A Report on the Mojave Desert Mule Deer Refuge (HDTS 2013)
By Brooks Dierdorff, May 4, 2014
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officer from the Needles field office sounded surprised to hear from me when I called him a few weeks ago. I wanted to know if they had a copy of the police report that I saw them write while they were questioning me about my High Desert Test Sites project. He said that since they never pressed charges, they didn't bother to keep the report. This disappointed me since I was hoping to use a copy of the report in an upcoming exhibition.
By the time I made this call, the High Desert Test Sites project had long since been taken down at the request of the BLM, and under the threat of legal prosecution. And though my idealism urged me to play the role of the rebellious and anti-authoritative artist, I ultimately chose to avoid being charged with baiting wildlife and disruption of an environmentally sensitive area. So the project only lasted two months. Though at the time this was a disappointment and it seemed that the project hadn’t been able to reach its completion, my subsequent interaction with the BLM provided valuable and unexpected insight. The theme of my project, combined with the timing of a soon to be published land and water report addressing whether or not to continue to maintain wildlife guzzlers in the Mojave Desert, made these BLM officers understandably cautious about what I was doing in the foothills a few miles northeast of twenty nine palms.
The project was called the Mojave Desert Mule Deer Wildlife Refuge, or MDMDR for short. The project was proposed specifically for High Desert Test Sites 2013 and was based on my long-standing interest in the complex relationship between humans and Nature. Much of my recent work explores ways in which wildlife management entities like the BLM and the National Park Service (NPS) address environmental issues at a large scale and how their actions affect the ways we perceive and conceive of Nature and natural landscapes. One controversial example of wildlife management is the use of guzzlers. Guzzlers are permanent or semi-permanent structures installed in arid locations that act as reliable water sources for local fauna. Their purpose is to support and replenish populations of native animals. The debate about the use of artificial water sources in this way exists mainly between environmental groups who favor no management, and hunting organizations who do favor these types of interventions. The purpose of my MDMDR project was not to make a statement about who is right or wrong, but rather to shed light on debate itself, which I find to be most interesting.
In the MDMDR, I examined the controversial tactics of active wildlife management by creating an ideal habitat in accordance with the recommendations suggested in the NPS’s most recent study of Mule Deer habitats in Southern California. Functionally, the project provided food, water, and shelter for the mule deer population in the Mojave Desert. Conceptually, the project was intended to create a conversation that addressed both the successes and futilities of human attempts to control and to “manage” Nature. I saw the MDMDR as closely tied to Mel Chin’s Revival Field, which sought to “sculpt a site’s ecology” by extracting heavy metals from contaminated soil by the use of plants with the capacity to draw these heavy metals from the soil. In much the same way, the MDMDR attempted to sculpt the population of the Mojave Desert Mule Deer – a gesture that alludes to the ways in which wildlife management organizations also sculpt the ecologies of other environments.
But these particular BLM officers did not seem convinced of the project’s artistic merit. I spoke to them in the shade of their big and white SUV. They were both dressed in dark green and wore bulletproof vests, which made the situation seem very serious. The SUV was parked on Ironage Road, at the location of The Secret Restaurant, another HDTS project. I was on my way to visit The Secret Restaurant when I saw them parked there. I stopped and thought about the possible outcomes of my surrender, then walked up to them and told them I was the one who had built the wildlife water guzzler a few miles up the road at the base of the hills; That I was the one who had planted all those plants; And that while looking at the images from my sensor activated camera from the previous day, I had noticed that some BLM officers looking very much like yourselves might want to have a word with me. Indeed they did.
They asked me the most obvious questions first, like what was I doing. I had flashbacks to my Master’s thesis defense, except unlike with my defense, the consequence of failure seemed that it might be jail time.
Did I know that I needed a permit to build on public land? A person can't just do whatever they want because its public land.
No I didn't know I needed a permit (I did).
Why did I build a guzzler there? Was I trying to photograph animals or something?
Yes, in a way, I said, and wasn’t sure what to say after that. Explaining my art to law enforcement was proving more difficult than expected. It was an emulation of the guzzler project that has been going on around here over the past few years. I was trying to create the ideal conditions for the Mojave Desert Mule deer as recommended by the National Park Service in their recent reports suggesting they could increase the population of Mojave Desert Mule Deer with the use of artificial water sources and habitat restoration.
Are you protesting something?
Well, no not really. I said. It’s more of a distorted emulation or mirroring of current wildlife management practices than anything else.
They didn’t write that down.
I spent some more time in the shade of the white SUV while they called a supervisor. They wrote down my name from my license, took some notes and sent me on my way. They said they would be in touch with me, that I might be fined for damaging wildlife habitat, but that it wasn’t the worst crime they had seen. They both handed me their business cards and said if I don’t hear from them in the next few weeks to contact them.
I heard from them about a month later. They said that my case had been given to a different BLM officer in another wildlife unit because technically, the land that my project was on was just beyond the Barstow BLM field office’s jurisdiction and was in fact in the Needles BLM field office jurisdiction. I found this distinction fascinating. Paperwork had to be filled out by a different, uninvolved officer because the project was not within a specific boundary. Protocol must be followed despite the specifics of the circumstance or what might make the most sense. This new BLM officer told me that if I removed everything from the site and “made it look as if I had never been there,” then they wouldn’t press any charges. I said thank you for being understanding of the situation and that I would remove my project. He also then added, “and also make sure to rake out the tire tracks that we left when we went to look at the site.”
“No problem.” I said.