Atacama Chile 2017 #MarsOnEarth


My next adventure takes me to the Southern Hemisphere- To Chile, where the Patagonia and Andes meet, to one of the most inhospitable landscapes found on this planet- the Atacama desert.

Save for the dry valleys of Antarctica, no other places on Earth replicates the surface of Mars like the Atacama. High on the altiplano (high plane) and puna (windswept tableland) plateaus of Northern Chile, the Atacama resists life. Rainfall is exceedingly rare (some sites have never received a drop in the historical era), plantlife struggles in the volcanic ash and salt pans, and there are localized conditions that keep even bacteria at bay.  If one wishes to study what the Martian environment might exhibit, this is the place.

I will be taking part in an expedition led by Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj, a geologist and founder of Science in the Wild, an investigative research outfitter. She is also a fellow commercial suborbital candidate from Project PoSSUM as well a veteran of NASA’s HERA analog simulation.  She has assembled a team of adventurers: scientists, climbers, photographers, (and myself) to accomplish this task.  So I travel now to join her team and take part.

I will not be able to share the entirety of this endeavor in real-time because of the remoteness, but I will be keeping a journal of the expedition and will post about it following our return. For updates, follow Science in the Wild on Facebook.  I will use the hashtag #MarsOnEarth in my social media.

Two Men and a Campfire- Saving our Wild Places

Via the National Park Service

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, 1903

In my ceaseless efforts to read nearly everything, I occasionally come across a passage that is both enlightening and inspiring.  These are the moments when I’m scrambling to find a post-it note to mark the page, or a pen and a napkin to scribble what is often an indecipherable transposition. This time I chose to copy-paste for your benefit:

“In the spring of 1903, while visiting Yosemite, President Theodore Roosevelt slipped his Secret Service detail to go camping with John Muir. The first night, the President, the naturalist, and two park rangers camped out by a grove of sequoia; the second, in a hollow at Glacier Point. Roosevelt emerged from the woods to learn that an elaborate banquet had been planned for him, complete with fireworks. He stayed long enough for a glass of champagne, then announced that he was skipping the rest of the festivities. He and Muir spent a third night camping in the shadow of El Capitan.”

“Roosevelt and Muir camped the first night, […] bedding down in a pile of about 40 wool blankets, and the second night was spent in the vicinity of Sentinel Dome during a snow storm that left five inches of new snow on top of the existing five feet of snow. The third night of camping […] President Roosevelt was Muir’s captive audience to hear a convincing plea for Yosemite wilderness and for setting aside other areas in the United States for park purposes.”

“The only record of what passed between Roosevelt and Muir during their trip comes from one of the rangers, Charles Leidig. According to Leidig, among the topics the two discussed were: lion hunting; Muir’s theory—controversial at the time—that Yosemite had been shaped by glaciers; the importance of forest conservation; and the need for more national parks. Roosevelt and Muir had some difficulty communicating, Leidig observed, “because both men wanted to do the talking.” Nevertheless, their journey has been described as the most consequential camping trip in American history. Roosevelt went on to create eighteen national monuments, five national parks, and a hundred and fifty national forests. All told, he conserved some two hundred and thirty million acres—an area larger than Texas.”


The preservation of natural spaces not a uniquely American tradition, but the concept of designating tracts of wild land for the citizenry is.  Theodore Roosevelt’s continuation of western conservation led to the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. This law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.

Before the end of his last term, President Barrack Obama exercised the powers authorized by the Antiquities Act to preserve 2 additional wildlands as National Monuments.  Gold Butte (pronounced “beaut”) in Nevada, and Bears Ears in South Eastern Utah.  These two federally administered monuments will be added to the list of national treasures that include the memorials in Washington, DC and the greatest of America’s national parks.


Native American ruins in what is now Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears (named for a geological outcropping) will encompass 1.35 million acres, to include the existing Natural Bridges National Monument, the Dark Canyon Wilderness, portions of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and numerous culturally significant Native American ruins.  With Canyonlands National Park to the North and Navajo lands to the South, the region is not unaccustomed to unique jurisdictions.  This proclamation in fact strengthens the existing protections.

In Nevada, the newly designated Gold Butte National Monument formally protects a unique geological and biological oasis in the high desert. The isolated habitat is home to ecologically threatened Desert Bighorn Sheep and Mojave Tortoise, and the monument’s borders envelope numerous historical and archeological  sites that would otherwise be vulnerable to unregulated development. Over 300,000 acres will now administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Gold Butte has been targeted for preservation by local grassroots leaders for over 20 years. Environmental activists, the Paiute Indian Tribe, and supporters of U.S. Representative Dina Titus (NV, D) have sought monument status for the region. Legislation to do so was introduced in 2008, but Congress failed to pass any such bills.  It wasn’t until the nations’ highest executive intervened that Gold Butte would be recognized.

Gold Butte National Monument

Gold Butte National Monument

Unfortunately, no government action today can be accomplished without the cloud of political partisanship.  The establishment of these monuments is no exception.  The lengthy process by which grassroots supporters, environmentalist, archeologists, and most importantly, a coalition of 5 Native American tribes, worked for years to see this Bears Ears region become federally protected. (The first efforts to designate this land as a protected tract began more than 80 years ago) However, there remains considerable opposition: Elected officials from the State of Utah have announced their intention to protest- and if possible reverse– the president’s decree.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has stated publically that the establishment of Bears Ears N.M. is  an “attack on an entire way of life.”  The state legislature of Utah accused the President’s decision as “unilateral tyranny”.  There is some irony here- as the state of Utah receives millions of dollars in revenue from tourism every year because of the National Parks found there, not in spite of them.

Emboldened by the incoming Presidential administration, several lawmakers have already drafted legislation to counter existing conservation and environmental policy.  Efforts to reduce the scope and role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began with a gag order on January 23rd.  House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (Utah, R) has begun seeking support to invalidate the Endangered Species Act. Even today, as I was typing this, the twitter account operated by Badlands National Park, (SD), was abruptly silenced after it shared several facts about carbon dioxide saturation and the effect it has on the climate.

One can infer from this that not only are our public lands in danger, but that elected officials are actively pursuing policy contrary to will- and safety- of the people.

Conservation is not a practice of static achievements.  If our American history is any indication, advocates for the preservation of natural places must be willing to oppose a strong willed, and financially influenced adversary, without respite.

Arguments against the preservation of wild places have but one common root- and that is financial gain by those who oppose.  Efforts to delegitimize the Antiquities Act and the lands protected by it are being pushed forward with only resource extraction as an end state.  The sale of public lands to private (read corporate) interests is a singularly linear path.  Once sold, the inevitable result will be the commercial gain for some, and the loss of wild places for all.

The insidious counter to Roosevelt’s vision is alive and well in American politics.  Every lawmaker espousing state’s rights, or federal overreach, with regards to the establishment of public lands,  ought to be carefully reconnoitered.  For efforts to sow doubt upon the premise of our wild places has never been with the common citizen in mind.  These places such as Gold Butte and Bears Ears belong to us all- with those protections negated, you can expect that any monetary value intrinsic to them will be extracted, repackaged, and sold to you at market price.  (Profits collected by the few lucky enough to be given “rights” by whichever political body reneges it’s mandate to the people.)

We, the people, have the power to save our wild places.  Short-sighted politicians have introduced bills that intend to diminish the size, protections, and    of our public lands.  If you find this as abhorrent as I do, I strongly encourage you to contact your representatives.  A failure to stop this legislation is to gamble there won’t be a fracking station where a petroglyph or campsite used to be. We owe it ourselves, and we owe it to our future.

To find your Representatives in Congress, click Here:


All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.”

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic”, A Sand County Almanac.


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