. Irrigating to promote wildflower growth during drought years has proved too costly.

So the tortoises, given protection from man, are left to rebound on their own. And Boland hopes that, in the absence of a tortoise sighting, visitors will take the time to notice what they can see.

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The cholla and the hare. The uda and the cactus wren.

“That’s the whole message,” he says. “If I can instill an appreciation for the desert . . . that’s how you save the desert.”

Act to Preserve More of Desert

The Senate passed legislation April 14 to preserve 6.3 million more acres of the 25-million-acre California desert, a national treasure that encompasses 90 mountain ranges, more than 100,000 archeological sites, waterfalls, wetlands and 760 species of wildlife.

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This action virtually assures that the California Desert Protection Act will become law this year.

It will create 74 wilderness areas and three new national parks, protecting portions of the fragile desert from off-road vehicles, mining exploration and new livestock grazing.

The comparatively tiny Desert Tortoise Natural Area, set aside by the Bureau of Land Management in 1973, is located amid these new federal areas but is not a part of them.

WHERE TO GO

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Location: Desert Tortoise Natural Area, in the Mojave Desert northeast of California City.

Getting there: North on Highway 14 to the California City turnoff. At California City, take Randsburg Mojave Road northeast and follow the signs. (Last portion of road is unpaved.)

Hours: Open daily. Naturalist on duty from March through May. Parking is free.

Price: Self-guided and guided tours are free.

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Call: (619) 384-3707.


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