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A Latino Conservation Week Event in the Desert

By Andrea Iniguez

Last Saturday, July 23rd, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in my first Latino Conservation Week (LCW) event which was hosted by several organizations and sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). CalWild partnered with Hispanic Access Foundation, Audubon California, CactusToCloud Institute, Council of Mexican Federations in North America, Mojave Desert Land Trust, and Sierra Club to organize a night hike in the Mecca Hills Wilderness. LCW is a national event where participating organizations provide numerous recreation opportunities for Latinos to actively engage with nature. Equally important, this event highlights the Latino community’s passion for the outdoors and the important role Latinos play as natural resource stewards. It was an honor to join partners and my Latino community in celebrating the ninth annual LCW by connecting with the treasured wild spaces that we all love and care to protect.

Photo of the group provided by Hispanic Access Foundation

I arrived at the Painted Canyon trailhead ahead of my group and just before sunset. On weekends, this area is normally crowded with people recreating; however, due to the extreme heat, the canyon was empty when I arrived that evening. This was the perfect opportunity to disconnect from technology and explore the area in solitude. As I strolled through the canyon, I was mesmerized by its remarkable beauty. Mecca Hills Wilderness is widely recognized for its striking geological formations and its outstanding recreation opportunities. The entire region is a natural labyrinth of steep canyons with unique characteristics that offer visitors plenty of interesting canyons, washes, and trails to explore. At first glance, this area may appear barren; however, the reality is that this region is beaming with life. Astonishingly, a great deal of activity may only be witnessed at night which our group would soon discover.

The Bureau of Land Management was among the first to arrive and start setting up for this event. Soon after, other participants, including Congressman Raul Ruiz and Indio Councilman, Oscar Ortiz, started arriving as well. Before the hike, we gathered in a large circle and had a picnic at the trailhead. Organization leaders spoke about the importance of uplifting Latino leadership in conservation spaces while simultaneously highlighting the region’s outstandingly remarkable value. I want to take this opportunity to thank Congressman Ruiz for attending this event and for all the wonderful work he does to engage and center the Latino community.

Scorpion spotted using a black light. Photo provided by Hispanic Access Foundation

At night, our group did a guided hike through the Mecca Hills Wilderness. We stopped several times along the way to learn about the region’s incredible wildlife, vegetation, and geology. In addition, the BLM provided several opportunities for interactive learning. For instance, they distributed black lights to participants which were used to spot scorpions. Scorpions normally blend into their environment; however, almost all species of scorpions glow a blue-green florescent color under ultraviolet light that’s magnificent to see. These creatures are largely nocturnal and hibernate during the winter, so the timing was ideal for spotting these fascinating desert dwellers. Using the ultraviolet lights that the BLM provided, we were able to find and observe at least four scorpions that night.

In addition, the BLM provided special insight into the region’s many bat species. Through the use of specialized equipment, the BLM was able to detect and identify all the species of bats that we came across on our hike. On our journey back, our group stopped to listen to a BLM staff member review and explain some of the information gathered by this device. The amount of hidden life surrounding us that night was fascinating to discover. Personally, I’ve always loved learning in community settings where there is an opportunity for everyone to openly converse and ask questions.

We also stopped multiple times to look up and stare at the night sky. The giant canyon walls block the city lights and create the perfect setting for stargazing. Standing at the base of the canyon, we had a remarkably clear view of the Milky Way. As we stared up at the galaxy, the BLM gave us a step-by-step tutorial on how to locate the Big Dipper. Many participants openly remarked that the Big Dipper resembled a cacerola (i.e., saucepan). We all had fun trying to find it together. That night, I was lucky and saw a bright shooting star. It took me completely by surprise, so I instinctively pointed at the sky and shouted with excitement hoping that other would see it too. Growing up, I was taught by my grandparents to always make a wish on a shooting star. My one wish that night was for my family. I wished that they be allowed the same opportunity to one day experience the desert like I had that night.