By Scott Crain
The Juniper Dunes Wilderness area is a 7000-acre part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, located in southeastern Washington State. It lies just a few miles north of what used to be a quiet part of the state, now exploding with population and development. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation lies a few miles to the southwest, one of the most polluted nuclear waste sites in the country. Just outside the barbed wire fence that surrounds Juniper Dunes lies an off-road vehicle area promoted by the Bureau of Land Management for ORVs and other motorized activities.
I was born and raised a few miles south in Pasco. When I was a kid, the Dunes, as we called them, were a place to go target shooting, driving four wheelers, and doing all sorts of other things that our parents didn't want to know about. I've moved on, but those activities continue unabated right up to the wilderness boundary.
Right after the pandemic hit and leaving your house became socially acceptable, my family took a beeline straight to the Wilderness to spend two nights in the desert. You haul all your water in. There are no trails and no established camps. And, unless you have an ORV, you need to hike at least a mile through the off-road vehicle trails to come near the boundary.
We climbed over the barbed wire to enter the Wilderness and found a large swale to shield some of the ORV and target shooting noise where we set our tent up. From the top of the dune above us we could see ORVs drive right up to the fence, and roar down the dunes with multicolored LED lights flashing on their fenders and roll bars.
We headed north for lunch to a large dune far off in the middle of the wilderness. While the kids played in the sand, I laid in the sage and napped. My older child eventually shouted, "Dad, I found a toad buried in the dune." As usual, he spotted wildlife no one else saw, and as usual, I didn't believe him at first. I should know better by now, but I looked and in his hand was sitting a spadefoot toad that had buried itself in the dunes. He gently set it back in the dune and covered it up again.
I wondered the rest of the day how many toads I'd walked over unseen in these dunes, and how many find the wilderness a refuge from the constant churning created by the ORVs outside the fence. It gave us a respect for the dunes and how we treat them in the future.
I've been on both sides of that fence now, and I definitely know which I prefer and which is sustainable for our planet and our health in the long run.
Scott is a lawyer for a nonprofit law firm serving low-income people in Washington. He lives in Seattle.
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