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The Myth of the "Fragile" Desert
By Don Fife

It is widely perceived by the proponents of S. 7 that the California Desert is "fragile." To most anyone who has lived and worked in the desert over a long period of the time, this is a very debatable perception. Most long term residents of the desert know that the vast majority of it's surface is soft, erodable, alluvial soil, covering up to as much as 70% of the CDCA. The desert soil is frequently subject to flash floods, debris and mudflows, and rillwash, all which generally prevent development of mature soils.

Thus, the majority of the desert is subject to natural restoration of the surface by frequent reworking and burial of soils by cloudbursts and wind- storms. Rainfall is the controlling geologic factor for the expected duration of most vehicle tracks and shallow surface disturbances in most areas. Proof of this is the natural restoration of the extensive military impacts that covered the desert at the end of World War II.

For example, General Patton had more than 38,000 armored vehicles, their support equipment, and up to 190,000 troops on continuous maneuvers in the eastern Mohave Desert for 3.5 years during the 1940's. These troops trained and rotated through almost every corner of the desert and, today, only a small percentage of their impact can be seen. The millions of bomb craters, miles of vehicle tracks, and other military impacts have been eroded or covered by the action of blowing sand, rainfall and flash floods, and re-vegetation on dynamic alluvial fans have destroyed most of the original disturbance.

Thus, when many misinformed observers come to the desert to photograph the few remnants of former impacts and display these photos as "proof" that the desert never "heals" or restores itself, they make the mistake that the desert as a whole can not restore itself, where in fact, only the isolated, upland surfaces retain the impacts of its history.

Aside from the natural restoration of bomb craters, targets, and vehicle tracks, there is spectacular natural restoration of giant desiccation fissures on the desert dry lakes (playas) throughout the desert. Pumping of ground water or natural lowering of the water table beneath the dry lakes has allowed the clay deposits composing the dry lakes to dry out. This is very similar to the polygonal cracks that form when a mud puddle dries up after a rain, except that the dimensions of the polygons are much greater on dry lakes where the polygonal cracks may be thousands of feet across and ten to hundreds of feet deep.

Erosion commonly creates giant caverns downward toward the water table. These features are far more spectacular than shallow vehicle tracks or bomb craters, yet periodic storms that fill the dry lakes after cloud bursts may completely restore an unblemished dry lake surface. The lake is restored without a trace of fissuring, perhaps for years before the cycle is repeated.

A small percentage of upland terraces or isolated surfaces may be slow to heal, but most of the desert is in fact subject to rather rapid natural restoration. The very arid condition and lack of protective vegetation subjects the desert surface to tremendous natural forces of rain and wind erosion. The proponents of S. 7 claim large quantities of soil are disturbed by vehicles, but when their volumes are compared to the volumes moved by natural forces, they become insignificant.

U.S. Army M-4 Tanks at California Desert Training Center
U.S. Army M-4 Tanks at California Desert Training Center

Some of General Patton's more than 38.000+ armored vehicles were on continuous maneuvers in the eastern Mojave Desert for 3.5 years during WW II. On isolated upland surfaces some tracks remain, however, flash floods, blown sand and re-vegetation on dynamic alluvial fans have
destroyed most of the original disturbance. The millions of bomb and shell impact craters were stripped of all scrap metal shortly after WW II. Each impact made a hole in the desert, the wind deposited sand and seeds in these depressions which filled with water during the first
cloudburst. Each impact became a “flowerpot". In many places the wind deposited sand around the new clump of sagebrush . . . ultimately re-placing the original depression with a small mound of sage and sand ! !

Note: Contrary to the beliefs of the ENDANGERED SPECIES ESTABLISHMENT, the Desert Tortoise (Copherus aqassizii), thrives in many of the desert valleys impacted by the massive military maneuvers of the Second World War!

Don Fife
Geologist, Non-Renewable Resources Consultant

Other Information:

  • This was the largest Army base in the world covering some 18,000 square miles. It stretched from the outskirts of Pomona, California eastward to within 50 miles of Phoenix, Arizona, southward to the suburbs of Yuma, Arizona and northward into the southern tip of Nevada.

Map of the Desert Training Center, California-Arizona Maneuver Area
Map of the Desert Training Center, California-Arizona Maneuver Area

  • Between 800,000 and 1,000,000 soldiers prepared for warfare at the CAMA. Camp Young was the administrative headquarters and the focal point of the maneuvers area for General Patton's 3rd Armored Division. The overwhelming focus of the training was on tank warfare.

  • Almost all the land acquired for the California - Arizona Maneuver Area was declared surplus by the War Department on 16 March 1944. The land acquired for the Camp Young site was relinquished on 14 January 1947 to the Department of the Interior by Public Land Order No. 342. The Camp Young site consists of 3,279.89 acres.

Closed Sand Dunes within the California-Arizona Maneuver Area:

It is funny how these dunes could have been so trammeled by tanks and other Army vehicles in the 1940's, but then "pristine" enough to need protection from vehicles today.

Other Photos:

Desert Training Center, California-Arizona Maneuver Area - BLM website

Willys Jeep at the Desert Trainging Center - Indio, CA, June 1942
Willys Jeep at the Desert Training Center - Indio, CA, June 1942

Desert Training Center - Troop train
Troop train carrying tanks and 2 1/2 ton truck headed to the Desert Training Center in Indio, CA in mid-April 1942.

Desert Training Center - Indio, California - 1942
Desert Training Center - Indio, California - 1942

Unless otherwise noted, these photos are drawn from the immense collections of the U.S. Government in the National Archives, the archives of the military services, and compilations of these photos maintained by universities, libraries and foundations. Such photos and posters are in the public domain and may be used for any lawful purpose. Source -


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