A man sitting on the tailgate of his white pickup truck gesturing at the rolling hills and valley to his right

Toads and trails

Restoring habitat and reviving the local economy

Joe Milmoe | April 18, 2018

Beatty, Nevada

Landowner David Spicer decided to help a species of toad unique to the Oasis Valley of Nevada, where he lives. In the process, he’s also helped something else — the local economy.

A partially lit frog being held by an outstretched hand at night.
Amargosa toad in Beatty, Nevada. Photo by Joe Milmoe, USFWS.

The species: the Amargosa toad. It lives along a 10-mile stretch of the Amargosa River and its upland springs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) considers Anaxyrus nelsoni at risk due to habitat loss, water diversion and non-native predators.

The economy: Beatty, a former mining town, calls itself “The Gateway to Death Valley.” It is poised to enjoy a revival, thanks in part to Spicer’s decision to open part of his ranch to recreational use. The influx of outdoor enthusiasts is helping move a town with a mining past to one with a tourism future.

A toad prompted a businessman to become a conservationist, too. In his efforts to save a local species, he turned to people who’d pay to use his lands — money that he used to improve the toad’s habitat. It’s a lesson in how commerce and conservation can work together.

Spicer and his nonprofit organization, Saving Toads thru Off-Road Racing, Ranching & Mining in Oasis Valley (STORM-OV), have brought land users to the conservation table, stressing fun in the outdoors while doing some good for the environment.

An open faucet spills water into a lush, green grassy field.
Creating ponds for toad habitat. Photo by Joe Milmoe, USFWS.

The Service pitched in to help, too. Working with the Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Service headed up three habitat restoration projects on the Spicer Ranch. Using heavy machinery, workers dug up springs, re-established headwaters and redirected water into selected lowland areas — creating ponds that made ideal toad habitats.

Biologists quickly realized the projects bore fruit: the toad’s breeding population has increased.

Hundreds of small black organisms in a shallow pool surrounded by new vegetation
Amargosa toad breeding habitat and tadpoles on the Spicer Ranch. Photo by Joe Milmoe, USFWS.

In 2010, the Service determined that the toad was not warranted for inclusion in the federal Endangered Species Act — due, in part, to Spicer’s willingness to protect the toad’s environment.

An entrepreneur at heart, Spicer has opened the doors to his 320-acre ranch to host a wide variety of events: Tough Mudder races, regional “Burning Man” events, Boy Scouts of America retreats, 24-hour endurance races and more.

Hundreds of athletes scramble up a hill after the start of a race.
Las Vegas Tough Mudder on Spicer Ranch. Photo © Simon Williams, The Nature Conservancy.

He made a discovery, too.

“It’s all about seizing the opportunity,” said Spicer. “The more we get disconnected from nature as a society, the more we crave it.”

Now, Spicer and STORM-OV have a new plan, the Oasis Valley Recreation Enhancement Project. It aims to create a network of trails for mountain biking, trail running, equestrian use and rock climbing.

The Spicer Ranch and surrounding BLM tracts feature approximately 50 miles of public trails for biking, running and horseback riding. His goal: 300 miles of new trails, redeveloped businesses and a packed calendar of events throughout the year.

An athletic man riding a mountain bike on a dry, rocky trail.
Landowner David Spicer hitting the trails. Photo courtesy of David Spicer, STORM-OV.

If that works out, Beatty could be in line for an economic jump-start. Spicer thinks that will happen.

“I want day-to-day business — 150 people a day coming here to ride bikes,” Spicer said. “We want friends, couples, families, coworkers to come out, connect with nature, explore our trails, and have a life-changing experience out here.”

Moab and St. George, Utah, as well as Fruita, Colorado, have developed trail systems that are attracting eco-tourists seeking thrills — spending cash, too, Spicer notes. He calls his plan a “Cinderella window of opportunity.”

Beatty, he notes, is located between Reno and Las Vegas, and Death Valley is nearby. That means Beatty is close to tourists, outdoor enthusiasts and others eager to get outside in the desert.

Spicer recently hired professional consultants to determine whether his plans to make Beatty a biking destination had promise. He liked their assessment.

“They drove the existing trails,” he said, “and they said it absolutely can and will work.”

STORM-OV is working with BLM to conduct surveys of the proposed trail areas and is looking for like-minded people who will invest in the future of Beatty.

A trail map showing four separate trails all supporting outdoor recreation.
Spicer Ranch trail map. Map coutesy of Trails OV.

Beatty, population 1,000 or so, appreciates Spicer’s efforts.

“He’s helping bring people into town,” said Annie Latham, who works at the Beatty Chamber of Commerce. STORM-OV is one of its members. “We welcome that.”

Spicer, she said, has always been active in luring people to Beatty. His bike-trail plans “are gaining momentum,” she said. “He’s bringing in a lot of biking groups.”

Those cyclists will want to eat, fix their bikes and generally hang out.

The commercial district of a rural Nevada town
Downtown Beatty, Nevada. Photo by Mark Holloway, CC BY 2.0.

“We hope to have things like a bike shop, brewery, burrito place and recreational pond that mountain bikers can enjoy during their stay here,” said Spicer.

Interest in redefining Beatty as a recreational destination is as high as it can be right now; the question is whether the interest will translate into action and reality.

“Our roots are in the land,” said Spicer. “We want to put it back, get the kids involved, bring a new level of integrity to our community and demonstrate the potential of what Nevada can bring forward for phenomenal recreation.”

And, no doubt, the Amargosa toad is all for that, too.

Landowner and Service biologist shaking hands in front of two signs on a telephone pole, the first identifies the USFWS as a partner on the project, the second warns motorists of frog crossing
Landowner David Spicer with Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist Christiana Manville. Photo by Joe Milmoe, USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, a voluntary initiative that works with private landowners to improve fish and wildlife habitat on their land. A phone call or email is all it takes to learn more with one of our 250 private lands biologists. If you are interested in improving habitat for fish and wildlife on your land, find your local Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Joe Milmoe is a fish and wildlife biologist with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program out of Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia.