if you build it, they will come

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Right, Costner? Isn’t that how it goes?

Lately I’ve been wondering why no one visits the Black Rock Desert. (Burning Man, I don’t want to deal with you yet.) Is it because it’s so far away from everything? Is it because there’s nothing to see, no attractions, no worthwhile incentive to make the trip? Or are there simply no people left on the face of the earth to engage in such frivolous activities as spending a summer traveling to northwestern Nevada? I wouldn’t know—it’d be years before that kind of newsflash reached me here.

To that first question—the one of distance—it’s undeniably true: Black Rock is really, really out there. A hundred miles from Reno, 240 miles from Sacramento, 460 from Boise, 430 from Grants Pass, Oregon. Who would want to drive all that way in the sweltering heat? Not me, that’s for sure.

To the second question, I’d argue that there is plenty to see. So much, in fact, that you’d never manage to see it all. Never. So says Dave Cooper, who’s worked in the Black Rock Desert as a Bureau of Land Management employee for more than a decade. Mind you, it was his job to check out the various recreation sites throughout the area on a regular basis, so if anyone should know a thing or two about the vastitude of the Black Rock, it would be him.

The nearly 1.2 million acres of Nevadan public land known collectively as the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon-Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA) are not only vast, undeveloped, and exceedingly remote, but they are, according to Cooper, literally impossible to fully explore. “I’ve worked here for ten years, lived here for 12, and there are still places in the NCA I’ve never seen,” says the former Black Rock field manager who retired in 2011. “You could spend a lifetime wandering these mountains and canyons and still come up short.”

Part of the reason is the sheer tracklessness of the place. Many of the roads winding through the NCA are primitive at best—gravel, dirt, rutted two-track, grapefruit-size macadam—and some are downright atrocious. There are areas inaccessible to vehicles of any sort, reached only by foot or on horseback. The other part is, well, it’s huge. It’s also considerably lacking in creature comforts, namely potable water, human settlements, shade, shelter, that kind of stuff. Won’t find much of it here.

On December 21, 2000, the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon-Emigrant Trails National Conservation Act was signed by Congress into law, thereby designating those 1.2 million acres as an NCA “featur[ing] exceptional scientific, cultural, ecological, historical, and recreation values,” as the BLM website puts it. In the case of the Black Rock NCA, these values are in large part summed up in the first two sections of the act, which describe the emigrant trails that stitch their way up across the state. According to organizations like Oregon-California Trails Association and Trails West—both of which, as it happened, played significant roles in lobbying the act before Congress—northwestern Nevada contains some of the largest unaltered segments of the historic California trails left in the country. Much of the high-desert terrain has remained essentially as the emigrants saw it, so that it is possible today to retrace their routes and see the same sights afforded to those teamsters more than 170 years ago. The trails are preserved in situ, as the archaeologist might say. That the area hosts scores of endemic plant and fish species—though no endemic birds, curiously—and a wide variety of reptiles and mammals served only to sweeten the deal. Congress thought all that was pretty neat, worthy of NCA status at least.

There are sixteen such conservation areas spread across ten western states—Nevada, Arizona and Colorado have three apiece; Utah and New Mexico two; California, Alaska, and Idaho each have one. They represent all manner of landscapes and were designed by Congress “to conserve, protect, enhance, and manage public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Though not the largest NCA by area—that distinction belongs to Steese in north-of-Fairbanks Alaska—Black Rock et al. boasts the longest name (hot dog!), besting the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey NCA in Idaho by a whopping ten characters.

Back to the paucity of visitors in Black Rock—what gives? There’s a brand new station out here, built in 2011, complete with a fancy visitor center. Where the visitors at? Was Kevin Costner and his Field of Dreams pure wrongheaded fantasy? Say it isn’t so! Since I was overcome by curiosity—simply bowled over by it, in fact—I’ve compiled a list of figures to illustrate my point, whatever it turns out to be.

Black Rock Field Station (Of Dreams), By the Numbers:

  • Area of structures (administration, barracks, garage), in square feet: 5,774
  • Area of site, in square feet: 1.7 million
  • Length of construction, in months: 10
  • Cost, in dollars: 3.5 million
  • Annual operating cost in 2012, in dollars: 144,600
  • Revenue accrued thus far in 2013, in dollars, from maps sold at $4 apiece: 44
  • Total number of visitors since June 6, 2013: 126
  • Average number of visitors per day since June 6: 1.8
  • Number of days, since June 6, in which zero visitors were recorded: 19
  • Longest consecutive run, since June 6, of zero-visitation days: 5

People better start visiting, I guess. Is that what I’m getting at? I don’t know. It doesn’t make any difference to me. It is pretty neat out here—just saying.

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5 thoughts on “if you build it, they will come

  1. I worked in the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails NCA for a couple years from 05 to 07. These were the best times if my life thus far. I’ll be back again to find my peace high atop those purple mountains.

    • Well, I’ll be! Thanks for checking out the blog. Whenever it is you return to the desert, swing by the Friends of Black Rock-High Rock office and say hello. I trust you’ll find the environs in good working order–i.e., more or less how you left them

  2. For sure, I was once a member. Still have the shirt. Can’t wait to get back. May be sooner than later!

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