by Mason Voehl
Executive Director

Artificial intelligence’s moment has been long in coming, and now it’s arrived.

Testing the capacities of novel AI engines such as ChatGPT to “outsource” what has long been thought to be the strictly human activity of writing has been very on trend as of late. Now that these tools have been developed and made widely accessible, it seems scarcely anyone can resist experimenting with these engines to test their capabilities, and to then conjecture at how they might radically reshape the future of our civilization.

I confess to being one of those who has largely treated the emergence of AI writing technology with intense skepticism, bordering on outright hostility. Friends have accused me of being a bit of an old fashioned stick in the mud about the whole ordeal, refusing to cede any ground to “the machines” on the basis that humans and humans alone can weave together words to produce something of real meaning, of real value. I believe every writer worth their salt must by necessity harbor the belief that they alone have the ability to grab hold of a corner of reality, and to discover and describe some new truth therein through the labor of writing. Writing is hard, and scary, and requires a great deal of confidence to undertake. So the idea that suddenly some in-human, un-feeling thing has come along to take that labor off our shoulders and its fruits off our plates feels…well…a little unsettling, and maybe even a little insulting.

After holding out for quite some time, I needed to find out. I needed to know what AI knew about the Amargosa River and its basin lands, a landscape that I personally find difficult to capture in words due to its vastness, its ecological variety, and its overall surreality.

So at long last, I logged onto ChatGPT for the first time, and I asked it to write an essay about the ecological values of the Amargosa River. And this is what it rendered:


Title: The Ecological Treasures of the Amargosa River: A Jewel in the Desert

Nestled amidst the arid landscapes of the southwestern United States, the Amargosa River is a hidden gem that exemplifies the beauty and resilience of nature. Spanning through the Mojave Desert in California and Nevada, this remarkable river sustains a unique ecosystem that thrives against the odds. Despite its seemingly inhospitable surroundings, the Amargosa River boasts rich biodiversity and holds significant ecological values. This article explores the ecological treasures of the Amargosa River and highlights the importance of preserving this fragile ecosystem for future generations.

1. Diverse Aquatic Habitat:
The Amargosa River supports a remarkably diverse array of aquatic life, considering its desert setting. It serves as a lifeline for numerous plant and animal species, many of which have adapted to the harsh conditions. From threatened and endangered fish species like the Amargosa pupfish and the Ash Meadows speckled dace to a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates, the river’s unique hydrological conditions have allowed for the existence of these specialized and often rare organisms.

2. Riparian and Wetland Ecosystems:
The Amargosa River creates a lush riparian corridor and sustains vital wetland ecosystems that provide crucial habitats for a wide range of wildlife. These areas support an abundance of plant life, including cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite trees. The river’s banks and wetlands attract migratory birds, serving as essential stopover points along their journeys. Moreover, the riparian zones act as natural filters, purifying water and enhancing water quality downstream.

3. Endangered Species and Critical Habitats:
The Amargosa River and its surrounding areas are home to several endangered and threatened species, making it a critical habitat worthy of conservation efforts. One such example is the Amargosa vole, a small mammal that relies on the river’s marshy habitats for its survival. Additionally, the Amargosa niterwort, a rare plant species found only in the Amargosa River Basin, faces the risk of extinction due to habitat loss and groundwater depletion. Protecting the river ensures the preservation of these unique and fragile species.

4. Geologic and Hydrologic Significance:
The Amargosa River plays a crucial role in the region’s hydrology and geology. It carves through deep canyons and has shaped the landscape over thousands of years. The river also contributes to the hydrological balance of the region by recharging underground aquifers, which are essential sources of water in the arid desert environment. Furthermore, the Amargosa River Basin acts as an essential conduit for groundwater flow, supporting the interconnectedness of the entire ecosystem.

5. Cultural and Recreational Value:
Beyond its ecological significance, the Amargosa River holds cultural and recreational value for local communities and visitors alike. Native American tribes have long recognized the river’s importance and have a deep cultural connection to the land. The river’s scenic beauty and diverse wildlife also attract nature enthusiasts, hikers, birdwatchers, and photographers who seek solace and inspiration in this remote and pristine landscape.

Preserving the Amargosa River:
Recognizing the ecological values of the Amargosa River is crucial for its long-term conservation. Protecting this delicate ecosystem necessitates responsible management of water resources, reducing pollution, and preserving riparian habitats. Collaboration between government agencies, local communities, conservation organizations, and stakeholders is vital in implementing sustainable practices that balance human needs with the preservation of the river’s ecological integrity.

The Amargosa River serves as a testament to nature’s resilience and the intricate interplay between diverse ecosystems and their surroundings. From its diverse aquatic life to critical riparian habitats and cultural significance, this desert river harbors a wealth of ecological treasures. By safeguarding the Amargosa River and its surrounding landscapes, we ensure the preservation of a unique and fragile ecosystem, fostering a legacy that future generations can cherish and learn from. Let us unite in our efforts to protect and conserve the Amargosa River, for its ecological values extend far beyond its arid banks.

Ok, this is Mason again.

Honesty time. ChatGPT’s essay is…good. Surprisingly good, actually. The essay is accurate in its descriptions, well structured, and does a fine job of championing the key virtues and values of the landscape. The essay paints an evocative picture of place grounded in a fairly nuanced understanding of desert wetland ecology. All in all, it is a well-rounded articulate essay that ends with a clear call to action, making it more than passable as a potential blog post.

The essay is not without deficiencies. It could have done a better job of explaining the hydrological forces that contribute to the river’s existence. It could have better described how groundwater depletion threatens the long-term integrity of the watershed. It could have elucidated the variety of special public lands designations present in the watershed such as the Amargosa Wild & Scenic River, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, wildernesses, and areas of critical environmental concern. But again, at the end of the day, the essay does a more than passable job of conveying many of the key attributes of the Amargosa River region.

So, how should I feel right now?

I’ll eat a little crow in admitting that the results are better than I wanted them to be. I feel approximately 10%-20% more replaceable than I did an hour ago, which is significant. And yet, what I am feeling most powerfully is optimistic, and a little proud even. Because the key question to ask is, where did ChatGPT get all of this from? Where did it find its facts? What sources informed the algorithm to describe the landscape with such reverence? What made ChatGPT write the essay in such a way as to convey the real concerns and threats facing the basin, and to call on its readers to “unite in our efforts to protect and conserve the Amargosa River, for its ecological values extend far beyond its arid banks”?

The answer is, we did: all of us that care about this place made it possible. Because ultimately, ChatGPT creates largely in the same way I do: by synthesizing the existing knowledge, attitudes, and perspectives of those who already know and love the landscape and have taken on the labor of writing about it. ChatGPT seems powerful due to its ability to access and borrow from these existing sources and produce a synopsis with frightening speed. But it is worth noting that this power only exists because a number of real human persons cared enough about this place to write about it and post it on the internet in the first place. And so I’m a little proud, because I work for an organization that has spent the last few decades hoping to inspire a love of the Amargosa River in a greater community of scientists, artists, recreationists and advocates. In some ways, ChatGPT’s essay is proof of our success.

The last natural question to ask is, will I or any other future writer and advocate for the Amargosa River ever be fully replaceable by AI engines? Despite the promise that I see in this technology, I still think not.

Because where I differ with ChatGPT is in my ability to be out there, on the land, walking along the river’s edges, weaving my way through thickets of living organisms sustained by pools of ancient water. I can hear the birds, and the sound of running water. I can see the jagged mountains cut hard lines into a deep blue sky. I can experience the thrill of watching pupfish chase one another for hours on end. I can lay flat on my belly on the hard crust of an alkaline wetland and study a miniature forest of Amargosa niterwort. I can marvel at the layers of deep human and planetary histories on display in the Amargosa Canyon and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. I can share these experiences with people who call these places home, or who are just encountering them for the first time. I can let that strange admixture of joy, awe, fear, outrage, grief, and hope set in motion by time spent on the land go to work on me. And, I can write about it, learning from that labor and savoring its fruits in my life. If AI wants to borrow from that, so be it. If it can help spread the word and communicate the urgency of protecting this incredible place, all the better. I’ll just keep doing the same, in my own way.

Endangered Amargosa niterwort, lower Carson Slough

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