Sand in The Box
The worst sandstorm in John Wagstaffe’s memory is at full howl. We’re deep inside Iraq, somewhere between the towns of Medina Jabal and Medina Wasl, on a day when the threat of violence is as thick as the squalls of sand. But there’s something about the way Wagstaffe never goes anywhere without a carton of cigarettes that inspires if not confidence, then something like good cheer. Even as the sandstorm reaches a blinding rage, Wagstaffe, our military handler, maintains the upbeat demeanor of a tour guide. Until, that is, we lose sight of the vehicle in front of us and drive off the shallow and slightly smoothed path in the desert sand that serves as our road.
Our caravan is three-strong. The lead vehicle, like ours, is a white van with a U.N. sign in the front and back windows. The signs are meant to indicate we’re not fair game, though, as Wagstaffe warns, indiscriminate IEDs don’t pay attention to such warnings. Following us is a blue SUV carrying a documentary team from Sweden. They have no signs.
We find our way back to the road, but the sandstorm raises a couple of issues. Veering off the path again could send us into a ditch or, perhaps, into one of the phantom Humvees that patrol the fringes of this sand-clouded route like sharks in murky water. Or maybe we’ll just hit the van in front of us, or be hit by the SUV from the rear. Wagstaffe isn’t exactly flustered, but he is a bit less unflappable than usual. I suggest that he radio the van in front of us to tell the driver to put on its hazard lights so we have something to follow.
“That would be great,” he tells me, “but we don’t have any radios.”
Sweet, I think, the world’s last dollar is going to be spent out here, but we don’t have walkie-talkies.
When we careen off the road again, the caravan stops and we wait until the sandstorm lets up enough for us to find the road back to Medina Wasl. I’m worried we’re going to miss the firefight that’s rumored to be taking place in less than a half-hour.
We crossed over the Kuwaiti border and into Iraq earlier this morning, June 4, 2008, at 10:40 a.m. There’s a military designation for that time but damned if I know what it is. After a quick debriefing from Wagstaffe and a successful negotiation of a checkpoint on the outskirts of the main base, we’re bound for the heart of what’s known as The Box — 1,200 square miles of sand, hills and shrub as far as the eye can see, occasionally interrupted by a mountain range or a spectral Hummer with a .50 caliber machine gun on top. The Box is where the shit goes down, and, if all goes as planned, we’ll be there to see it.
A mile or two into Iraq, proceeding east, Wagstaffe points out a mosque on a hill. “It’s where the Muslims go to pray,” he says. “It also gets blown up periodically.”
Not long after, we approach Medina Wasl, a village that comprises 70 percent Sunnis and 30 percent Shiites. Medina Wasl is little more than a stretch of primitive buildings along a main street. Like so many towns and villages in Iraq, it has its problems.
“Massive unemployment, insurgent activity, sectarian violence,” says Wagstaffe, before adding cheerily, “normally, on Wednesday night they slice the imam’s throat.”
Wagstaffe is a crusty denizen of this here desert and a salty vet of this man’s army. He was Colin Powell’s spokesman back when the good general ran the show, and can’t say enough positive things about our former secretary of state. Especially when it comes to Powell’s facility with the internal-combustion mechanics of his favorite automobile, the Volvo. According to Wagstaffe, the general was practically a certified Volvo mechanic. Ah, if only he could read intelligence reports as well as car manuals ... but that’s another story.
As far as this one goes, I want to say up front that Wagstaffe is a good egg and whatever happens out here in the desert is not his fault. He’s a good egg and a ripe red tomato. At least, his sun-blasted skin is the color of a ripe red tomato, an impression made all the more vivid by the shock of blond hair on top of his tomato face.
We park outside the village walls and proceed on foot. A couple of U.S. soldiers huddled on each side of a short alley between buildings politely but firmly ask us to get the hell out of the way. We slither past the soldiers and move down the main street, keeping close to the buildings. The tension is thick; the street is strangely still. Soldiers point rifles down the middle of the road and watch for anything suspicious-looking. Wagstaffe is less demure than his guests and strolls out into the fray like he’s bulletproof. He waves me over to talk with one of the less-harried-looking soldiers, Staff Sergeant Lewis Maffei, an Observer Controller — a higher-ranking combat vet here assessing U.S. troops’ performance.
“There was a guy wearing a vest with explosives. He got through security, where [the commander of the U.S. troops] was having a briefing with the mayor, and blew himself up,” says Maffei, who’s done three tours in Iraq, has seen this sort of thing before and is very businesslike about it all. He gives me a casualty report: one U.S. soldier wounded, two Iraqi army killed, one Iraqi civilian killed and four wounded.
The town is on lockdown and the soldiers on the ground — members of the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kansas — are engaged in critical responses that require coordination, precision and clear thinking. The town has to be secured, the citizens calmed. There is an Iraqi doctor in town, but following local customs—a female doctor, in this case a U.S. servicewoman—must be brought in to attend to the women. Casualties are being flown out. It’s all happening at once. It’s intense, but the trick is to keep it from getting any tenser.
“This town was neutral when [the U.S. troops] first showed up,” Maffei tells me. “They have water problems, power problems, things like that. If the unit helps them, then they go to the positive side. If they treat them badly, or lie to them, they go to the negative side, and the bad guys start recruiting more people.”
These soldiers have been in the country for a month now, and engaged in full-spectrum operations for two weeks. They’re relatively raw and untested, but days like this one will teach them fast. Captain Andy Kaiser, another Observer Controller on hand who has two tours under his belt, tells me that scenarios like this one immediately raise the most fundamental question — whether to stay or go.
“I always stood my ground, versus leaving,” Kaiser says. “Because the whole insurgent thing is to get us to move and show that we’re scared. ... [The commanding officer] has decided he’s going to stay today and keep security and keep treating people. That’s the right decision. You don’t want to run from these guys. We’ve got up-armored vehicles, tanks, fighting vehicles — you leave, you know, it gives a bad impression.”
When the immediate threat dies down, I’m taken to meet Bassan Kalasho, the provincial governor of Ghazi. He is monitoring the action and acting as the surrogate for the 275 Iraqis in this town. He’s the guy sitting on the tinderbox. I ask him how it’s going so far.
“The brigade commander is doing a great job and the soldiers are doing an excellent job,” says Kalasho with the calm demeanor of someone who’s been to this rodeo a few times before. “Two days ago, they caught 27 from al Qaeda and 17 from Mahdi [Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s paramilitary force]. They have an engineer company here. They already rebuilt the middle of Medina Wasl. Security is the main issue here. If we don’t get security, we can’t rebuild Iraq.”
As the calamity, similar to so many others across Iraq since this war began, settles into the steady, methodical pace of a crime-scene investigation, we drive on to Medina Jabal. A canteen there serves up some good American-style eats. But on the way out of Medina Wasl, we run over something that causes our van to slightly lurch.
“Was that an IED?” asks the director of the Swedish documentary team, who is riding in our van.
“Could be,” says Wagstaffe, who presses on. “Or it could be someone fucking with us with an RPG.”
“I think it was a cardboard box,” I say.
Nobody in the van subscribes to this theory. They want to be part of the drama.
We move on across the desert to Medina Jabal. When we pull into town, a collection of drab stone buildings that could serve as the set for a Western, Wagstaffe points out the jail. We park near the cemetery and unload. The wind is picking up. The air is thick with sand. The first thing we come upon is a blown-down palm tree, about 40 feet long and 4 feet around.
“We were guaranteed these palm trees wouldn’t blow over,” Wagstaffe says.
Most of the townspeople are covered from head to toe in traditional robes, their mouths and noses protected from the sand. They are moving inside for cover. We duck into the cantina, which evokes that famous bar scene from Star Wars. Villagers, insurgents, soldiers, all are taking a break from the day to order tacos, burgers and hot dogs. At 12:30 p.m. — and damned if I know the military designation for that time — the local mosque’s bells chime.
“They have to play that music five times a day,” Wagstaffe says.
Nobody is bowing toward Mecca.
We order our food and take a seat at a table with Puff, an insurgent. Puff has been out here for three years. He is eating tacos. Puff has beautiful blue eyes, dark hair — well, mostly dark, some swaths are grayish — and his skin is a mix of peach pigmentation interrupted by large, growing patches of darker pigment, like birthmarks. He says he’s turning black and that his doctors don’t know why.
“I’m the first person on record with this,” Puff tells me. “They estimate that by the time I’m 60, I’ll be a full-fledged black man.”
He says that with his condition and all, this is the only place that would accept him as he is, no questions asked. Last night, as he slept, Special Forces raided his hut. They shot him three times in the chest. Then they asked if he agreed that he was dead.
“Yes,” he said, “I agree that I’m dead.”
Then, for extra measure, they shot him a few times in the balls.
“Special Forces can be dicks,” he says.
Puff is married. He says he spent $49,000 on his fiancée’s engagement ring. He isn’t leaving this circus anytime soon. In fact, he says, he has orders to go to Fort Bragg to get airborne training. After that, he’ll be in the shit for real. He’s not stoked.
We hit the road, heading back to Medina Wasl. The sand is blowing so thick, we can barely make out the village until we’re right upon it, and then it appears mostly as a silhouette. Everyone’s taken cover except for a team of U.S. troops on the south side of town.
Wagstaffe opts to sit this one out, but photographer C.R. Stecyk III and I hop out of the van and move toward a group of U.S. forces hovering around a wounded insurgent. Apparently, we missed the firefight, but not by much. Other troops are taking up strategic positions that offer cover and a clear shot at anything moving on the perimeter. Humvees, tanks, armored personnel carriers scramble for position. A tank pulls up feet from us, along with a Humvee full of soldiers. The guy handling the .50 caliber machine gun shouts out, “If anything moves, I’ll paste the fucking city.” I believe him.
After a tense hour or so, the insurgents are caught ,and the town is cleared. The men of the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley — the Big Red One — retire to the Forward Operating Base for some rest and shelter.
“Cool kicks,” one of them shouts out to me as I walk past, obviously pleased with my red Converse One-Stars.
By now, you may have guessed that we aren’t really in Iraq but a reasonable facsimile, where the palm trees are reinforced with two-by-fours and the bad guys, like Puff the pretend insurgent, belong to the 2,500-strong 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Here at Fort Irwin, California, home of the Army’s National Training Center, America’s soldiers play out their most realistic live-fire exercises on a piece of the Western Mojave Desert as big as Rhode Island and getting bigger as the mission expands.
The Long March Home
In another part of this desert, on a different day, a male, 60 or so years old by the looks of him (official designation: 166.614 2554), is on the run. Like so many refugees in this world, he’s just trying to find home. But it’s going to be hard. For one thing, he’s in the middle of desolate and unfamiliar terrain. It’s a hot day and he probably doesn’t quite have his bearings just yet — understandable, considering he’s been dropped off here in the middle of nowhere by helicopter. His quest for home would take him over miles of unforgiving land, rugged mountains, and expose him to harsh elements and unsympathetic predators or vehicles that could crush him without even seeing him. Not to mention, he’s just not cut out for this kind of thing. He’s a slow and steady sort, and, watching him plod across a dry wash, one foot in front of the other, it’s hard not to be a bit moved by his determination.
All the more heartrending is the fact that, try as he might, the truth is he isn’t ever going home again. The place he came from, where he lived his entire life, is fenced off. Even if his heart were really set on it, he’d make just a little more than a kilometer a day. And he probably wouldn’t want to stay if he did make it, because things aren’t ever going to be the same back home. His land is needed — for dubious or essential purposes, depending on your politics — by newcomers further up the food chain. I wouldn’t bet against him surviving, though. His type has been around for a million years. He’s a beautiful, distinguished-looking fellow ... all 15 inches of him. Did I mention he’s a tortoise?
One of nearly 700 California desert tortoises, a species listed as threatened under the federal and state Endangered Species Act, number 166.614 2554 is being flown off the reservation, so to speak. Along with 40 other tortoises today, he’s been dropped off in this sector of the Mojave, about 20 miles east and 10 miles north of Barstow, for relocation — away from the home he’s known all of his life: Fort Irwin, California. It’s all part of the first and largest military-sponsored tortoise airlift in history. Which makes him collateral damage in a war far different from the one the soldiers were preparing for in Medina Wasl.
For years, the tanks of Fort Irwin and the California desert tortoise of the Western Mojave have lived together in relative peace. Recently, however, the détente has blown up, and, like many conflicts around the world, it’s territorial.
See, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin needs more land. One reason is that brigade-sized training exercises involve significant man- and machine power, usually 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers, plus all their equipment — tanks, artillery, transport vehicles, armored vehicles, etc. Another significant factor is that the distance in which our armed forces can engage the enemy has increased from ranges of up to 12 miles in 1980, when the center was designated, to up to 60 miles now. Also, tactical operations move at a much quicker pace than they used to, from about a 10-mile-per-hour average to 25 miles per hour these days. Thus, the 100 Hours War, as the Persian Gulf invasion is sometimes called. Indeed, the effectiveness of Gulf War I is often credited to the training our troops did at Fort Irwin.
Unfortunately for number 166.614 2554, the land the military covets is one of the few areas where the California desert tortoise has thrived in recent decades. Now, the land has become a political and environmental battlefield. On one side, is the welfare of our soldiers, on the other, according to its defenders, is the future of one of the planet’s oldest species.
Fort Irwin, in one form or another, has been lurking just beyond the Los Angeles Basin, not far past the Cajon Pass, somewhat out of sight and somewhat out of mind for nearly 70 years. In 1940, President Roosevelt established a military reservation of some 1,000 square miles, where Fort Irwin now exists, in a vast expanse of the Mojave Desert. It was originally called the Mojave Anti-Aircraft Range and was renamed Camp Irwin in honor of Maj. Gen. G. Leroy Irwin, the World War I commander of the 57th Field Artillery Brigade in 1942. Contrary to lore, Gen. Patton did not train there. The camp was deactivated in 1944 and then reactivated in 1951 to train combat units for the Korean War.
The base was designated Fort Irwin in 1961. Artillery and engineer units were deployed directly to Vietnam from Fort Irwin during that war. In the ’70s, the post was semiretired and used by National Guard and Army Reserve units. In 1980, its fortunes reversed when it was selected to become the site of the new National Training Center.
“All the American units that went to the Gulf War went through here,” Wagstaffe tells me. “We had the best Republican Guard in the world.” And in the ’80s, when the final showdown was going to be with the Soviet Union, Wagstaffe says, “We had the best Soviet unit in the world — including any in the Soviet Union.” (Of course, given the fresh conflict between Russia and Georgia, one could argue that the Army needs to get busy bringing back some of those old Soviet units.)
Fort Irwin is the only training area in the world that can handle force-on-force, live-fire war games for heavy brigade-sized military forces. Training generally takes place over a 28-day rotation, the final two weeks of which are realistic war games that try to prepare soldiers for the types of scenarios they will encounter in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Wagstaffe says that the unit out of Fort Riley, nearing the end of its training cycle during our visit, will soon be deployed to Iraq — as early as September or December.
The base is under the command of an up-and-comer named Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, a West Point grad who, like the soldiers now in training, started his career with Fort Riley’s 1st Infantry Division. A vet of both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Pittard was a military aide to President Clinton and is a tank-warfare expert, which makes him well suited for his current post.
Entering Fort Irwin is a surreal experience. There’s a whole world out there far from the average citizen’s view. The base itself is the size of a small city — hosting 20,000 people during the day, 9,000 at night. Attention to detail is astounding — the mosques, the urban areas made to simulate Iraqi villages, the role players inhabiting those villages, the fake palm trees that sometimes blow over in sandstorms. When they first started making over The Box to provide the mix of urban and desert warfare we now find ourselves engaged in, Wagstaffe tells me, the Army bought every shed available from Shed World, with major operations in nearby Hesperia, Victorville and Apple Valley, to start building the towns.
“It cost a lot of money,” says Wagstaffe.
Even so, Brig. Gen. Pittard wasn’t satisfied with the look and feel (Wagstaffe remembers him saying, “You think this looks like Iraq?”), and set up a competition among three Hollywood movie-set operations. The winner got to turn The Box into Iraq. Currently, Fort Irwin is constructing a $57 million replica of Fallujah, which we drive by in its nascent state on our way back from that lunch in Medina Jabal.
“It’s going to be the largest urban-warfare facility in the world,” says Wagstaffe, proudly. “We import the stones from Iraq.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says.
It doesn’t stop there. Occupying the Iraqi villages are 250 Iraqi “actors” like Bassan Kalasho, the provincial governor. These actors stay 24/7 during the full training rotation, often under harsh conditions: heat, sandstorms, bitter nights and boredom. They man their posts — as governors, mayors, villagers, merchants, doctors, shepherds, imams – all day long, whether they are due to see any action that day or not.
“They do it out of a sense of patriotism,” says Wagstaffe, “for their former country and their adopted country.”
Kalasho is indicative of these people. During Saddam’s reign, the Baath Party killed Kalasho’s parents. “I do everything here, not just play governor. I teach a culture class,” he says. “If we can save one innocent life, on both sides, that will be great for us.”
The army has also hired 300 unemployed people from Barstow (“the Barstow 300,” Wagstaffe calls them) at $4,000 a month, to fill out the role-playing. While it’s certainly a small boon to the local economy, Wagstaffe admits it’s barely made a dent in the area’s unemployment rate.
The idea is to be as realistic as possible in every phase of warfare. When soldiers die in simulated combat, they are taken away to someplace called Deadland. Commanding officers must then go through the process of condolences, requesting awards, requisitions.
IEDs are made with Iraqi phones and simulators. Real amputees are brought in from Hollywood to play casualties. Fake shepherds bring their goats and sheep to market. Prisoners go to court and are represented by lawyers. Imams get their throats sliced. Poker games between Sunni and Shia strongmen go awry. Vendettas are played out. One gets the impression that this is the largest movie set in the world.
The operating budget for Fort Irwin must be staggering. I ask Wagstaffe what it is.
“I don’t know,” he says. “A lot.”
I’m not the only one waiting for the numbers. Wagstaffe tells me later that Dan Rather is still waiting on the info. “If I ever find it,” he says, “I’ll get it to you guys.” Me first, I assume.
What does it mean when our financial system is collapsing, when there’s no money for basic infrastructure, social services, health care and education, but there’s a never-ending pipeline of green to the military? I have no fucking idea, but maybe the desert tortoise — pushed to the brink of collapse itself, and now being airlifted out of a critical habitat so a military base can play more and bigger war games — would tell us if it could talk. Since it can’t, we go searching for answers in Barstow, of all places.
My sun-absorbing black Jeep Cherokee is in four-wheel drive and moving at a righteous clip through the Mojave. It’s all good sport in a delirious Mad Max kind of way, until my partner in crime, C.R. Stecyk III, and I realize we have noidea where we are. We also have no detailed map, no shovel to dig ourselves out should we get bogged down in the sand, a temporary spare that wouldn’t be much good out here, barely half a tank of gas and precious little water. What brought us here is the kind of impulse that can get you into trouble in the desert.
This whole adventure started back in early April, when I finally succumbed to Stecyk, an intrepid artist, photographer and cultural historian who looks at the universe and sees patterns and connections that weave themselves into an inevitable design while the rest of us, caught up in the fabric, see only randomness and coincidence. These patterns and designs he sees sometimes take on a sinister, X-Files–like shape and tone colored in a military-industrial palette.
Not surprisingly, Stecyk spends a lot of time in the desert. Often, when he reports back after such trips, eager to describe the tangled web, I’ll put the phone down and pick it up at what I believe are the appropriate intervals to insert an “umm hmmm . . . ” or “ . . . really?”
During one of these phone calls, when he was going on about a huge tortoise relocation being done by the military and what this action said about where we are at this time in our history — or something like that — I suggested we go out to take a look. It wasn’t that I was so interested in desert tortoises — I wasn’t even aware that they were endangered or that they were our official state reptile, or that they could somehow be part of the Rorschach test some people, like Stecyk, see when they visit the desert just beyond the tentacles of our metropolis. I just didn’t have anything better to do.
The day of my first descent into this parallel universe begins very early after a near-sleepless night. I pick up Stecyk in West Los Angeles by 6:30 a.m. There’s a military designation for that time, but I don’t think I’m ever going to learn this math. As Stecyk packs his gear into my Cherokee, I notice he looks a bit like a tortoise himself — long neck, hairless head, thick skin. I try not to make too much of it as we head east on I-10. In the weeks that follow, I try not to make much of the fact that nearly everyone I meet in the tortoise-saving business begins to look like one.
Our plan is ...well, we don’t have much of a plan except to try to crash whatever party might be going on out in the desert. But we do have a destination: Barstow. As anyone who has traveled from there to Las Vegas knows, Barstow is a portal into all kinds of weirdness. Out there are military bases, ghost towns, mines, meth labs, bikers and escape artists of all sorts. And somewhere in the desert surrounding that town, Stecyk has heard, tortoises are being bagged and tagged for relocation off a huge military base I know nothing about.
On the way, Stecyk tells a story about taking his kid out to the desert near Edwards Air Force Base (mascot, Eddie the Desert Tortoise) in 1997 to see Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier on the 50th anniversary of the first time he made history. (The general did the same thing in 2007 to commemorate the 60th anniversary.)
As we drive farther, Stecyk, whose son is now a lieutenant stationed in Iraq, fills my head with ideas about how we’re surrounded by military bases bent on expansion. But he didn’t always think this. When the Cold War was first over and won, he thought, like a lot of us did, that we were at the beginning of a remarkable and unprecedented event in which an empire, ours, would voluntarily draw down its military at the height of its power and invest in peace instead of war. We called it the peace dividend, and the potential implications for our country and the world were as vast as they were benign. In 2000, our budget surplus was a record $230 million. It was expected to go up by another trillion over the next 10 years. We had just made the largest payment of our national debt in history.
Our priorities, it seemed, were shifting. A new era of investment in education, infrastructure, civil society — the world — was at hand. Then came September 11 and everything after. Our deficit is now approaching $500 billion and our national long-term debt has nearly doubled to more than $9 trillion (adding more than a billion a day) since Bill Clinton left office. We’re fighting incredibly expensive wars in ways that seem to ensure no end. And, we’re completely out of money.
“We’re so fucking fucked, it’s almost meaningless,” laughs Stecyk. “But not the military. It’s bombs away with them.”
Where it once looked like the great bases would be mothballed or put to other uses, now they are expanding and consuming and surrounding us. Or so it seems when you start looking for patterns.
When you step back and think about it from the long view, or just get out a map instead, what Stecyk says begins to make sense. Just a little north of Lancaster is the 301,000-acre Edwards Air Force Base, the most fabled flight-test center in the world. Continue north on the 395 to Ridgecrest and you run into China Lake Naval Air Weapons Testing Center, a behemoth weapons-development and -testing range taking up some million acres (1,723 square miles) of the Mojave Desert 75 miles north of Barstow. Fort Irwin’s National Training Center abuts China Lake on its eastern border. Head south a bit from there and you have the Marine Corps Logistics Base on the south side of Barstow. Go east about 35 miles on I-40 and you run into the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. These bases form a nearly contiguous desert perimeter around greater metropolitan Los Angeles — indeed, military operations account for one-third of the Mojave’s land — making this one of the most highly militarized zones in the world. Throw in Point Mugu Naval Air Station in Ventura and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in North County, San Diego, and we’re surrounded on all sides by military operations. This is an oft-overlooked aspect of our existence here. Some of these bases want to get bigger—foremost among them, Fort Irwin, within whose southern boundary that old chap number 166.614 2554 used to reside.
Stecyk and I make it to the Starbucks near the Tanger Outlet Center in Barstow by about 9 a.m. That’s 09:00 to you civvies (I guess I’m learning this new math after all). I pay for a WiFi card to look online for anything that will point us in the direction of the soon-to-be-displaced tortoises. But first, I ask the barista if she knows where the tortoises are.
“They’re in the outlet stores,” she says.
This seems like her final answer, so we go to the Internet.
We find the address of the nearby district headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management and decide to drop in. The building is standard-issue Western-state modern bureaucracy — A-frame, earth tones and glass. A big flag flaps in the wind out front. The parking lot is empty. The streets are empty. Everything is still except for the wind, which whistles hot and empty through our ears. It’s as if a neutron bomb has gone off in this town.
Oh, yeah, it’s Sunday. The BLM office is closed.
We set out for a pet store in a mini-mall just down the way. Surely some granola-eating pet-store person with a heart of gold will know what’s up with these tortoises. But the pet store is also closed.
So we head down I-10 toward Needles, where there’s an animal-rescue center. Surely here some granola-eating animal-rescue person with a heart of gold will be suffering the tortoises. And, in fact, the rescue center, in a bleak strip next to a gravel quarry, is staffed by an attractive young woman who fits the bill ... but she doesn’t know shit about tortoises, and rightly thinks we’re fools. When we ask for directions to the Desert Discovery Center, which supposedly has some tortoises in a man-made habitat, the woman looks like she wants to kill us with contempt. Then a tatted-up young gangbanger in a black bandanna hauls in a couple of frothing pit bulls ... it’s time for us to be going anyway.
Back out on 40 East, in search of the Desert Discovery Center, we see the Marine Corps Logistics Base. Surely there are no granola eaters with hearts of gold, but we decide to take our chances. At the gate, a guard who is all business asks what ours is. We tell him we’re looking for the tortoises being relocated — does he know anything about it? Weirdly, recognition flashes in his eyes, and he tells us to wait right there. He comes back with a local newspaper article about the project. Apparently, we missed media day by about 24 hours. The Marine pulls out a map, points us in the general vicinity of Fort Irwin Road, which will take us back to the highway home, and wishes us good luck. We pull off a few yards down the road to read the article but are interrupted by a firm knock on the window. The guard wants us off his base.
We drive north on Fort Irwin Road, sure that somewhere out there are tortoises in peril. We’re pretty sure we can’t save them, but we wouldn’t mind seeing one. After several miles, we pass the Calico Mountains and hang a hard right down what might very well be private access to a rancher’s homestead. We blow by that, and before we know it, we’re somewhere out on Coyote Lake, a large, dry lakebed between Barstow and Baker, in the vicinity of the southern reaches of Fort Irwin. We follow what seems to be a path across the lakebed. I feel full of purpose, capable of anything. I am the Road Warrior. (“Two days ago, I saw a rig that can ’aul that tanker ...you wanna get out of ’ere, you talk to me ...”) But my reverie is soon interrupted by worry about where this thing is going and how the hell we’ll get out of there should something go awry. We don’t have enough water to hike out and the sun is singing, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” I’ve become the Road Worrier.
Suddenly, the path spits us out onto a larger, wider route that’s obviously used for heavy machinery. We stop at this strange crossroads marked only by lava rock, sand, distant vistas and a change in the ground from soft to hard. I climb on top of the Jeep for a look. Nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. Stecyk tries to get the GPS in his cell phone to work. No dice. We sit there for a minute and debate going back the way we came, defeated, or continuing on this new road to nowhere. Then, just a cloud of dust at first, I notice a pickup truck coming toward us.
I jump off the Jeep and wave down the truck. A young man and woman are in the cab, and there’s a bunch of gear in the bed covered with a camper top. I ask if they’ve been camping.
“No,” says the guy. “We’re biologists working on this desert tortoise project. ...”
What are the chances?
We identify ourselves as journalists up from Los Angeles, trying to get a handle on this whole tortoise-relocation thing, and that’s when our new best friends get a little cagey. Apparently, we shouldn’t be here and they shouldn’t be answering media questions. But bless their hearts, they don’t want to leave us to our fates out here in the desert — they point us in the general direction of the field headquarters for the folks rounding up tortoises in this area. The directions are a little dicey — of the up-over-yonder sort — so we give them a head start and start tailing them. A few miles of up and over and yonder ensue, and then they lose us.
Somehow, we find the field headquarters. But there are no biologists in sight. There’s a trailer, with the door flapping in the wind, some portable restroom facilities and just a few other signs of life. But right when we think our luck is up, we notice a green Subaru approaching. Inside is a comely young biologist, who apparently didn’t get the memo about how we’re not supposed to be here. She gladly escorts us to a processing center out in the field, where tortoises are being readied for relocation.
A few fieldworkers are huddled under a tarp when we arrive. They are weighing, measuring and putting a transmitter on a good-sized male, probably middle-aged. The tortoise will then be put in a plastic crate with water until he’s relocated. They tell us over the past two years they’ve counted nearly 800 tortoises that need to be moved. We ask what they think about this whole thing — moving hundreds of tortoises like this. They’re reluctant to talk, but the gist of what they do say is that the tortoises had a good deal here because they’ve been living on military land that restricted public use. Their new home will not have nearly as many restrictions, they say, and we get the general feeling they don’t think it’s such a good deal for the tortoises.
“I don’t think that [the new] habitat is as good,” says a guy who tells us he’s been hired for the project mostly because he’s a desert rat who knows the terrain well. “There are power lines and all-terrain vehicles and a lot more desert use there — off-roaders, hikers, campers.”
Why, we ask, is this being done?
“I think a lot of it is just the times,” he says.
Before we can get into it much further, an official-looking vehicle appears in the distance, winding its way through the mountain roads.
“Do you think they’re here for us?” I ask Stecyk.
“Of course they are,” he says. “They can read your license plate from outer space. They probably know who you are, where you live and what you’re about. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for them to get here.”
A couple of stern-looking officials pull up and ask us to leave. They point us toward a more user-friendly road out of the wilderness that will lead us to I-15 and back to Barstow. On the way, we pass signs informing us that vehicles shouldn’t enter this area without official military escort, and others that say Tank Crossing.
We take the old Route 66 back to Barstow. Amid the kitsch and blight, we come upon a carport motel laid out like a wheel that seems to be a live-in art project where vintage cars reside, and maybe even some people too. The entire structure, though, is designed to showcase and accommodate the cars. Human habitation is definitely secondary. We duck into the Googie-era Denny’s next door, clean and burnished, pristine in attention to period detail. I’m looking out the window, rapt with the incongruity of it all, feeling lighted by this otherworld, when I notice a tweaked-out pregnant woman stumbling her way up the street, trailed by a guy drinking something out of a brown bag.
After lunch, we finally find the Desert Discovery Center, famous to some degree as the home of a 38-by-30-inch chunk of rock known as the Old Woman Meteorite. It’s the second-largest meteorite in the U.S. and weighs 3 tons. The Discovery Center is also home of the Mojave Desert Puppet Theater. We miss that show, but the tortoise habitat is out back and it’s feeding time. An attractive woman (I’m beginning to wonder what’s in the water out here) puts out a lunch of cabbage and other greens for the two males that live there in a state of uneasy détente.
“They fight a lot,” she tells me, and it seems clear she cares.
I ask her what got her interested in the plight of the desert tortoises.
“Probation,” she tells me. “I have to volunteer here for my community service.”
Alternative Rock and a Hard Place
“So,” says John Wagstaffe by way of greeting, “you are the guys who were driving around lost in the desert a couple weeks ago.”
Wagstaffe can’t help himself. Seems word of our desert misadventure has trickled up the ranks. It’s several weeks after our initial tortoise quest and a couple of weeks before he will take us into The Box, when Stecyk and I first meet our sun-dried tour guide at a Holiday Inn on the western end of Barstow. Good egg that he is, though, Wagstaffe seems eager to get us out for an official visit with the tortoises. The translocation of nearly 600 tortoises from a 36-square-mile tract at the very southern tip of Fort Irwin, known as the Southern Expansion Area, is in its final stages. The tortoises are being placed on 13 different square-mile plots.Land use here is restricted to some degree, but it’s not completely off-limits.
This Southern Expansion translocation is the first of three being planned, and it’s already a year behind the Army’s schedule. The next phases are the western expansion, which includes the controversial Superior Valley tract, where the largest population of tortoises lives, and the Eastgate parcel, on the fort’s eastern frontier. Study of this initial translocation is considered imperative to the success of future efforts, though everyone acknowledges that those will take place before the long-term effects of this first move are fully understood.
The expansion drive started back in the mid-’80s, when the Army decided that changes in war doctrine, tactics and equipment meant that the National Training Center at Fort Irwin needed about 193,000 more acres. This happened to coincide with a downturn in the fortunes of the California desert tortoises, especially the Western Mojave population. For nearly two decades, the main obstacle to Fort Irwin’s growth has been the desert tortoise.
Ironically, desert tortoises look like little tanks, with hard shells and a protruding appendage out front — the gular horn. They’ve been in this desert for a long, long time. And they’re very territorial and homebound. The reptiles spend 95 percent of their time underground and come up to eat, mate and occasionally fight. They find a place that works for them, dig a burrow with their clawed front feet, and stick with it. They build catch basins for infrequent rainwater and can be found waiting at them before it rains. Their bladders can store, conserve and distribute water throughout their bodies for up to a year.
But even with these survival characteristics, their existence is in jeopardy. In some areas of the Mojave, where populations have been studied closely, they’ve declined by up to 90 percent. A major culprit in these study areas has been a contagious upper-respiratory disease. All sorts of factors, though, have contributed to the tortoises’ general fall: livestock grazing, which depletes the food supply; development, which attracts ravens that prey on tortoise eggs; off-road vehicles, which damage burrows or even crush the tortoises; and predation from coyotes, Gila monsters, foxes and other animals.
The decline in desert-tortoise populations, especially in the Western Mojave — near total in some areas where the tortoise had been common as recently as the 1970s — led to the species’ being listed as endangered in 1989. That status was changed to “threatened” the following year. This listing happened to coincide with the Gulf War (the one managed by Wagstaffe’s favorite Volvo mechanic), and threw a roadblock in front of Fort Irwin’s increasingly urgent expansion hopes. The land on the fringes of Fort Irwin is one of the few places where the tortoise population has done well, largely because the area is remote and closed off to many of the aforementioned threats.
When the expansion idea started to gather steam, negotiations began between the Army and the Bureau of Land Management — which has jurisdiction over much of the Mojave lands, and is charged with making sure Fort Irwin’s development complies with tortoise-conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1991, the Army came up with what was called the Modified Coyote Basin Alternative, a proposed 328,660-acre annexation primarily to the south, southwest and southeast of the fort’s boundaries. This plan was stymied when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ultimate arbiter of species management, said in a draft biological opinion on the plan (one that was never finalized) that the expansion would threaten the tortoises’ existence.
The Army came back with a new proposal, called the Silurian Valley Alternative, which would have directed expansion further to Fort Irwin’s north, east and southern boundaries, in desert lands closer to Baker than Barstow. Fish and Wildlife got onboard for this plan, in part, because it was well-removed from Superior Valley, which on a map looks like the final piece of a puzzle that would connect Fort Irwin along its southwest border with China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Superior Valley is one of the rare places in the Western Mojave where tortoises thrive, and this plan would leave it unmolested. But the Army subsequently decided the terrain wasn’t suitable, some say because of well-trafficked roads in and out of Baker.
Meanwhile, plans mandated by the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws to protect the tortoises were being drawn up. In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the Desert Tortoise (Mojave Population) Recovery Plan, which recommended six critical habitat areas, known as recovery units. The Western Mojave Recovery Unit is one of them. Within that recovery unit, several Desert Wildlife Management Areas (DWMAs) were proposed, among them a vast swath of desert labeled the Superior-Cronese Desert Management Area and the Superior-Cronese Critical Habitat Unit. The land is considered the most threatened tortoise habitat in the Western Mojave. It includes much of the land Fort Irwin occupies and desires, including Superior Valley.
The tortoise and the tank were in a standoff. In 1999, Congress intervened, asking relevant parties — the BLM, Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey, the California Department of Fish and Game and a variety of experts — including Dr. Kristin Berry, America’s foremost tortoise researcher, to convene the Desert Tortoise Panel and come to some kind of agreement. The Army proposed the Modified Southern Alternative, which to some bore a striking, though scaled-back, resemblance to the Army’s failed original plan. The panel rejected the proposal as it stood, but did come up with a $400 million plan to offset the expansion’s effects. Much of the money would go toward buying up private lands to create tortoise reserves. Dr. Berry, California Fish and Game and Ray Bransfield, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s main tortoise guy, didn’t even endorse the panel’s improved plan, saying it provided no scientific rationale as to how it would safeguard the tortoises. After that, it seemed that only an act of God would get Fort Irwin its land.
It wasn’t God; it was Congress, in the form of a rider sponsored by Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein and the district’s Republican congressman, Jerry Lewis (chair of the House Appropriations Committee and honored by Rolling Stone in 2006 as one of the 10 worst Congress members), attached to a larger appropriations bill at the end of 2000. In January 2002, President Bush, perhaps knowing something the rest of us didn’t at the time, signed into law the Fort Irwin Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 2001. In a new political climate, Fish and Wildlife signed off on the plan in 2004. It appropriated $75 million for tortoise mitigations, mostly in the form of land acquisitions, but it included $8.5 million in research and monitoring money aimed at measuring the long-term impacts of translocation on the tortoises. It was a windfall for tortoise study, but it also meant the expansion would go forward on lands deemed too critical to tortoise survival just a decade earlier.
Flight of the Tortoises
Wagstaffe, with a healthy supply of cigarettes in tow, drives with us east on the I-15 into the desert. About halfway to Baker, we take the Rasor Road exit, and veer north several miles into the translocation area where 40 or so tortoises are being resettled over the course of several days.
We walk up into the wilderness and find Dr. William Boarman, a jolly, bearded fellow, who is shaped a bit like an upright tortoise. He’s with Conservation Science Research and Consulting, one of the project’s primary contractors, and is the biologist in charge of this tortoise group. His main mission is to monitor their reproduction habits, movements, habitat choices and long-term survival rates. Other biologists, including Dr. Berry, are studying the health, stress and disease factors of the new and resident populations.
“There are four basic things we’re looking at,” Boarman says. “One is called hard release. It’s where you take a tortoise and just stick it under a bush. The other is called a soft release, where you take a tortoise and build a burrow and put it in the burrow — give it a home initially. Most of the animals are being moved 5 to 20 miles from where they lived, but we’ve got one group that we’re moving no more than a quarter-mile from where they live. So we’re comparing short-distance with long-distance translocation. And we also build pens — large 5-hectare [about 12-acre] pens — to see if putting them in a pen for a few months will help keep them in the area.”
The tortoises being placed here were rounded up yesterday. Upon arrival, they are weighed, measured, given a quick health checkup and released. If they have transmitters, those are checked to make sure they are functional. When we come upon a sturdy-looking male that is being hard-released under a creosote bush, the favored variety for tortoises, I ask how old he is.
“Forty or 50 is what I’d guess,” Boarman says. “But he could be older. They can live to be 75 or 100. You really can’t tell.”
I make a joke about 70 being the new 60 with these tortoises.
“Actually, I think 30 is the new 60,” says Boarman. “They are dying young now.”
I ask how traumatic this type of relocation is on the animals.
“I don’t know,” he says, resignedly. “We can’t get into his brain. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but what we have found most of them do, once they start moving around, is leave the area. They know it’s not home and they’re looking for home, I think.
“They do seem to have some sense roughly what direction home is in. Most of them are moving north.”
North is Fort Irwin, where they came from. But they won’t be able to get back in because one of the mitigations required that a fence be built on each side of Fort Irwin Road. The fence is 18 inches above and below ground and covers a total of 74 miles, including both sides of the road. It cost $900,000 to build.
“That fence is going to be tortoise Wounded Knee,” I suggest. Everybody laughs, somewhat uncomfortably.
“It could be, and that’s what we are looking at,” says Boarman.
I say I’m worried about our middle-aged male right here.
“That’s what this stuff is for,” Wagstaffe chimes in. “We’ve never done this size translocation before. We’d like them to be really happy here and stay, but we don’t know. You can’t judge on a couple of tortoises, but when you move as many as we’re moving, this is going to give us a great statistical analysis of what happens.
“We’re not dumping and running,” he adds. “They’ll be tracking these guys for years.”
But when I remind everybody that the western expansion, involving some 1,200 more tortoises, will be taking place in the next year and a half, Boarman says, “The original plan was for this to help inform that translocation. But ... the best-laid plans of mice and men.”
So, then, what is this study for?
“There is going to be so much future development in Southern California; everything is expanding. Other military bases may expand. There will be housing developments coming in. All of those have the potential of resulting in tortoise translocations, so any of those that do result in translocation can be helped by what we find out here. Also, decisions on whether or not to allow translocations. If this is a complete failure, then you would expect the translocations might not happen in the future.”
I suggest that perhaps the tortoises can’t afford for this to be a complete failure.
“It could be a real mess if it’s a complete failure,” Boarman admits.
“I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be good. As a scientist, I wouldn’t be willing to go so far as to say it would be cataclysmic for the tortoises. I just don’t know because we don’t have enough good population models to really evaluate so far.”
The signs out here in the field today aren’t promising. We inspect a man-made burrow — a soft-release attempt — in a nearby wash. The tortoise dropped there has already boogied and is nowhere to be seen.
Then, in a scene as surreal as any I’ve witnessed out here, a red helicopter appears over a patch of mountains, ferrying a payload of tortoises. It circles around and then lands in a flat area just above the wash where we are standing. Out of the helicopter emerge 14 tortoises, which had been watered down and kept in plastic crates overnight before their ride; as well as one biologist, Dr. Paula Kahn, charged with placing this crew, and a burly pilot straight out of central casting. It’s critical to get the tortoises out of their crates and under a creosote bush or into a burrow before it gets too hot.
I decide I can’t stand around and watch, and pitch in to help Dr. Kahn and the pilot release the crate-bound passengers. I swear my intentions are directed solely on the welfare of the tortoises and have nothing to do with the fact that the long-locked Dr. Kahn is a combination of brains and beauty that would be alluring even if she didn’t happen to be the only person out here on this day who doesn't look like a tortoise.
As we introduce them to their new homes, each tortoise is measured, weighed, checked for signs of upper-respiratory disease and placed — rather crudely, it seems — under a creosote bush and left to its fate.
Ever the optimist, Wagstaffe opines that the tortoises must have enjoyed their helicopter ride because they don’t appear to have shit or pissed themselves, which could dehydrate them and also attract predators.
I ask Dr. Kahn for her take on our friends’ future here.
“They are really, really bright animals, but you have to remember, some of these tortoises — we’re taking them out of a home in which they’ve lived for 40, 50, 60 years. It’s the only thing they know and we’re going to take them here and say, ‘Okay, new place, different plants, everything’s in a new location ... so it’s going to take them some time.”
We get the airlifted tortoises in place just before the sun reaches its peak. On the way back to the car, I spot old number 166.614 2554, the guy hightailing it for home that I mentioned before. Despite what’s been done to him, he’s got a strange charisma as he plods on across the wash, full of dignity and determination — or is it indignation? Up close, it’s easy to believe desert tortoises are sentient beings. The ones I’ve seen, I’d stop to listen to if they were on a soapbox in a park. I ask Dr. Kahn if she thinks they have emotions.
“I always anthropomorphize,” Dr. Kahn says. “You know, after working with them for so long, I feel on some levels they could, because they definitely have a social structure, and I know that doesn’t imply emotion, but as a tortoise hugger, I’d like to think that they do have emotion. I don’t know that they necessarily feel love, but they certainly feel stress, which is a physiological response ... but I’ve seen tortoises gravitate towards other tortoises and, you know, they definitely have some kind of bond, or some kind of relationships. But I know that scientifically, I can’t really back that up.”
The big male pauses, as if he’s considering what we’re saying.
“He’s a ham and an old guy,” says Kahn. “I bet he gets all the girls.”
“Will he be all right?” I ask.
“Yeah, I think he’ll be all right.”
The Tortoise in You
Ileene Anderson isn’t so sure. Anderson is a diminutive blonde, a biologist, with a kind face who looks ready to go for a hike at a moment’s notice. She’s with the Center for Biological Diversity, a litigious conservation group that’s been successful in defending species rights by bringing the full force of the Endangered Species Act to bear. When we meet at a loud and grungy coffee shop in Hollywood, the closest thing to nature is nearby Runyon Canyon, known more for the fragrant aroma of dog shit than desert tortoises. Nonetheless, the fate of the tortoises has been part of the center’s and Anderson’s life for many years. The center was part of the coalition that turned back Fort Irwin’s expansion plans around the turn of the century. Now, the Army is expanding the base into the very areas most experts once thought removing tortoises from would be a bad idea.
Despite the Army’s congressional mandate to do so, Anderson says, some modest sleight of hand was still required to justify the expansion. “The reason they didn’t get a jeopardy biological opinion on essentially the same piece of land they’d gotten a jeopardy opinion on 10 years ago was because Fish and Wildlife Services evaluated the impact of that acreage based on the whole Mojave Desert population of desert tortoise and, of course, found that it wouldn’t kill all the tortoises,” says Anderson. “The environmental community was shocked and dismayed.”
And not just because common sense tells you it might not be the best idea to remove an animal population from a habitat where it has thrived and put it in another it is unfamiliar with. Besides that, Anderson says, not enough studies have been conducted to determine if the new site can host such a significant influx. There is also the threat of predation, human encroachment, development and, most troubling, the mixing of healthy translocated tortoises with a resident population that is suffering to some degree from contagious upper-respiratory-tract disease.
What a difference eight years, a couple of wars, an act of Congress and $75 million can make. Now, many environmentalists who previously opposed the effort are dining off the government cheese brought to the table by the tortoises.
“It is my opinion that when word got out that Fort Irwin had $75 million to spend on the tortoise, it was a gold rush,” says Anderson.
Or, as Michael Connor, California director of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group that opposes the translocation, put it when I spoke to him by phone, “Almost all of the desert-tortoise biologists are working for the government,and their job is to get the job done.”
To add to the ironies, Connor says the Army’s epic tortoise translocation is now the de facto funding source for the Bureau of Land Management’s long-in-the-making Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan. “The money became a linchpin to sort of finance the West Mojave Plan, which should have been financed anyway,” he tells me.
Of course, uprooting a rare, thriving population and moving it to lesser habitat wasn’t part of the plan. It’s just part of the Brazil-like absurdity inherent in that parallel universe out at Fort Irwin, where fake palm trees blow over in fake Iraqi towns with fake imams and fake mosque bells. Where the Army drops $57 million to build the largest urban training center in the world, and stones are flown in from Iraq to create our own American Fallujah. And where $75 million to remove some tortoises from the fringes of the Army's land is just the cost of doing business.
“I think they just saw an opportunity to expand their fiefdom,” says Anderson. “and, frankly, we’re seeing exactly the same thing happen with the Marine base out in Twentynine Palms. They are wanting to expand as well.”
If Fort Irwin manages to expand to the west as well, as seems likely. it will have China Lake Naval Weapons Center, often rumored to be facing retirement, flanking its south and west borders. “So,” Anderson says, “the notion always was that if Fort Irwin could surround it on two sides by expanding, they would probably be able to pick up that area for subsequent use.”
It’s quite a success story for a base that was all but on its ass in the not-too-distant past. It’s something less for the California desert tortoise, which has been in this desert pasture for a million years but is now under siege.
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The fight isn’t completely over. On July 2, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal lawsuit against the Army and the Bureau of Land Management over Fort Irwin’s expansion and translocation of tortoises, the first stage of which the center has called “disastrous.”
In its announcement, the center says, “Though we can’t stop the Fort’s expansion, we can ensure that the relocation of these rare animals is done right. With the severity of the impacts to the tortoise from the expansion, it’s imperative that the Army’s mitigation be as successful as possible. ... This spring’s relocated tortoises suffered devastating initial mortality from predators: Within days more than 20 tortoises had been killed by coyotes. Healthy tortoises were also moved into areas where diseased tortoises live, which is in direct conflict with the recommendations of epidemiologists. The lands into which the tortoises were moved are far poorer habitat because of numerous roads, illegal off-road vehicle routes, houses, illegal dumping and mines. (This is why the area currently supports a low number of existing desert tortoise, some of which are diseased.) Subsequent phases of the relocation effort will involve over 1,000 tortoises, although relocation sites have yet to be identified.”
The center says the relocation efforts could be improved by reducing the number of tortoises being moved, ensuring only healthy tortoises are moved into healthy populations, providing predator protection and improving the habitat quality of relocation areas by making them tortoise preserves.
Meanwhile, I wonder if old number 166.614 2554 has found his home.