Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I worked for several years in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, working sometimes on United States Bureau of Land Management land, but mostly in the vast emptiness of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.  This active military bombing and live munitions training ground is one of the biggest chunks of “untouched” Sonoran Desert.  Containing desert mountains, sand dunes, and many of the most interesting desert habitats in between, this parcel of land stretches for over 1.5 million acres.  It may be a toss-up, but that is about the size of the state of Delaware.  Having such a large undeveloped area means that it is home to lots of different species of wildlife, and is one of the last refuges of the endangered Sonoran Desert Pronghorn.

Surveying the site from the air to see which water sites needed to be visited on foot.

It was a surprise to me to learn that military lands often have some of the best habitat available for plant and wildlife management.  When I stopped to think about it though, it made sense.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has over 400 installations in the US with about 25 million acres.  Many, if not most, of these acres are undeveloped.  That means that apart from military operations, these areas go mainly untouched, and because of the country’s resource protection laws (which the military abides by), are fairly well managed.  Security and safety reasons mean that these large swaths of land have not felt the pressure of habitat-loss; some 300 U.S. endangered or threatened species make DoD lands their home, and the military helps take care of them.

Back to the story:  I was looking at a small marker bomb sitting in the road way, a new bit of UXO (unexploded ordinance).  It was only a small bomb, used in training runs to show how well the pilot hit his mark, but since the sighting towers had to be able to see where it hit, there was still enough explosive to tear the front end of the truck apart and send the diesel engine block into my chest cavity.  That may sounds like an exaggeration, but that is how the managers on the range described it to me and I didn’t want to find out if they were right.

You see all kinds of life at desert watering holes…

We had been granted access to this live-fire part of the range, a rare treat for our research team.  We were trying to reach some of the most remote desert water sites to study their water quality and biodiversity – with the ultimate goal of creating better man-made water sites for desert wildlife. We were studying the differences in construction and ecology at natural and man-made “guzzlers” to better serve not only large game species, such as bighorn sheep, but also small creatures like Sonoran Desert Toads and dragonflies.

Like I said, we wanted to get there and we only had a small window to get through this section of the desert before the range opened back up for live fire exercises.  To go off road in this section was strictly forbidden; even if it weren’t, it would be extremely dangerous. The small bomb before us had many siblings in the sand and brush around us.  Many of these siblings were much larger than the one we could see.  And just like with people, age and exposure to the elements makes bombs much more persnickety.  We had about 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the truck and the item.   A decision had to be made: either turn around and race for the last staging area, which we could get to just within our time window, or drive over the thing to get to the end of the road and hope for the best.

Upon reflection, I made the wrong decision that day: I crept the truck along until we silently (as silent as the idle speed of a diesel can be) glided over the top of the marker bomb.  I don’t think I breathed during the entire time it took to painstakingly thread our 4WD differentials, which hung low on the less-than-even road, around the obstacle.  Finally I was able to breathe as my research partner Jordan waved an all clear from a safe distance down the road.  I got GPS coordinates so the military could remove the bomb and we were on our way!

We were eventually able to collect some great data at those water sites, but it could have gone poorly.  Fieldwork on the Air Force Range was often a trade-off between safety and results. Our supervisor probably would have had an aneurism if she had known about many of our choices, and rightfully so.  At times the temperatures were above 120 °F with 70% humidity, making it literally dangerous just to walk for longer than a mile.  Spiny plants and toothy reptiles abounded and rugged terrain was always trying to destroy our ankles.  We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area.

We weren’t the only ones facing the problem of spiny plants…

Despite all of it, though, the desert became my adopted home: I really love the place. I care deeply about the people, plants, and animals. I could tell many more stories and hopefully I will down the road, but right now I have to get back to chasing some wildlife.

Chasing some desert dragonflies…

Joe Drake is a recovering field biologist. A member of several professional  scientific societies, he is interested in spatial ecology, desert  ecology, wildlife conservation, and science outreach/communication.  When he isn’t studying or working, you can find him in the woods, on  the river, or in his workshop; he loves home brewing, backpacking,  fishing, writing, and photography. Before he returned to school, Joe worked for various federal agencies and universities across the Western U.S. (living out of the back of his beat-up Ford Ranger) and  internationally in the “bio-tech circuit” for 4 years.  The West’s wilderness stole his heart before he returned to school to get his  M.S. at Texas Tech University, and he has continued on to the University of Massachusetts where he is working towards his Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Chris Sutherland.  He is just about to embark on a new field project in the Scottish Highlands, and will be blogging and tweeting about the experience as he goes.  Keep  up to date with his work or get in touch at  https://secretlifeofafieldbiologist.wordpress.com/.

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2 thoughts on “Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

  1. Super interesting and well written post…though it left more questions than it answered!
    “We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area”…was there ever a better example of a line on fieldwork that left a reader wanting more?

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