Nevada’s lost natural wonders

Bristlecone pine tree at Great Basin National Park, similar to one tragically cut down in 1964, which turned out to be the oldest living thing in the world.

Bristlecone pine tree at Great Basin National Park, similar to one tragically cut down in 1964, which turned out to be the oldest living thing in the world.

Over the years, Nevada has experienced the loss of natural landmarks, scenic wonders, and native species of plants and animals. In some cases, the damage was purposeful but in others it was an unintended result.

The Nevada Natural Heritage Program estimates that dozens of varieties of fish, amphibians, birds and mammals that once existed in the state are now extinct.

Yet despite these losses, it is fortunate that much of Nevada is so relatively undeveloped because that has helped keep some of its more fragile natural sites and environmentally sensitive native species in fairly good shape.

The following are a handful of Nevada’s more significant lost natural treasures:

• Perhaps the best known of Nevada’s lost natural treasures is the ancient bristlecone pine tree that has become known as “Prometheus.” In 1964, Donald R. Currey, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, was given permission by the U.S. Forest Service to study the Bristlecone pines growing in a grove at the base of Wheeler Peak in Eastern Nevada.

In particular, Currey was interested in studying the rings inside of these ancient trees, which had only been discovered a few years earlier. Researchers had identified Bristlecones in the White Mountains of California as being as old as 4,000 years.

Currey’s research specialty was Ice Age glaciers and he hoped that Bristlecone tree rings might provide some insights about the conditions in prehistoric times. One of the trees in the Wheeler Peak grove appeared to be extremely old and it was Currey’s desire to extract tree rings that could help him with his research.

Most trees, including Bristlecone pines, add a ring for each year they grow. Scientists study variations in the width of the rings to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons during past years. The rings literally serve as a record of the lifetime of the tree and are useful in the study of climate changes.

The Forest Service gave Currey permission not only to take core samples from several of the oldest-looking Bristlecone trees, but also to cut down one of them to measure its age.

Bristlecone trees often grow in a twisted fashion. Also, it’s not uncommon for one section of the tree to die off even a couple thousand years before another part. This means it can be difficult to locate the oldest part of the tree in a core sample.

The tree that Currey chose to cut down in 1964 — still living at the time—contained about 4,900 growth rings, making it the oldest tree in the world at the time of its demise.

• Until the late 1930s, Pyramid Lake had a twin — Winnemucca Lake. Located directly east of Pyramid Lake on the other side of the Lake Range, Winnemucca Lake was a long, narrow finger of water that at the end of the 19th century was as long as Pyramid but about half as wide.

Filled with tule reeds, Winnemucca Lake was an important stop for migrating waterfowl. In 1936, it was designated the Winnemucca Lake National Wildlife Refuge because it served as a prime feeding area for white pelicans.

However, Winnemucca Lake was a “terminal” water body, meaning that it sat in a closed basin and did not empty into some other body of water or river. Its main source of water was the Truckee River, which flowed into both Pyramid and Winnemucca lakes via a natural slough at the south end of both bodies of water.

Following construction of Derby Dam on the Truckee River in 1905, water that once flowed into Winnemucca Lake was diverted to irrigate the Fallon area.

Within a couple of decades, Winnemucca Lake, which was once as deep as 87 feet, completely dried up. In 1962, the lake lost its national refuge status. Today, it is little more than a dry, alkali lake bed.

• In 1958, the Nevada State Park Commission developed a list of ten potential future state park sites. Included was the Beowawe Geysers, an extremely active geothermal field located about 45 miles west of Elko.

The Beowawe Geysers had long been recognized as one of Nevada’s natural wonders. A 1930s study noted that several of its geysers regularly erupted to heights of several feet and one to more than 12 feet.

Until the 1970s, the Beowawe field was the second most active geyser basin in North America (after Yellowstone).

But starting in the late 1950s, energy companies began drilling wells at Beowawe to develop the site as a geothermal power source. By the 1970s, the Beowawe Geysers had ceased to be active as the hot underground water was being diverted for power generation.

Today, the second largest and most active geyser field in the country is quiet. Steam still rises from vents and cracks in the ground but the geysers are now silent.

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.


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