• More Wild Places That Need Wilderness Designation
• Kathy Billings: Superintendent Of Death Valley Nat’l Park
• Amazing Eurekensis: A Wonderful Bloom at Eureka Dunes
• Wilderness Concept: How It Has Affected Native Americans
• My Wilderness: A Florida Native Discovers the CA Desert
• Leonard Knight 1931-2014
• Residential Mining In Nevada’s Historic Comstock
• Story of Picacho Mine: Greed, Opportunity, and Technology
• Tales From A Ranger: Death Valley Manhunt
• Current Issues
Silurian Valley, a majestic desert basin flanked by the 6,000-foot-plus Avawatz, Soda, and Kingston ranges, is undeveloped. The nearest community is 17 miles south, the town of Baker. Head north from Baker on California Highway 127 and the Mojave Desert unfolds before you.
The highway, which follows the valley floor, is a gateway to the south entrance to Death Valley. Just as importantly, the valley is a key piece of a corridor linking three properties managed by the National Park Service—Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert Preserve to the south, with Death Valley National Park to the north.
Power Plants Target the Valley
Today, however, Silurian Valley is the target for two massive proposed renewable energy plants: the Silurian Valley Wind Farm and the Aurora Solar Plant. Together these large ventures would destroy the environmental integrity of Silurian Valley and despoil its magnificent desert vistas, while generating electricity for homes in cities a hundred miles away. The projects would also impinge on historical cultural resources, including the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, the Mormon Road wagon trail, and the historic route of the Tonopah and Tidewater railroad. The two plants are both projects of Iberdrola Renewables, a business unit of Iberdrola USA.
Solar Plant Requires a Variance
Licensing Aurora Solar would require the BLM to approve the first variance, for a power plant application, to the carefully developed Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), published in late 2012. The variance—special exemption—would be required since the Silurian Valley is not part of the Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) defined in the PEIS. Areas outside the SEZs are either excluded from solar development, or projects must pass through more rigorous examination to prove they are appropriate locations for solar energy development.
Strong Opposition Surfaces at Public Hearing for Aurora Solar Plant
On March 27, 2014, the BLM held a public meeting in Barstow to solicit comments from public agencies and the general public about their concerns and interests on the proposed Silurian Valley solar project. Representatives of Iberdrola Renewables made a presentation on the project and answered questions about it.
The meeting drew 60 attendees representing the general public, local business and land owners, public agencies. Conservation organizations included the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Nature Conservancy, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA), and more. It became apparent during the afternoon session that many participants opposed the Aurora project and were unhappy with the format of the public meeting. There was strong vocal protest on two points: 1) the BLM was not recording the 3-minute comments made by speakers, some of whom had traveled from other cities to speak, and 2) questions to Iberdrola took place in “break-out” sessions, making it impossible for participants to hear all the questions and answers.
Thirty-six speakers made public comments regarding the Aurora plant, of which only one was in support. Many objected to the BLM’s considering a variance to allow building a plant outside designated SEZs, especially in an unspoiled valley linking three NPS properties. Many made the point that Silurian Valley represents a key “jumping off” point into the desert for those leaving Interstate 15 at Baker. Others pointed out the existence of ecologically sensitive zones adjacent to the Silurian Valley and other properties that enjoy special protections. These include the Amargosa River, which is designated a Wild and Scenic River and the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, whose corridor would be impacted both visually and physically by the two proposed power plants.
Projects Would Impact Old Spanish Trail and Later Mormon Road
Archival evidence, including John C. Fremont’s 1845 account, is clear that the Old Spanish Trail passed through Silurian Valley. After 1849 the Trail route became part of the Mormon Road, a wagon trail that brought miners, Mormons and other emigrants to southern California. As a National Historic Trail, the OST corridor is administered by the BLM as part of its National Conservation Lands, the branch devoted to protecting scenic landscapes.
In 2013, BLM intern Amy Oeschner reported in a research paper, read at the annual conference of the American Institute of Archaeology, that she used aerial photos and software enhancement to locate portions of the trail in Silurian Valley. She then conducted ground-truthing surface surveys of trail segments to record and document condition of the trail. Artifacts she found include a clay pipe bowl, datable to James Buchanan’s presidential campaign of 1856, in the Mormon Road period. She also found a mule shoe consistent with those used by Mexican mule caravans.
Broad Coalition Forming to Oppose the Two Plants
Leaders of desert conservation organizations and business and property owners in Tecopa and Shoshone are coordinating an effort to build a broad coalition opposing licensing of the two Silurian Valley plants. Says NPCA’s David Lamfrom, “The Silurian Valley represents a beating heart of the Mojave Desert in California. We mustn’t allow a dagger to be put through it.” Susan Sorrells, who owns businesses in Shoshone points out that ecological and cultural tourism are what bring people to Shoshone. “They treasure the open desert which we have so far preserved in this area,” she says.
The coalition will work for establishment of a broad conservation corridor extending from Shoshone and the Nevada state line in the north to I-15 and the Mojave Preserve in the south, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the vital Silurian Valley corridor linking three NPS units and protecting the treasured vistas of the Silurian Valley.
Jack Prichett is president of the Old Spanish Trail Association-Tecopa chapter. He has made numerous presentations on the Old Spanish Trail and the threats posed by large desert solar plants.
WILD PLACES THAT NEED WILDERNESS DESIGNATION, PART 2
In the previous issue of Desert Report, several locations were mentioned that are truly wild places, under threat from development, that have not yet been designated as wilderness. In this issue, with the focus on locations in the east Mojave, I present a few more.
The Mescal Range
If you were to ask most people in the state of California to find the Mescal Range on a map, I would guess that 99.9 percent of our state population would not be able to do so. Ironically, thousands of people drive past this range on a daily basis, millions annually on the way to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Most probably see it as a large limestone rock rising from the desert floor seemingly devoid of life. This is far from the truth. When you travel south from Interstate 15 into this range all traffic noises cease. You leave the modern world behind and everything seems pristine and wild.
The eastern section of this range encompasses the northern section of Piute Valley. In the summer, after the monsoonal rains, this area becomes a unique desert grassland amongst the Joshua tree woodland. It holds many plant rarities such as the bizarre cactus known as dead cholla (Grusonia parishii) and the beautiful and unusual Mohave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia). This side of the range also holds the only known location in California of fossilized dinosaur tracks. Known as the ‘dinosaur trackway’, these impressions in the localized sandstone outcropping are believed to be 200 million years old and are obviously of great importance.
There is no vehicle access into the interior of this rugged range. Although challenging, the rewards upon entry are great. One has to either walk up the long western drainages or climb up and over the steep rugged eastern limestone ridges to reach their center. Floristically, this range has been highly unexplored. Until quite recently, most of the historic plant collections were from the edges and margins of the range with virtually no recorded plants from its interior. There is at least one plant in the area that is new to science and to date there have been found 30 different rare plant species in this range. Every expedition into its center reveals new and undocumented plant species.
The Mescal Range lies between the better known Clark Mountains and the New York Mountains which are also home to many unique rare plant species and plant assemblages such as some of the last remaining stands of white fir (Abies concolor) in the desert. Further explorations of the Mescal Range may find another area of marooned populations of white fir. Other near endemic plant species that are shared between the Clarks and the New Yorks may be revealed in the future. To date several have already been found, such as dwarf Indian mallow (Abutilon parvulum) and Navajo muhly (Muhlenbergia arsenei) that in California are only known in either the Clark Mountains or New York Mountains.
Sadly, last year while exploring the interior of the Mescal Range, I came across two men with chain saws cutting down the pinyon pines that grow here. I have no idea why, and did not approach these questionable characters with chainsaws in the middle of nowhere to ask.
Large scale mining is also a threat for this range. Just across the highway from the Mescal Range lies the largest rare earth mine in the U.S.A. It would be devastating if this destructive mine where to spill over and expand across the highway.
The area is also a very important animal corridor for wildlife traveling between the Mojave National Preserve to the Clark Mountains and beyond. The Mescal Range is managed by the BLM and its central and eastern sections, at this time, have no form of protection. This area definitely meets all requirements for wilderness designation and needs to be designated as so as soon as possible.
The Castle Mountains
My first trip to the Castle Mountains was a very memorable one. I was there to monitor and make a conservation seed collection of the near endemic pinto beardtoungue (Penstemon bicolor). It was the middle of July and the day saw triple digit temps. There were not very many flowers, but I was fascinated by the area and vowed to return to explore further. That evening while driving out along the little 4-wheel drive road, a roadrunner appeared on the road in front of me. I was only able to drive about 3 MPH on this little road. Instead of running off into the brush the roadrunner continued to run along the road in front of me. It in fact ran in front of me for nearly a mile! Eventually, it darted after a lizard in the shrubbery. I was surrounded by one of the thickest and largest stands of Joshua trees I have ever seen to date. With the sun setting behind them, it was a truly perfect moment.
Since then I have spent countless days, during all seasons, in the Castle Mountains exploring the abundant wildlife that they contain. This mountain range, until recently, was also botanically unexplored. Recent explorations by desert botanist James Andre and myself have turned up a plethora of rare plant species and at least one plant new to the California flora. To date we have found over 30 rare plant species in this range, several of which are near endemics and found only in this part of the Mohave.
If you have not been to the Castle Mountains, you should go. It is best to visit in the late summer after the monsoonal rains. During this time, the valleys at the base of the mountains appear as large grassy savannas. After the rains, hidden among these unique grasslands are flowers that may be seen only at this time of the year. The stands of Joshua trees here are outstanding; even if you are a desert snob, you will still find them more than impressive.
Historically the Castle Mountains have seen a good amount of mining, especially at their southern end. This has not been an issue for some time now, but just recently a large mining claim has been reopened for this range and it seems likely that large scale mining may commence in its southern section. This area is managed by the BLM and has no form of protection what-so-ever. I have heard it strongly stated that this area should be given over to, and managed by, the Mohave National Preserve. Whoever the manager may be, this area fills many requirements for wilderness designation and should be designated so as soon as possible.
Look for more wild places that need wilderness designation in upcoming editions in 2014.
Duncan Bell is a field botanist for Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and spends most of his time doing floristic work in the undercollected and unexplored mountain ranges of Southern California.
a lesson for the Future
Entering Death Valley from the south, one is nearly compelled to pass through the small town of Shoshone, California. While there is a highway maintenance station near the village entrance and a modern gas station as well, it would be the older and more rustic buildings that catch your eye: an old museum with a rusting, early-model auto in front; the Crowbar Cafe with a cowboy logo and wooden tables outside; a strangely painted community hall; and a small green, wooden bungalow off to the side. These are relics from an earlier history, a time far from the extravagances of the twenty-first century. All this might have vanished thirty years ago with the collapse of the regional mining ventures if it were not for the efforts of the local town manager, Susan Sorrells. Shoshone was founded by her great grandfather, but Susan must be considered a new kind of pioneer in the western tradition.
I first met Susan fourteen years ago at a meeting held in the community hall. A group of people were being conducted on a tour to a nearby trackway with the fossilized footprints of a great variety of Pleistocene mammals, and it was purely by accident that Susan and I began talking. Several years later I planned to bring a high school geology class to see this same trackway. As we spoke on the phone, I learned that Susan had once been a boarding student at the Westlake School for Girls, the very place where I had begun my own teaching career. Over the years we have spoken many times, and much of the conversation has centered on her family history as they arrived and then settled in the southern Death Valley region.
The family first came west when Susan’s great-great-grandfather, David Fairbanks, arrived in Salt Lake with Brigham Young. Among his ten children was a son, Ralph Fairbanks, who was later to be known universally as “Dad.” Over the years this son worked as a swamper on a wagon train along the Mormon Trail, as a prospector in Pioche, Nevada, and as a teamster driving freight wagons out of Las Vegas and eventually to the mining camps of Greenwater, to the south of Death Valley. These mines, like most of those in Death Valley, were promotions that drained the investors and produced almost nothing from the ground. Before these mining ventures collapsed, “Dad” had moved thirty miles south to the present site of Shoshone, where he bought land and established a variety of business ventures. His nickname was accidental. When Native Americans were present, his children always addressed him as “Dad,” and so quite naturally the Indians also called him “Dad.” In time everyone referred to him this way, and it is said that even his own parents eventually called him “Dad.” He was the founder of Shoshone. This was in the very early 1900s.
Among Dad’s acquaintances was a younger fellow, Charles Brown, a miner and allegedly sheriff in Greenwater. Charles fell madly in love with one of Dad’s daughters, Stella, but by her father’s decree their marriage had to wait till the day she turned eighteen in 1910. By this time the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad had pushed north to service the mining ventures in the region. As the terminus of the line, Shoshone became a major hub of commerce, and Dad was a major financial beneficiary. Charlie and Stella had moved to the Dale Mining district, near present-day Joshua Tree National Park, and then to Tonopah, where Charles rather successfully invested in a bar. By this time Dad was older and living alone, and in 1920, at the request of one of Stella’s sisters, Charlie and Stella returned to Shoshone to help manage the business. A few years later Highway 127 was completed north from Baker through Shoshone, and tourism became a second economic engine for the family.
In time Charlie became the principal citizen of Shoshone and rather a legend of the area. He was elected to the California State Senate, where he served for twenty-five years. The store in Shoshone goes by the name “Brown’s General Store,” and state highway 127 running north to Death Valley is signed as the “Charles Brown Highway.”
Charlie Brown had four children, two boys and two girls. One of the sons had a distinguished military career in World War II and went on to become a circuit judge. The second son took over the family holdings in Baker, California. The oldest of Charlie’s four children was a daughter, Bernice, who married Maurice Sorrells. As Charles became older, he asked Bernice and Maurice to return from their home in Sacramento to help run Shoshone and the businesses there. When Maurice was elected a Supervisor of Inyo County, it was Bernice who became the principal town manager. Susan Sorrells has described the family business during those years.“Shoshone was the hub of commerce in the Amargosa and Death Valley area. Our family owned a Standard Oil dealership and a wholesale grocery and dynamite business, and they took supplies to the seven or eight mining camps in the area, where about forty miners stayed during the week. There were also about fifty mines in the area, most of these being talc, but there were also gold, lead and silver mines. My family also owned a store, bar, café and lodging in Shoshone. The area was booming and it was really good business.”
Susan has also spoken warmly about her childhood growing up in the town:
“Shoshone was a paradise for children growing up there. We were so free. It was fabulous. Everyone owned horses and we would go on overnight rides for two or three days. This was when I was eleven and my brother was seventeen. Almost daily I rode my horse into the wetlands and surrounding hills where I spent a lot of my time. I really loved the land. It was a wonderful, wonderful life.”
The journey to adulthood was not direct, and perhaps Susan’s travels have been even more varied and adventurous than those of her ancestors. Eventually, however, they brought her back to her childhood home. After elementary school in Shoshone, she went one year to a Catholic school in Los Angeles, returned to Shoshone for tenth grade, and then, as already mentioned, completed high school at Westlake School for Girls.
Susan had no interest in the family business and went off to college: one year at the University of Southern California and an eventual graduation from Smith College in Massachusetts. Politics had become an interest, and Susan worked one year as an intern in Washington DC and then spent two years in Liberia in the Peace Corps. Perhaps this latter experience motivated her to complete a Master’s Degree in African studies at UCLA. She was married briefly, lived several years in Europe, and finally returned to Shoshone when her mother’s failing heath required assistance. Again in Susan’s words:
“I was living in Geneva when my mother needed assistance in managing the businesses. My mother and I were very close, and I told her that I wanted to come home and work with her until she decided what she wanted to do, such as getting a general manager or selling the property. She had expressed an interest in leaving the desert and working for the United Nations.”
Susan’s father had died some years before, so upon her mother’s death, Susan became owner and manager of the town. In 1985 the mining endeavors south of Death Valley collapsed, and the town struggled to survive. Ultimately Susan and the community decided that their economic future lay in tourism – but it would be of a sustainable kind that respected and valued the land.
The town has established several non-profit organizations to promote environmental protection. They have worked hard to restore nearby wetlands, and they have partnered in several projects with the local Bureau of Land Management. The town has encouraged researchers, both in biology and geology, to visit, study, and use their facilities. Many of these developments have already been described in the Desert Report article “Communities In The Amargosa Valley Strive To Make Tourism A Success” (June 2012). Susan Sorrells may be a new kind of pioneer who leads in a direction that will become increasingly important in our future. Her own words best describe her vision for the future:
“Our goals are to establish a town where people and endangered species live side by side. We strongly believe that people don’t have to be the enemy but instead can caretake and steward the environment where they live. As a result, the residents and guests will be renewed by their interaction with nature, which is already happening.”
Craig Deutsche describes himself as a long-time desert rat. In an earlier life he was a high school teacher, a distance runner, and an editor for the “Desert Report.” Retired now, he humors a bird-watching wife and is a committed volunteer in the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
• Pioneers In The Desert
• Silurian Valley In The Crosshairs
• Solar Tentacles Reach Into Owens Valley
• The Wilderness Act: History Of Wilderness In Southern California
• The Wilderness Act: The East Mojave
• Interview With Steve Mietz, Superintendant of Great Basin National Park
• Ocotillo Wells
• The Impacts Of Energy Projects On Migratory Birds
• Current Issues
• Visioning and Marketing of Desert Natural and Cultural Heritage Tourism: The Renewable Tourism Economy
• The West Mojave Area And the Travel Management Plan: Unbalanced Subgroup Leads To Flawed Result
• Will There Ever Be A Desert Tortoise National Wildlife Refuge?
• What Is Wilderness? Revisiting The Wilderness Act Of 1964
• Manzanar: Farewell To Viewshed?
• Eagles Left Adrift In Our Pursuit Of Wind Energy
• For the Desert: What We’ve Lost, What We Remember, Where We Gather, Where the Eagle Rises
• The Salton Sea Initiative
The Visioning and Marketing of Desert Natural and Cultural Heritage Tourism
Thirty years ago when I moved to the Mojave Desert this amazing landscape captured me. A northern Californian by birthright and experience, I thought my residency would last three years before taking in additional wonders of California’s State Park System. Such is the adventure of being a State Park Ranger.
When my wife Marsha and I moved to Red Rock Canyon State Park it was an amazingly abrupt and stark contrast from where I worked at cool foggy Half Moon Bay State Beach. We arrived to unload in unseasonably warm 108-degree weather in late May of 1984. Our first thought was ‘what have we done.’ Even though hot summer temperatures garnished our first desert season, these redwood forest dwellers immediately were drawn to the solitude and beauty of the surrounding desert. We found a long-term home we never expected.
When our northern Californian friends and family asked ‘what did you do wrong’ to be banished to a desert landscape, we kindly explained the new wonderful world we had discovered. People who have not truly encountered the desert often mistake its extremes and openness as a forgotten, foreboding wasteland.
Captured by both the reality and the ever-present imagination the desert inspires, I spent the last twenty years of my State Park career at Red Rock Canyon. It was my pleasure to introduce people to the wonders of the desert and the beauty of Red Rock Canyon in particular. I saw myself as a catalyst to their enjoyment; an ambassador for the fascinating geology, and a conveyor of the intricate beauty and bounty of desert life, with all of its splendid adaptations for survival.
I quickly found Red Rock was becoming popular, not by marketing, but by word of mouth. Attendance and interest rapidly grew. Red Rock Canyon quickly became a staple on a much larger destination tourism cycle that stretched from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks in the north all the way to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion in the Southwest. Many of our travelers were heading to or coming from Death Valley National Park.
At first European tourists stumbled into Red Rock rather blindly. These Europeans were fascinated by the American West and remarked what a special surprise it was to discover Red Rock Canyon. Within two years the European experience transformed from happenstance to an intentional targeted encounter. Arriving Europeans proudly displayed printed guidebooks touting Red Rock Canyon in virtually every European language. By 1996 European tourism accounted for nearly 4% of all overnight stays at the park, all without any proactive marketing. And use by foreign tourists was on the rise.
The State of California’s Travel and Tourism Council distributes strategic information about foreign tourist preferences, posting detailed survey results from a variety of countries online. Pursuant to these tools, targeted marketing campaigns can be individualized by country. For instance, European travelers routinely identify visiting parks, small towns, historical places, and touring the countryside as high value goals during their California sojourns.
Despite strong evidence, California State Parks are not acknowledged for their contribution to California’s economy. One of the first studies to quantify California State Parks economic impact concluded that for every General Fund dollar Californians invested in our State Park System, $2.35 in tax revenues were returned to that same General Fund. Throughout the years other studies consistently documented our State Park’s economic prowess.
One of the most recent studies (BBC Research and Consulting, 2010) concluded that California State Parks generate $3.2 billion in annual visitor spending, leading to a total economic impact of $6.41 billion. That same report concluded that California State Parks contribute $145 million in local tax revenues and $289 million in state tax revenues annually. During that same period the General Fund allocation for State Parks totaled only $131 million, $14 million less than the tax dollars generated for local communities alone. Since that time State Park’s allocation from the General Fund has fallen to $116 million.
Traveling to and from our parks, visitors stop in local towns, shop, buy goods, and acquire remembrances and souvenirs. An economic tread links this tourism travel. From food to fuel, from entertainment to lodging, tourists need and rejoice in the services en route communities provide. In this fashion, state parks and other heritage tourism are incredibly strong small business engines.
Just when we should be helping tourism expand to new heights, we are constantly publicizing the uncertain status of our parks. Services remain reduced and hours of operation uncertain. And closer to home, Kern County officials seem posed to impact tourism further through the pending approval of a mega-solar installation known as AquaHelio, proposing to install over 2 million solar panels south of Red Rock’s border. AquaHelio calls their transformation of the local landscape the “Fremont Valley Preservation Project.” Just beyond the park’s northern boundary another 25,000-acre wind farm known as Laurel Mountain remains a prospect.
I have written before about my support for alternative energy, but equally of its wise, harmonious and judicious placement. Surrounding our desert parks and natural areas with industrial landscapes attacks and degrades our tourism infrastructure. This is simply not our wisest, or only, course of action.
Within eastern Kern County, Red Rock Canyon is only one element within a corridor of tourism which should be devoted to the renewable tourism economy. Red Rock and the Bureau of Land Management’s Jawbone-Butterbredt ACEC together attract a diverse array of recreational customers who explore the scenic and open space character of the recreational opportunities. The AquaHelio project rests juxtaposed to the tourism entry pathway for both arenas, significantly impacting initial perceptions. In its current design, the proposed project will completely pinch the scenic corridor and reformat these perceptions.
Unfortunately, the Kern County Planning Department hasn’t proactively developed tourism modeling nor built tourism corridors into its land use planning. This, despite the fact Red Rock Canyon State Park was established in large part due to the persistent nudging of local civic associations and governmental bodies. As early as 1928 both the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Civic Commercial Association of Bakersfield actively promoted the establishment of a park at Red Rock Canyon.
Red Rock Canyon remains one of the signature parks of the California State Park System. It is as important to science as it is to public enjoyment, relaxation and appreciation. By example, 30 species new to science have first been named from Red Rock Canyon discoveries, several within recent decades.
Eastern Kern County represents an impressive rural landscape, which currently reflects the American heritage of westward expansion. The landscape retains enough pristine character to easily envision Native Americans in their homeland. With strategic planning and promotion Kern County could sell a vision of the Old West, where one can still imagine stagecoaches rambling over the dusty terrain or the toils of weary gold rush immigrants. Eastern Kern currently enjoys significant recreational tourism, even in the virtual absence of attractive interpretive thematic messaging.
The community of Ridgecrest, having recognized this potential, promotes itself as a gateway to Death Valley and this year has created a signature Rock Art Festival designed to celebrate local heritage and attract tourists. In addition, Ridgecrest, like most of eastern Kern County, benefits from continued Hollywood filming. The beauty, hues, and textures of our local desert landscape have inspired constant use by the film and television industries. Within Red Rock Canyon alone in excess of 150 motion pictures containing canyon imagery are documented from the silent picture era onwards.
In fact, Ridgecrest is actually well situated to capitalize on both the prevalence of motion picture history as well as these pristine vistas reminiscent of earlier times. Ridgecrest could sport an imaginative film festival, anchored by city infrastructure, which involved touring both prominent motion picture locales and simultaneously historic mining encampments and old stagecoach trails; in other words a unique event celebrating both the real and the mythic West.
Kern County, and the desert Kern communities, have never fully analyzed such economic potential, nor pursued an integrated strategy identifying the essential elements of economic development, to ensure that such potential is not degraded by unharmonious development.
Planned and managed growth offers potential to both entice and attract development, while simultaneously preserving unhindered tourism economics.
Unfortunately, the proposed AquaHelio project when implemented not only will irrevocably impact current tourism aesthetics, but additionally unmet potential. The harshness of this transition will degrade tourist’s impressions and impinge upon the intrinsic values Kern County has yet to fully capitalize in pursuit of its economic favor. Planning departments should at minimum buffer non-harmonious landscapes from direct connection.
It is also imperative that our planning agencies abide by prior commitments made to local, and in this case our statewide, citizens. Today, most innovative communities see their physical setting as an attribute to their way of life. We must embrace and celebrate our desert ecosystems for the values they intrinsically possess. We must view the open spaces as wonderfully rich vistas providing visions of expansive sunsets; a landscape where we can exhale and let problems drift away. We must sell prospective businesses and residents on the beauty of our theater, and not conversely treat it as a curse.
In the Information Age, with so much fast moving data, branding, especially proactive branding and marketing, is an increasingly essential commodity. If you don’t define yourself – proactively – others will. Will our actions convey our theater as an inhospitable, expendable wasteland or will we uphold our terrains as a destination wonderland?
In our noble race to achieve energy independence and a sustainable climate we cannot afford haphazard short-term decisions. Why would we want to undercut our heritage landscape economy? Why not celebrate, promote, market and enhance our natural and cultural treasures as an asset of our wonderful renewable tourism economy.
A native of northern California, Mark Faull moved to the eastern Kern County region in 1984. For 20 years Mark worked at Red Rock Canyon State Park before retiring from California State Parks in 2004. His passion for and understanding of park values continues, as well as his study of the fascinating local human history and its connection to the desert environment.
Kumeyaay Indian Mourning Ceremony for the loss of cultural and geographic habitat for Ocotillo Wind Express Project at Ocotillo, California, June 2012
In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
on the morning and following
morning of the long, split moon night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
sponsored by Kumeyaay Indians
who for centuries, along with
Quechan and other desert people
have called this desert home
and who mourn the desecration
of sacred desert land, the blading
of old growth Ocotillo and desert
floor and ceremonial places for
a 40-story-high wind farm zone
with blades that kill desert birds,
making circles that fly nowhere
and sluice the desert heart apart
into more broken pieces than two
In June, 2012, I attended an all-night Native American mourning ceremony near the tiny town of Ocotillo, CA – located east of San Diego, where mountain meets desert – in commemoration of the loss of sacred desert sites for the construction of a massive wind tower zone. To begin with, I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to the desert Indian tribes and leaders and bird singers/dancers for offering this highly sacred ceremony to the public, which was coordinated and sponsored by Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Tribal Chairman Anthony Pico; esteemed elders from other tribes, such as Preston Arrow-Weed, of the Quechan tribe, and his wife Helen, were also present and participated in the ceremony. I would like to offer my greatest thanks and the deepest respect to our desert Indian leaders and elders and singers and people for their tireless and enduring dedication to caring for the California desert. They are an inspiration beyond inspiration to all of us, and it is in their honor that I speak today.
In June, 2012
I saw three golden eagles
along the long highway
on my way to the ceremony
on the morning of the night
of a night-long mourning ceremony
for the eagles being killed,
for the turtles being killed,
for the tall Ocotillo being killed,
for all that is being sacrificed
in the name of renewable energy
in the name of “go green”
in the name of destroying things
and we’ve gathered to heal
the wounds in our desert hearts
to try to stop the bleeding
to try to staunch the wounds
on the sacred desert ground
and so, alone, I drove
taking nothing with me
on my car’s dashboard
and moving into my own
form of road grief and prayer
I was blessed by birds.
In June, 2012, I was a wreck. It felt like both my personal life and my beloved, lifelong homeland, the Mojave and other California deserts, were being torn apart. My only child, Tarah, had just left home for Ft. Lewis Washington, where she was drinking herself into a numbed stupor as a way to cope while my son-in-law Alex was on a year-long tour of Afghanistan with the Army. I was also reeling from the recent loss of my partner to suicide. My life was being jerked up and down by severe losses, and it had become more than I could bear; all of this paralleled the federal renewable energy land grab over desert lands I know intimately well, through my years, starting in childhood, of widely exploring, hiking, camping, exploring the California deserts, and later, working as a wildland firefighter for the BLM California Desert District.
In June, 2012
The first eagle
had landed in the center divider
of Interstate 60 in the Badlands,
and was waiting there
for me to arrive
and drive by.
He lifted slowly
when I approached,
then powered off
into the distant sky,
heavy with road kill.
In June, 2012, I was devastated to be experiencing, from an inside perspective, the onset of, metaphorically but actually pretty literal onset of heinous stage four cancer throughout the entire desert body. It was too much. I was grabbing onto hope beyond hope and trying to connect as my personal life in the desert – metaphorically and literally – was fragmented, falling apart, being destroyed, seemingly, by uncontrollable outside forces. For me, this is not “the other place” to go for kicks with somewhere else to go back to. This is home for me in the most profound and enduring and beloved way, and this is where my center is. Throughout my life, the desert has provided deep healing and inspiration and renewal no matter what challenges I’ve encountered in my life. The California and southwest deserts are also my academic and literary home; I’m a lifelong scholar and professor of desert literature, and also know the deserts intimately through the oral traditions and stories of the region’s indigenous peoples and a rich legacy of western and contemporary poetry and prose. But now, where was I to go?
And so I drove to the Mourning Ceremony in June, 2012, looking for much-needed community and healing within my own heart of hearts.
In June, 2012
the second eagle
was painted on the side of a big-rig
just a few miles down the road
on Interstate 10, huge.
It rode alongside me for miles,
with Santa Ana winds
gathering at our backs, larger
than life or windmills
And I passed the giant
blades of towers that behead
so many living things at the
hips and brow of the hills
of the open mouth
of the Colorado Desert
near Palm Springs
“This is not a protest,” Viejas Kumeyaay Chairman Anthony Pico made clear. Instead, he called for all of the hundreds of participants to come together in a time of “healing.” Viejas was one of several bands of the Kumeyaay nation represented; other San Diego bands included Barona, Sycuan, and Manzanita. Some traveled from out of state, such as those from the Navajo nation. Prayers were recited, followed by an all-night wake with ancient birdsongs and dancing to honor the generations of long ago whose consecrated ashes lie in the dust now being disturbed across the 12,500 acre Ocotillo Wind Express Project. Writer Miriam Rafferty, who attended, noted that “The mood was not one of anger, but of dignified resolve—a determination to unite all Indian nations and the public to understand the magnitude of what is being lost.”
In June, 2012
The third eagle
was a fine piece of art,
carved into the bolero tie
of Viejo Chairman
in ivory white, every
fine detail of feather
chiseled like wind hearts
against the chairman’s throat
and holding together hope
with powerful wings
battling the destruction
of wind farms on the
sacred desert floor, of
places we cannot replace
Many of my desert-based friends and associates also attended the June, 2012 ceremony; these are people who I admire greatly for their perseverance and dedication to advocating for the desert and encouraging others to do the same. It was greatly comforting for me to see so many of my desert defender friends there, and to share in the ceremony’s power with them. I’ve gathered feedback from some of them on what the June 2012 Mourning Ceremony near Ocotillo meant to them.
Pat Flanagan is a desert naturalist, educator and science curriculum writer; she attended the ceremony, and says, “Shortly after I arrived, Chairman Pico came up to me and gently told me to search within my heart for comfort and healing during the ceremony. Passing along the olla and the two baskets made with thoughtful caring hands full of memories – after they were given to me at the end of the ceremony during a giveaway – anchored me in the place and into the stream of the bird songs. And I am glad I do not have them. The gifts and the giving were what opened my heart to be a conduit for the blessings and comfort that had poured out through the long night.”
Longtime desert defender and advocate Tom Budlong, who was also there, says: ” The project is unnecessary, economically unjustifiable, a violation of our own rules in innumerable details, and most of all, disrespectful of our Native American population. We sacrifice this spot, sacred to the tribes & precious to all visitors, without being clever enough to use the vast rooftop acreage available where the power from this project will be used. It is indeed shameful. The wake was a powerful ceremony. We could learn a lot about respect from it.”
In June 2012
I’m telling you this story
because it’s true
because all three eagles
flew above our heads
while the men shook rattles
and sang bird songs
all night long from sunset
to dawn, because we all wept
on the hill by the medicine wheel
when it felt like the sun had died
Terry Frewin, dedicated desert activist who coordinates and hosts many of the Sierra Club desert committee meetings, was also there. He says, “The experience of the Kumeyaay Ceremony touched all the bases (it is World Series time). I was very humbled to be invited and acknowledged, and experienced a profound sense of sadness, as well as one of hopefulness, as I saw the variety of folks, young and old, honoring their heritage and ancestors. Simply put, the experience of the ceremony strengthened my commitment to keep doing the right thing for the desert.”
Morning, and mourning
In June 2012
the sun soon grew too warm
and the wind refused to howl
so I held a small, handmade
basket in my hands
that was gifted to me
after it was gifted
to someone else
a small basket, so empty,
and so full of bird songs
Ruth Nolan, M.A., a lifelong resident of California’s deserts, is Professor of English at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. She is editor of No Place for a Puritan: the literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009). An avid California desert defender and scholar, she is also a widely published poet and writer. She writes about the desert for KCET Artbound Los Angeles; Heyday Books; the Riverside Press Enterprise; and for many poetry and literary magazines. She worked as a wildland firefighter for the BLM California Desert District during the 1980’s.
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Soda Mountain Solar Looms Over Mojave National Preserve
The fundamental contradiction in the numerous proposals by private companies to build industrial-scale renewable energy projects and long-distance power lines on acreage administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is that the lands are public while the profits from the construction and operation (or sale) of the power plants and transmission lines accrue to large corporations. The public does gain electricity. Yet the energy would be just as available and the contradiction avoided through siting on private, previously-disturbed lands or through distributed generation at sites near where the electricity is consumed.
The contradiction is especially evident in the proposal by Soda Mountain Solar, a subsidiary of Bechtel Development Company, to site its Soda Mountain Solar project (hereafter, project) on public lands immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous U.S. at 1.6 million acres.
The proposed project is a 350-megawatt photovoltaic (PV) electric power generating plant set for siting on 4,397 acres of public land administered by the BLM some 6 miles southwest of Baker, California. The application by Soda Mountain Solar, LLC requests a right-of-way authorization to construct a solar field on 2,691 acres, a project substation, an access road, operations and maintenance buildings, and to realign approximately 3.3 miles of Rasor Road. The North Array, on the west side of Interstate 15, is proposed to end in the vicinity of the Zzyzx Road overpass. On the other side of the highway, the South Array will be situated next to the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area. The East Array is proposed for construction immediately to the north, less than one mile from the Mojave National Preserve boundary and at the base of the mountains extending into the park.
The Public Scoping Report was released in January 2013 by BLM, the lead NEPA agency for National Environmental Policy Act proceedings, and San Bernardino County, the lead CEQA agency under the California Environmental Quality Act. The letters of commentary submitted by individuals, environmental organizations, California government agencies, and such national entities as the National Park Service during the October to December 2012 scoping period and summarized in the Report delineate a host of likely environmental consequences to public lands and the Mojave National Preserve, many of which may be irreversible. The potential, significant environmental impacts include decreased spring discharge in the Soda Springs (Zzyzx) area as a result of groundwater pumping for the project, loss of habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub, loss of high-quality desert tortoise habitat, increased habitat fragmentation for desert bighorn sheep, and the loss of wildlife connectivity with the Soda Mountains. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/renewableenergy/soda_mountain.html
The consequences for the Mojave National Preserve are of special concern because the project threatens not only the particular resources and landscape that Congress mandated to be protected by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, but the very integrity of this treasured unit of the National Park System. The integrity of the Preserve — its essential quality — rests on the fact that it (a) protects a relatively intact ecosystem of the eastern Mojave Desert from threats associated with commercial development, (b) provides connectivity between other protected national areas within the Mojave desert region, and (c) provides opportunities for solitude, thereby functioning as a refuge from urban areas.
It is disingenuous to reject this argument merely because the project would be sited on the doorstep of the Mojave National Preserve rather than within its boundaries. The currently undeveloped, natural area at the northwest corner of the Mojave National Preserve where the project might be sited is effectively part of the park. This is most evident with respect to the unobstructed and dramatic view into the Preserve documented in the panoramic photo by Michael Gordon. This vista would be obscured by project buildings and PV panels attached to single-axis trackers with a minimum height of 20 feet. In order to ensure solitude for visitors and a refuge from urban areas, the National Park Service manages the Preserve to protect dark skies. A solar facility at the corner of the Preserve is incompatible with that management goal because a solar facility with all of its lighting will significantly degrade the visitor experience. The project will violate the visual integrity of the Preserve.
The proposal to site the Soda Mountain Solar project near the Mojave National Preserve and the likely consequences of that for local citizens reflect the growing income inequality in the United States, the gap between the richest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population in America. Bechtel, a transnational corporation that will profit financially from the construction of the project, is a privately-owned engineering and construction firm. Chairman and chief executive officer Riley P. Bechtel is the great grandson of founder Warren A. Bechtel and heir to the company. Riley Bechtel is consistently ranked in the top 200 richest people in the United States and among the richest men in the world. Thus a Soda Mountain Solar project will not be built adjacent to Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, site of the San Francisco-based exclusive men’s hangout known as the Bohemian Club, where members like Riley Bechtel encamp each summer. But it will be constructed on public land far from the closed-to-the-public encampment in Sonoma.
This is more than an academic argument as the public resources at risk from the project are those enjoyed by the 99 percent. Annually, some 550,000 people visit the Preserve and their experience will be impacted by Soda Mountain Solar. School children from the gate-way community of Barstow, many of whom have never been to a national park, travel via Zzyzx Road (and through the project if it is built) on National Park Service-organized field trips to the Desert Studies Center to experience the desert up close, to learn of the history and culture of the Chemehuevi, and, if they are lucky, to see the bighorn sheep that frequent the springs in the area. The Desert Studies Center, a field station of California State University, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It provides an opportunity for these children to receive instruction among natural ponds, dry lakes, and rugged mountains. Local citizens who use the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area will be impacted by the realignment of Rasor Road. The safety of the thousands who travel to and from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 may be at risk from the glare of the estimated 1.5 million PV panels that will comprise the facility. The project simply does not serve the public interest.
There is a larger, regional context for the contradiction between private and public interests revealed by the Soda Mountain Solar project. The once-dramatic view of the Ivanpah Valley on a moonlit night from atop Clark Mountain, a singular unit of Mojave National Preserve, has been altered beyond redemption by the panels, looming towers, and bright lights of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a power facility built by BrightSource Energy and Bechtel. The Iberdrola energy project, proposed for the Silurian Valley a few miles away, would, along with the Soda Mountain Solar project, interfere markedly with connectivity between Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, an essential habitat corridor with Mojave National Preserve at its biological center.
Perhaps, as with the Wall Street movement, those who care deeply about Mojave National Preserve will occupy the contested space to protect the public interest.
G. Sidney Silliman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a member of the California/Nevada Desert Committee. The arguments expressed here do not represent the views of the Committee or the University.