• BLM Reopens Parts Of Dunes That Had Been Closed For 10 Years
• A Profile Of Superintendent Mark Butler
• Proposed Development of a New City on Park’s Southern Border
• Wilderness: Our Shared Heritage And Legacy
• Architecture And Nature
• Geothermal Development In Northern Nevada
• Public Resources At Risk From Bechtel
• Current Issues
• The Colorado A River Under Stress
• Phainopepla: The Bird In The Shiny Black Robe
Download PDF (1.5 MB) or read single articles online:
• Climate Change And (Or) Desert Protection
• Grassroots Groups Sue Over Destructive Solar Policy
• Confessions Of A Late Bloomer
• The Birth Of Desert Magazine Part II
• The Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex
• From Glaciers To The Granite Mountains: Getting To Know Mojave National Preserve’s Superintendent Stephanie Dubois
• Book Review: Another Place & Time – Voices From The Carrisa Plains by Craig Deutsche
• Tales From A Ranger
• Current Issues
People Do The Darnedest Things
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Editor’s Note: the author worked for many years as a law enforcement ranger for BLM and has many interesting stories to tell of his encounters with characters he came in contact with as part of his job. His first two stories appeared in the March, 2013 issue of Desert Report. Below are two more of his stories.
The Pushawalla Bandit
Cameron Barrows was the longtime Manager of the Coachella Valley Preserve, and I enjoyed working with him.
One day, Cameron drove with me to the entrance of Pushawalla Canyon, which runs through the Preserve. It is fenced and posted against vehicle travel at both ends of the three-mile long canyon. In between is a beautiful palm oasis, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault, which forces underground water to the surface as a live stream for several hundred yards. Cameron expressed frustration that somebody in a dune buggy was regularly vandalizing this fence, then driving through the canyon.
This trespass almost always occurred during a weekend night with a full moon, and it appeared to be the same individual each time. I told Cameron that I would try to catch this violator, and it became a challenge.
On a few promising nights during the next several months, I set up a surveillance for this unknown individual, who we called the “Pushawalla Bandit”, but he did not appear. Then, early on a Sunday morning, I drove to the upper end of the canyon and noticed that the fence had been run over. There were fresh dune buggy tracks running into and out of the canyon.
It happened that there had been very little traffic on the local dirt roads this early in the morning, and I was able to follow the buggy’s tracks with only a few interruptions. The tracks led through the Indio Hills subdivision, which is a curious mixture of occasional ranch style homes and desert shacks. I passed a side road that a local resident had posted with an official-looking street sign, “ROAD TO RUIN,” Farther on, the tracks entered behind a closed gate into a large compound. I climbed a nearby hill to where I could see inside and observed two dune buggies in the yard next to a ramshackle house and tons of assorted junk.
I researched the owner of the house, a biker named “Mike.” He had a previous conviction for producing methamphetamine, but no active arrest warrants. It happened that the Preserve’s part-time maintenance worker, who repaired the fence after each of the Bandit’s incursions, knew him. I didn’t feel comfortable citing Mike for Vandalism and Entering a Closed Area, because I hadn’t actually seen anybody driving the buggy. Instead, I decided to pay Mike a courtesy call. Accompanied by a Sheriff’s Deputy, I advised Mike that his buggy had been driven in a closed area and the Preserve’s fence had been vandalized.
Mike denied doing this, instead claiming that he had been lending his buggy to some friends. He promised to be more careful in the future. I suggested that he do so, because if this happened again, he would be held responsible. Mike seems to have gotten the message, as the vandalism stopped.
The Caveman Of Morongo Valley
In 1990 I was making a diligent effort to reduce an unacceptable degree of OHV trespass in the Big Morongo Preserve, which is located in the mountains several miles north of Palm Springs.
Among other things, this is Bighorn Sheep habitat, and they can be easily disturbed and scared away from water sources by motor vehicles. With the cooperation of several adjacent landowners, many illegal vehicle entry points were fenced and patrolled, and motor vehicle trespass began to decrease.
I had heard rumors of a “Caveman” living somewhere in the Preserve, and he had supposedly been there for some 20 years.
Somebody told me that he played the organ during Sunday services in one of the local churches. I didn’t take these rumors too seriously, especially since it is very hot in the Preserve during the summer.
One day, I was walking down a ravine in the middle of the Preserve, following a recent motorcycle track. Just above a 20-foot dry waterfall, there was evidence of a vehicle crash, including broken glass from a headlight. A rope had been left dangling over the dry waterfall. I guessed that the rider had used the rope to lower his bike down the ledge, maybe after taking a spill and damaging his bike.
Walking around the ledge, I found the caveman’s lair. The cave’s entrance was covered by a vertical tarp. I looked inside, and saw the occupant had a sleeping area and a small library of religious and language books. In front of the cave was a cooking area with a campfire ring and several pots and pans. There was also a trash dump off to the side.
This location was in a side canyon about ¼ mile West of Big Morongo Canyon. Walking down towards the canyon, I encountered a man in his mid-50s. His appearance was nothing like what I expected of a “Caveman”. He had short hair, was clean-shaven, wore glasses and was wearing decent clothes. He appeared quite sociable, and presented me with an Oregon ID card when I asked him for his identification. “Rene” advised me that he had lived in this cave most of the last 17 years, leaving during summer to do farm work in Oregon. He walked out to Morongo Valley for supplies every week or two. He told me that a motorcycle rider had indeed crashed his bike above the cliff a couple of days previously, and Rene had helped him lower the bike down. The rider walked out, later returning with whatever he needed to repair his bike.
Rene was antagonistic towards the rider because it had led to his “Discovery” by the BLM.
Long term occupation on BLM land is prohibited, especially in a protected area like the Morongo Preserve. However, aside from his garbage dump, Rene was causing minimal resource damage. I offered him an unofficial deal: he could stay for now, if he would begin to reduce his garbage pile. I suggested that he pack out some of his trash each time he hiked out for supplies. Rene said he would consider what to do, but he was unhappy about his cave being discovered, which would spoil the isolation he had enjoyed for years.
I returned a couple of weeks later, and Rene had abandoned the cave and removed his property. He had left his trash. Later, the Preserve Manager, her boyfriend and I drove as close as we could to the cave and carried out several bags of accumulated garbage.
The Caveman was not heard from again.
Footnote: I later stopped and cited the motorcycle rider referred to in this story, on one of his subsequent rides through the Preserve.
Edward Patrovsky has been a Sierra Club member since 1970, when he worked on the early campaign for the Sheep Mountain Wilderness in the Angeles National Forest. Ed was a National Park Ranger for many years, transferring to the BLM in 1988 where he worked for BLM’s Palm Springs and Ridgecrest offices until his retirement in 2004. He was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee to the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission in January 2013.
Four Distinct Environments In Southern Nevada
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Editor’s note: This year, National Wildlife Refuge Week is October 13-19. This annual event recognizes the nation’s 560 national wildlife refuges and falls on the second full week in October. Many refuges host public celebrations during this time.
Many visitors to southern Nevada, as well as residents, are surprised to learn that there are four national wildlife refuges in the area. Obviously, Lake Mead and Red Rock Canyon are well-known attractions, but the area’s national wildlife refuges are frequently overlooked. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the four refuges comprising the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex are located within a 90-mile radius of Las Vegas. They are home to numerous endemic species of plants and animals, some of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Desert Complex refuges are among the 560 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). The NWRS mission is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
The four wildlife refuges hosted only 130,000 visitors in Fiscal Year 2012 — a small number considering that they are located relatively close to nearly two million people living in the Las Vegas metropolitan area (the Desert NWR is only 15 miles north of the city). So, the USFWS continues to encourage people to connect with nature and learn more about the work being done to protect endangered species and their habitats. Public access to the refuges is free of charge.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located in Nye County, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1984 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act.
It comprises approximately 24,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands and desert uplands that provide habitat for at least 24 plant and animal species that occur nowhere else in the world. The refuge is recognized as a wetland of international importance.
There are four species of endemic and endangered desert fish at Ash Meadows: the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, the Warm Springs pupfish, the Ash Meadows speckled dace, and the Devil’s Hole pupfish. (Devil’s Hole is located within the refuge boundaries, but it is managed by the National Park Service as part of Death Valley National Park.) Approximately 340 species of plants can be found on the refuge — one is listed as endangered and six as threatened. The listed plants are endemic to Ash Meadows, which means they are found nowhere else in the world. Also, nearly 300 species of birds have been reported on the refuge. Birders and photographers flock to the refuge during the spring and fall for a glimpse of their favorite bird(s).
Visitors can also follow three different boardwalks, which offer close-up views of rare pupfish, relics from prehistoric Indians, and even an old stone cabin built in 1895 by the mysterious gunslinger Jack Longstreet.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge, only 15 miles north of Las Vegas, was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the protection, preservation, and management of desert bighorn sheep and other native flora and fauna. The 1.6-million-acre refuge is the largest in the lower 48 states. It contains six mountain ranges and seven distinct life zones, with elevations ranging from 2,200 feet on valley floors to nearly 10,000 feet in the Sheep Range. The variations in elevation and rainfall have created diverse habitats. Visitors will see everything from Joshua trees and creosote bushes to piñon pines, junipers and ponderosa pines.
The land that is now the Desert NWR has been home to people for thousands of years, from Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) to ranch homesteaders. Nonetheless, the refuge remains largely unchanged by human hands. More than 1.3 million acres of the refuge are proposed as wilderness, and have been managed as de facto wilderness since 1974. Visitors can see collared lizards, hunt for tracks of elusive mountain lions, get a glimpse of bighorn sheep and mule deer, or grab their binoculars for a better look at 320 bird species. Camping and hiking opportunities abound.
Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge is located on just 116 acres in northeastern Clark County, approximately 60 miles north of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1979 under the authority of the Endangered Species Act to secure habitat for the endangered Moapa dace. The small fish is commonly found throughout the headwaters of the Muddy River system. Dace populations were in decline due to habitat destruction and modification. Competition with introduced species such as mosquitofish and shortfin molly, as well as the appearance of non-native tilapia, contributed to the dace’s decline. As more and more habitat is restored and non-native species are removed, the fish is rebounding. Recent population surveys show a healthy increase in numbers. The dace are counted twice each year. Scientists snorkel through every reach and tally the dace they see. The most recent count, conducted August 6-7, 2013, determined there were 1,727 Moapa dace in the streams — roughly 46 percent more dace than were counted in August 2012.
Due to its small size, fragile habitats, and on-going restoration work, the wildlife refuge is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the fall, winter and spring. During those times, visitors can follow trails that offer glimpses of the Moapa dace and other aquatic wildlife, as well as panoramic views of the refuge and the adjacent Warm Springs Natural Area.
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is in central Lincoln County, 90 miles north of Las Vegas. The refuge was established in 1963 under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act to protect habitat for migrating birds in the Pahranagat Valley.
The 5,382-acre refuge consists of marshes, meadows, lakes, and upland desert habitat. It is located in the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route through the western United States.
It provides nesting, resting, and feeding areas for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and song birds (including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher). Nourished by the waters of Crystal and Ash Springs, the refuge offers ideal wetlands and riparian habitats for thousands of migratory birds, birds of prey, deer, and rare fish.
Pahranagat NWR’s many recreational opportunities will bring visitors into close proximity with this diverse array of wildlife.
Notably, 264 bird species have been recorded on the refuge, making it a popular destination for birders and photographers.
Hiking trails cross through five different habitat types, giving visitors the opportunity to see meadows, marshes, lakes, streams and desert within a single afternoon visit. Hunting and fishing are also popular activities, and for those interested in experiencing this desert oasis at night, camping is available at Upper Pahranagat Lake.
Millions of people come to Las Vegas each year for the entertainment and bright lights on the Strip. If you are looking for something a little different, please consider visiting one of the national wildlife refuges in southern Nevada. If you plan such a day trip, prepare to be surprised by what you see.
Dan Balduini is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office. He has nearly 40 years of communications experience in broadcast journalism and public affairs. He joined FWS in April 2009.
How You Can Help
With budgets continuing to shrink, the Desert Complex relies heavily on volunteers to help with the important work on the refuges. Volunteers assist staff with everything from visitor services and environmental education to habitat restoration and maintenance. Desert Complex volunteers contributed 21,714 hours in FY2012 — equivalent to more than 10 full-time employees. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to contact Harry Konwin via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or by telephone (702-515-5494). Another way to get involved is to join the Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuges). This private organization is dedicated to supporting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in southern Nevada through advocacy, stewardship, and outreach.
What Happens When You Talk Around Campfires And Hike Up Desert Peaks
“Let’s sell the Herald,” Randall finally said. “And I’ll dispose of the Chronicle. It’ll give us some limited capital to get started.” “Yes,” agreed the young McKenney. He was sure that it was the right thing to do.
Eventually, the men reached what seemed to be the peak in the Santa Rosa Mountains. From their lofty point it seemed possible to toss pebbles into the barren desert cove below.
A decision was made at that moment to start a desert magazine that would embody this vision and feeling they had about the desert and to establish it in the open desert below that would become Palm Desert in ten years.
But the actual Palm Desert location for the enterprise would have to wait. A little over a year after their trip into the Santa Rosa Mountains, the two launched Desert Magazine in El Centro, California in November of 1937. In the first issue, Randall Henderson stated the mission of the magazine in a famous article titled “There Are Two Deserts.” Henderson observed that there are two deserts: “One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insects, of vicious thorn-covered plants and trees, and of unbearable heat. This is the desert seen by the stranger speeding along the highway, impatient to be out of ‘this damnable country.’ It is the desert visualized by those children of luxury to whom any environment is unbearable which does not provide all of the comforts and services of a pampering civilization.
It is a concept fostered by fiction writers who dramatize the tragedies of the desert for the profit it will bring them. But the stranger and the uninitiated see only the mask. The other Desert— the real Desert-—is not for the eyes of the superficial observer, or the fearful soul or the cynic. It is a land, the character of which is hidden except to those who come with friendliness and understanding. To these the Desert offers rare gifts: health-giving sunshine—a sky that is studded with diamonds—a breeze that bears no poison—a landscape of pastel colors such as no artist can duplicate—thorn-covered plants which during countless ages have clung tenaciously to life through heat and drought and wind and the depredations of thirsty animals, and yet each season send forth blossoms of exquisite coloring as a symbol of courage that has triumphed over terrifying obstacles. To those who come to the Desert with friendliness, it gives friendship; to those who come with courage, it gives new strength of character. Those seeking relaxation find release from the world of man-made troubles. For those seeking beauty, the Desert offers nature’s rarest artistry.
This is the Desert that men and women learn to love.” The magazine is published out of El Centro for a number of years but in November of 1944, the two men move the publishing operations from El Centro to Palm Desert and into a famous adobe building that became known as the Desert Magazine Building. It was right at the beginning of a new street called El Paseo in Palm Desert created by Randall’s brother Clifford as the cornerstone for his new town. The brothers were very different. Clifford was the great developer of the desert and Randall the great conservationist of the desert. The magazine was published from this location for twenty years into the late 60s, when Randall sold the operation and retired to write his memoirs of his amazing life. Randall Henderson passed away on July 6, 1970. He was 82 years old.
Today, Desert Magazine is considered one of the greatest regional publications in American history and the greatest periodical the desert has ever had. Through its pages, thousands and thousands first learned about the wonders of the “other” desert that Randall first wrote about in 1937 in his famous essay. In its pages were contained the writings of a wondrous collection of characters like Steve Ragsdale, Harry Oliver and Marshal South who became the magazine’s most popular writer with his dispatches from Ghost Mountain.
Much has changed in the seventy-five years since Desert Magazine started publishing. The barren little cove the two men once looked down on is now filled with the sprawling city of Palm Desert that stretches out towards Interstate 10 and the big casino of the Aqua Caliente Indians. The Desert Magazine Building was turned into a steakhouse for a number of years and then lost its status as a historical building and is now wedged behind a modern office building. There is talk the building will be torn down to make room for some new development in the bustling desert city.
Clifford Henderson’s El Paseo has become a legendary, world-class shopping street attracting the world’s most exclusive brands to its mile long length.
Right in the middle of the El Paseo shopping district on a median strip meticulously maintained by the City of Palm Desert, there is a bronze statue of Clifford Henderson and a plaque recognizing him (in effect) as Mr. Palm Desert. A few miles away, right off the Palm to Palms Highway (now a busy road with a steady stream of traffic coming and going down towards San Diego) is a plaque recognizing Randall Henderson as Mr. Desert. The two designations for the brothers are appropriate. Clifford Henderson promoted his town in the desert while Randall always promoted just the desert.
The plaque for Randall Henderson is appropriately on a desert boulder at the beginning of the Randall Henderson Trail. The trail meanders through a small canyon in the beginning foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. It is rated as an easy hike in Philip Ferranti’s local hiking guide. But still, a forty-minute hike will take you to a ridge where you can see ten miles into Palm Springs at the bottom of the mighty San Jacinto Mountain in the west and Indian Wells and Eisenhower Peak in the east.
While the view from the ridge at the top of the Randall Henderson Trail is not the view Henderson and McKenney saw from the top of the mountain in 1936, it does serve to inspire visitors and tourists who want a quick escape from the golf courses, restaurants, hotels and shops of Palm Desert, who want to get away like Randall Henderson from the “comforts and services of a pampering civilization” and see the world with new eyes if only for a few minutes between the demands of electric screens and buzzing devices.
But for the more hearty hikers, Palm Desert today contains one of the greatest collections of trails of any city in America.
There is the Bump & Grind Trail that rises right behind the local Target store and gets your heart pumping within two minutes out from the trailhead. There is the Art Smith Trail that relentlessly ascends high up into the Santa Rosa Mountains right across the road from the Randall Henderson Trail. There is the Hopalong Cassidy Trail that runs along the rim of the Santa Rosa foothills above the exclusive Big Horn community. In large part the trails of Palm Desert (and all of Coachella Valley) are testaments to the vision of Desert Magazine and the spirit and passion of Randall Henderson.
And, although much has changed in the seventy-five years since Desert Magazine started publishing, there still seem to exist those two deserts Randall Henderson observed in his first editorial for Desert Magazine. There still is the “mask” of the real desert seen by “the stranger and the uninitiated” and the “superficial observer.” But under the mask, there is still the real desert, its character hidden except to those who come with friendliness and understanding.” There will always be these two deserts of Randall Henderson because there will always be these two deserts that wage perpetual battle inside all of us. The visible “mask” of the outside cultural world and the invisible, hidden world of nature behind the mask.
On certain days when the winds have kicked up dust in the Coachella Valley, a pinkish haze hovers between the two centurion peaks of Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio and the haze in the pass through Banning takes on the quality of some boundary line between civilization and nature so that Los Angeles seems much further away than just two hours west behind the pink haze.
Five years before Randall Henderson ventured to California inside the empty cattle car, the art critic and early desert explorer John Van Dyke wrote “The desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years. It never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover.” In Randall Henderson, the desert finally has both a lover and a sacred poet.
John Fraim is President of GreatHouse Marketing Strategy and GreatHouse Images in Palm Desert, California. He grew up in Los Angeles and has been coming to the desert since he was a few years old. He has a B.A. in History from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School and is the author of Spirit Catcher: The Life & Art of John Coltrane, Battle of Symbols and Editor of Point Zero Bliss as well as many articles and essays.
Getting To Know Mojave National Preserve’s Superintendent Stephanie Dubois
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Mojave National Preserve’s Superintendent Stephanie Dubois believes that building a relationship with the land is the best way to help save special places like the Mojave National Preserve, but that it’s also important to engage with people who may not share your views or love of nature. Jane Goodall, in her book Reason for Hope, said she was devoting the rest of her life to education, and she implored us to talk about what’s important to us with people that are not like us.
Stephanie Dubois’ life work has been shaped by her passion for learning and experiences in nature. “The more you know the more you know there is to know,” says Dubois when reminiscing about her childhood and education. She grew up in an air force family that moved around the country, but was shaped by her experience living in South Dakota’s Black Hills. In the remote Black Hills, Stephanie remembers cutting her first Christmas tree, collecting rocks and seeing wild bison.
Dubois’s love of learning, the outdoors and the environment blossomed into a career with the National Park Service after earning a degree in botany. “I wasn’t really cut out to be a scientist, but what I loved about botany and ecology was the wonder of it,” says Dubois. She developed her wanderlust after reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie.
Mojave National Preserve’s fourth Superintendent has worked in a variety of national parks, including Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Chaco Culture National Historic Park and Glacier National Park, where she has held leadership positions. Most of her background is in education and interpretation, but she also spent three years working in law enforcement, which taught her valuable lessons about keeping visitors and park staff safe.
Dubois’s work at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was particularly important in her development as a leader in the National Park Service. She sees a lot of parallels between that park and Mojave National Preserve, which were both about 20 years old when she arrived. “What delights me is that Mojave’s staff is so willing to explore what needs to be done without worrying about whose job it should be,” says Dubois. “Our staff examines an issue and then asks the question, ‘What do we need to do to get there?’”
Dubois is drawn to the big stories of place. Glen Canyon’s story, according to Dubois, was really about how much are we willing to sacrifice to live a comfortable lifestyle. The Canyon was a beautiful and remote desert area that was flooded in order to develop energy and water resources. Dubois sees a parallel between what happened years ago at Glen Canyon and the decisions we are making about renewable energy in the California desert today. “We are moving forward to reduce our carbon footprint as a nation, but it doesn’t seem like we are very good at reflecting on when it’s worth it and when it isn’t.”
Another formative experience was her work as Superintendent of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which enhanced her respect for all cultures. Dubois was fascinated with the deep cultural history of Chaco Canyon. “Every one of the tribes had a different view of the importance of Chaco Canyon for their culture,” states Dubois. While archaeologists say there is evidence that tells the story of the Ancestral Puebloan people one way, Native American tribes have their own distinct views.
Superintendent Dubois thinks that Mojave National Preserve’s most important resources are its vastness, water resources, and the rich history and cultures of the people who have called the Preserve home. She believes strongly that we are all responsible for protecting these values from threats that are present in the desert Southwest such as the drawdown of water resources, encroachment by renewable energy projects, other forms of external development, climate change and ever shrinking park budgets.
Dubois would like to see the Preserve’s education programs expand and continue to and involve school kids by teaching them about the unique ecology and history of the region. She’d also like to have an internship program that could house interns in the Preserve and bring on budding college students from Barstow, Victorville and Las Vegas who want to gain real-life experience about resource management and interpretation.
Dubois hopes that such a program could build connections between the new generation and the Preserve. Remembering a trip to Macedonia Canyon that introduced her to the wonders of the Mojave Preserve, Stephanie recounts, “It was a rediscovery and I was enchanted by the canyon’s rock walls and barrel cacti. One thing I like about the desert is that it is much more than it appears.”
Seth Shteir is California Desert Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Assn.
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Almost every Sierra Club volunteer who loves the desert knows Craig Deutsche. Either they have talked with him at Desert Committee meetings, or written articles for him when he was Managing Editor of Desert Report (he still serves as a Co-Editor), or have worked alongside him pulling fences somewhere in the 400 square miles of Carrizo Plain National Monument, where he regularly leads volunteer outings. Now Craig has done all of us another great service. He has combined his love of conversation, his love of language, his love of stories, his love of the land, and his particular love for the Carrisa Plains into a new book, Another Place & Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains.
No, I’m not misusing spellchecker.
On page seven of Another Place & Time, I learned that the locals call this central California valley ‘Carrisa,’ while the formal designation is ‘Carrizo,’ the Spanish word for a tall reed, and that Carrisa is a plural plains but Carrizo is only a singular one. Set half way between San Luis Obispo to the west and Bakersfield to the east, the area’s history (and even its checkered spelling variations) encapsulates rural settlement throughout the American West. Optimistic ranchers and sheepherders and farmers established themselves there first, saw their livelihoods swing metronomically between boom and bust, and finally watched their children and grandchildren move away. Families dispersed; the land was subdivided; and then the terrain was put back together again, as the Nature Conservancy worked with the Department of the Interior to preserve what is now a national monument.
Some years ago Craig went there as a volunteer, and his heart never left. Chatting with the few remaining old-timers and some of their children and grandchildren, he found himself intrigued by their attachment to this special place. He met Jackie Czapla, who works at the Visitors Center and who had once begun interviewing some of the people still living in the valley. Talking together, they decided to combine forces. Craig and Jackie would renew her project, tracking down as many past and present residents as they could find, finding second and third generation survivors, and talking with them about the Carrisa Plains and its history. The result is Craig’s newly-published book, Another Place & Time. It combines fifty-five interviews with Craig’s own journey of discovery, and it preserves an invaluable slice of California lore, old and new.
Rather than replicating their interviews word for word, Craig presents the Carrisa history in his own voice. The book narrates his personal treasure hunt to find the relevant people, to trace some secret off-road places, and to synthesize the essence of Carrisa stories that he and Jackie heard. As Craig explains, “In some sense, I was looking to find roots of my own. The stories of childhood games, the summers exploring outdoors, and even high school years resonated with my own memories. I was being drawn more and more into the past and into the world of the Carrisa Plains.” Using every investigative technique he could imagine, asking everyone he met for the names of other contacts, and often just calling strangers on the telephone, Craig slowly developed a taxonomy of Carrisa voices. But he wisely decided not to print the interviews word for word. Instead, he was more creative.
Once Craig decided to filter his material through his own eyes, he then had to make another key determination. Another Place & Time is designed thematically, not chronologically. It begins with the earliest settlers, and then tells about the lives of the farmers, the ranchers, and the sheepherders. In its second section, the narrative expands to include the communities, the children, and the matriarchs.
Because of this design, the book often loops back on itself, revisiting one family in several different places. That doesn’t mean it is repetitious, however. Craig keeps the narrative moving smoothly, so the reader is never confused.
As I write this review, I muse about which particular voices I should mention. The reader meets some firsthand and others only through recollections. Nonetheless, I felt like I knew each one personally, as I’m sure Craig intended. One of my favorites was Aunt Lottie, a trained nurse who functioned almost as a country doctor.
Many people remembered times when she saved the day, setting broken bones, sewing up cuts and gashes, prescribing some home remedy to cure a cold or a fever.
Or here’s Rick Hudson, thinking about his boyhood, a five-year-old living on the ranch, who “milks cows, feeds chickens, gathers eggs, cleans corrals, and works right alongside Grandma and Grandpa.’” Or Debbie Beck, a new bride who found moving from the city to the plains as “Shocking, utterly and totally shocking.” Or the brothers, Ian and Eben MacMillan, self-taught naturalists who were some of the first preservationist voices coming from the Carrisa Plains. Some people spoke of more happiness and success than others, but not one of the interviewees, ever, used the word ‘hardship.’ Rather, the watchword was ‘community,’ helping each other in time of need. The plains was truly special.
I encourage everyone reading this Desert Report review to buy Craig’s new book. Fascinating people populate all of its pages. And if you’re a friend of Craig, you’ll learn more about him, too. Best of all, however, you’ll discover a wealth of information about the history and the landscape of the Carrisa Plains. If you haven’t been there already, Another Place & Time will surely make you want to visit soon. Perhaps Craig had some unspoken goals in mind as he wrote this wonderful book. Might he hope to build a volunteer workforce that just won’t stop? Will his readers become a vast collection of voices that will urge further Carrisa protection? I don’t mean to imply that Craig wrote the book with any ulterior motives in mind, because Another Time & Place is truly a labor of love. The reader finishes it, however, not only with a sense of that love but also with a sense of urgency. We must not lose such places, not at all.
Ann Ronald, now retired from the University of Nevada in Reno, is a long-time Sierra Club member who has written many books about the American West.
How Sahara Mustard Changes More Than Just Landscapes
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
It’s a 2-mile drive down a dirt road from my house in the Borrego Valley desert to the paved main drag. Tubb Canyon Road is a 2-mile corrugated ribbon stretching in a straight line from where the Peninsular Mountains meet the desert floor, down the Tubb Canyon bajada, to form a “T” with the paved road. Driving this dirt road at low speed is a teeth-chattering experience that could dislodge fillings, but at 45 miles per hour it’s smooth as silk.
How many times on my way to golf did I streak past my neighbors along this road as they were laboring under a warmish winter sun doing God-only-knowswhat.
They had said something about a “terrible weed invading the desert that had to be stopped before it was too late.
Really bad!” Other friends had said something along the same lines; but I thought, “Really? How bad could it be? The desert is enormous. How could anything as insubstantial as a weed threaten anything as huge, as timeless, as death-defying as the desert. Really?” (This last word to be pronounced with that unmistakable, high-pitched note of incredulity so often employed by my younger friends).
On Sunday, March 27, 2011, after another fast trip down Tubb Canyon Road to golf and back up, my partner and I decided to streak down one more time to look at the wildflower fields at the north end of the Borrego Valley. It would be a shame to miss one of the extraordinary phenomena of springtime in the desert: hundreds of acres of yellow desert sunflowers, purple sand verbena, and white desert primrose— an incredible display of natural beauty in a landscape most people consider to be a dead wasteland. We had been privy to this desert secret for over two decades, and it was time to see it again.
We headed toward a landmark known as the Angel of Coyote Mountain. From a great distance, and with the eyes squinted just right, what is actually an enormous landslide exposing light colored rock looks like a giant angelic figure gesturing to the north. At least that’s what the first Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, is reported to have thought as he passed through the valley in December 1775 searching for a route to San Francisco. De Anza and his party followed the angel’s gesture and, as most people tell the story, were lost for the next six months.
Looking for neither San Francisco nor salvation, we used the Angel of Coyote Mountain as a landmark to lead us to the largest wildflower fields in the valley. In good years these fields at the foot of Coyote Mountain were hundreds of acres of golden desert sunflowers, rivaling in intensity (ironically enough, as you will soon see) the brilliant yellow mustard fields of Burgundy.
This time, as we drew closer to the Angel, there were no fields of yellow. Not every year has the right combination of moisture and temperature to bring forth wildflowers, so we assumed this was just not a good year. Still, there was a sense of disappointment as we parked on the shoulder of the road—a few sand verbena here and there, one or two desert primrose, but nothing like the endless sea of desert sunflowers we had hoped for. Strangely enough though, the fields were not brown with dry vegetation like in previous years of few wildflowers.
What we saw this year were hundreds of acres of something green, something thick, something three feet tall with pale yellow flowers so small as to not really register as flowers at all. We got out of the car to explore and came upon a small sign explaining that the half-acre plot in front of us was a “demonstration project” of the benefits of the early and consistent eradication of Sahara mustard.
What we were seeing pierced me as if the Angel on the other side of the field had hurled a lightning bolt through my chest. That half-acre demonstration plot was sickly and pathetic, like Hope struggling to crawl out of Pandora’s box. It was surrounded by hundreds of acres of something powerful, vibrant, and devastating.
That “something”, I now realized, was healthy, green Sahara mustard plants, each with thousands of seeds. Sahara mustard had in the space of a couple of years utterly devastated—or, as biologists like to say, “type-converted” – hundreds of acres of native habitat into a monoculture of itself. Not only were the ephemeral wildflowers gone, but the hearty creosote bushes and jumping cholla were dying: each plant surrounded, strangled, by Sahara mustard.
Standing in the middle of the field, looking for survivors, I became aware of my tears. Tears for the devastation of beauty that had been on display here for centuries, tears for the magnitude and completeness of the destruction. It was all gone. My desperate mind reached for those far too easy questions, “Who let this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t they do something about this?” And then it got worse. On the somber ride back to Tubb Canyon, now that I could identify the plant, I could see Sahara mustard everywhere. It was along the shoulders of the paved roads. It was growing in residential areas and in the yards of businesses along the main street in town. It was even growing in the decorative planters at the mall! This time, driving 5 miles per hour up Tubb Canyon Road, I could see it growing in patches even there.
I then realized the enormous area of desert 2-3 miles south of Tubb Canyon Road in the middle of state park property, which for years had turned green before everything else each spring, was probably Sahara mustard. But there were patches even closer to home, fingers of infestation emanating from the state park. Four or five fingers extended a mile or two, the longest one crossing Tubb Canyon Road onto a neighbor’s property. Now I knew what my neighbors had been doing, and the battle they were fighting.
That Sunday afternoon in March was the beginning, the awakening, my Helen-Keller-at-the-water-pump moment, when awareness flashes into existence, when that which before was only vaguely seen or felt becomes distinct, clear, and compelling.
Most importantly, it brought an answer to my heart’s desperate question as I stood in the midst of devastation, “Who let this happen?” To say that it was I who had let this happen would be a little too grandiose, but it contains a grain of truth: I certainly had done nothing to prevent it from happening, and my willful ignorance had offered no resistance to the unfolding biological catastrophe. My complicity and willful ignorance ended that day.
Some thoughtful friends pointed out that it took “having some skin in the game,” (i.e. biological devastation on my doorstep) to wake me up. I initially took this as either criticism or skepticism of my motivation. But I have since come to realize that having skin in the game is what provides the energy for sustained action—a parent protecting his child, a farmer protecting her land, any of us protecting our home. Without skin in the game, “conservation” and “ecology” remain abstractions, incapable of generating the kind of energy and sustained effort necessary for today’s challenges. Just as the wildflowers require the right combination of moisture and temperature, that Sunday afternoon brought together the right combination of elements for a new awareness to blossom in my consciousness.
Sahara mustard had in the space of a couple of years utterly devastated— or, as biologists like to say, “typeconverted” – hundreds of acres of native habitat into a monoculture of itself. Not only were the ephemeral wildflowers gone, but the hearty creosote bushes and jumping cholla were dying: Each plant surrounded, strangled, by Sahara mustard.
With a newfound reservoir of energy, the politics of organizing friends, neighbors, and community members flowed easily into the formation of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy, an organization dedicated to furthering all avenues of eradicating Sahara mustard. In the two years of our existence we have navigated the IRS shoals of non-profit formation (thank God we were not the Tea Party Conservancy!), raised money, underwritten research performed by the University of California Cooperative Extension, created a website (www.tubbcanyondesertconservancy.org), developed a web-based application for mapping volunteer eradication projects via smart phones and iPads, partnered with University of California, Irvine researchers for NSF grants, and we have pulled Sahara mustard! For each of the last two years we have sponsored a team of young volunteers from AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) to spend two months with us pulling Sahara mustard from selected areas on public and private lands. We have cleared and defended perimeters around native desert flora and intend to expand restored habitat, sector by sector.
The problem of Sahara mustard is enormous, stretching from California to Texas and from Utah to central Mexico. Although it is clear that my neighbors and I have not stopped the devastation, we have taken a stand. We are no longer waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue. We have realized our choice is stark: stand by and do nothing or realize that we are the cavalry and do what we can in our sphere of influence. I hope everyone who has had a similar blossoming of consciousness will join us in combating this threat to biodiversity, before the deserts of the Southwest experience a true Silent Spring.
There are those who think the challenge we have taken on is impossible. “The genie is out of the jar,” they say. “The geographic expanse is too large.” “The genetic proximity of Sahara mustard to commercial crops is too close.” “There will never be a solution.” In response to such thinking, I try to remember that “impossible” and “never” are positions of the moment. There were those who thought it “impossible” for a ragtag bunch of farmers to defeat the most powerful nation in the world during the American Revolution.
And for centuries it was clear man would never fly, much less go to the Moon. Admittedly, ours is a very different challenge: but with the awareness that blossomed that Sunday in March 2011, I can no longer let a little thing like impossibility stand in the way of trying.
David Garmon is a founding director and President of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy. He holds an AB in Molecular Biology from Princeton University and an MD from the University of Arkansas. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and is engaged in fulltime practice in San Diego, California where he lives with his partner and two yellow labs. Most recently, he is the proud recipient of AmeriCorps NCCC Pacific Region’s 2013 Sponsor of the Year Award.
Continuing Efforts To Protect The Desert From Industrial-Scale Solar
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Over the past few years, Desert Report readers have learned steadily more about the terrible impacts of the Obama Interior Department’s industrial-solar invasion of our desert ecosystems and about the unexamined alternatives for renewable energy development that could spare these public lands.
Many of us were initially ambivalent about taking on the issue, knowing that renewable energy was the right path to follow, and not yet understanding the severity of what was coming.
Thanks to Obama’s fast-tracking of industrial solar projects through lavish subsidies and expedited permitting, the ugly truth soon revealed itself. For my organization–with a mission to keep public land public–it was not possible to turn away from the issue when we realized that the policy promoted by Interior is essentially privatizing our public land: desert sites are scraped raw, utterly transformed, and fenced off. The land may be leased rather than sold, but there is no getting it back—for even if a solar plant is dismantled after the 30- to 50-year life of its permit, from a land-use perspective it has been permanently industrialized and from an ecological perspective it cannot be restored. The impacts of Big Solar on public lands could doom whatever chance desert ecosystems may have to remain functional in the face of climate change.
With the help of long-time desert activists and solar energy wonks, we formed Solar Done Right, a coalition focused on both illuminating the environmental destruction and waste associated with industrial-scale solar and raising public awareness of distributed generation (DG)—the localized, efficient, democratic, and cost-effective alternative that puts solar on rooftops and in the built environment. We camped out in the desert to bear witness to an ecosystem in peril, then flew to Washington D.C. to educate law-and policy-makers and urge a change in course. We published papers and op-eds; gave presentations and media interviews; strategized with grassroots groups; and exhorted the national environmental organizations to get on the right side of the issue.
We did not expect these efforts to result in a quick change in policy, as the issue of renewable energy development has presented obstacles that make it especially challenging. Here, the entrenched interests of corporations, the Democratic Party, major environmental organizations, and the big foundations have aligned to support the industrialization of our desert public lands and have formed a bulwark of misinformation and false choices in support of Big Solar.
Our latest action brings us head-to-head against the Administration and its policy: Western Lands Project, the Desert Protective Council, and Western Watersheds Project have filed a legal challenge against the Interior Department’s decision to keep 19 millions of acres of public land available to industry for utility-scale solar plants.
Western Lands Staff Attorney Chris Krupp is representing the plaintiffs.
The complaint filed on February 12, 2013 cited the government’s failure to consider alternatives that would focus solar development on degraded lands and in the alreadybuilt environment. The government’s analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) ignored alternative approaches that would be far less damaging to the environment, more efficient, and less costly to taxpayers and ratepayers.
WRONG FROM THE START
In May 2008, the Interior and Energy departments initiated an effort that would result in a policy for siting industrial-scale solar projects on public land. The centerpiece was a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS). Like a regular environmental impact statement (EIS), this would look at alternatives—but beyond the single-project, site-specific analysis in a regular EIS, its goal would be to arrive at an overall framework for the government’s permitting of solar projects.
Soon after this, Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made solar development on public land a top priority and one of his highest-profile issues, heralding an approach he called “smart from the start.” The Bureau of Land Management, an agency of Interior, manages the lands involved and was in charge of the PEIS effort. Initially, the BLM focused on identifying Solar Energy Zones—defined areas within which solar development would be permitted—in six southwestern states, adding up to some 670,000 acres.
The expectation was that these zones would bear the brunt of solar development and that their establishment signaled a genuine intention to limit the amount of public land open to industrialization. To the contrary, however, the draft PEIS identified a “preferred alternative” that would keep 22 million acres open, and the supplemental draft PEIS opened 21.5 million.
The final plan’s preferred alternative was to keep 19 million acres open, and designate solar energy zones on a little less than 300,000 acres, in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
Permits for development in the zones would be streamlined, while those in the larger acreage would require a variance.
Then-Interior Secretary Salazar signed off on the plan on October 12, 2012, before retiring in April 2013.
Our lawsuit asserts that BLM violated NEPA by failing to examine two additional alternatives: a distributed generation (DG) alternative, and another in which solar energy facilities would be sited on previously degraded or damaged lands. During the PEIS comment periods, we, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, called for analysis of these alternatives, but BLM ignored them. In fact, through a program called “Repowering America’s Lands,” EPA has identified and created a database of contaminated and degraded lands potentially suitable for siting of renewables and including areas close to existing transmission lines. EPA requested that the BLM at the very least append information about this program to the PEIS.
Again, the agency ignored this request.
Analysis of alternatives is a central component of NEPA. Comparing the impacts of a range of alternatives is not intended simply to aid the public’s understanding, but to help the agency arrive at a better-informed decision. The plaintiffs strongly believe that the superiority of the DG and degraded-lands options would be clear had they been analyzed next to the others.
The limitations inherent in NEPA litigation are legendary. The courts have determined that NEPA is procedural, rather than a substantive law—meaning that the law only requires agencies to properly follow its procedures pertaining to notification, public involvement, analysis, etc. and does not require that the agency choose a particular alternative.
That is, it does not dictate the substantive result. Thus a successful challenge of the NEPA analysis may only result in further analysis followed by the very same decision.
The same may hold true for a programmatic EIS: as the result of a NEPA court victory, the agency might examine the DG and degraded-land alternatives and end up choosing the 19-millionacre alternative yet again. However, we believe that if DG and degraded-land alternatives were actually analyzed and could be compared side-by-side to the current proposal, the superiority of these alternatives would be clear—to the public at large, certainly, and perhaps to the national environmental groups as well. This knowledge in turn could bring about the needed change in policy.
That is our hope.
The powerful interests that support Big Solar have created many false story lines: that in order to confront the climate crisis, we must deploy massive renewable-energy infrastructure on public lands; that those who oppose Big Solar are either climatedeniers or coal-industry sympathizers; and that the sacrifice of desert ecosystems is a necessary tradeoff in the pursuit of renewable energy.
We don’t believe these stories, and we will continue to advance the truth in every venue available, including the courts.
Janine Blaeloch is Director of the Western Lands Project, which monitors federal land sales and exchanges across the West and beyond, and which works to protect public land from privatization. She is also a co-founder of Solar Done Right.
Will Joshua Tree National Park become Creosote Bush National Park?
This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.
Throughout time, the earth’s climate has changed. Factors pushing climates to be either cooler or warmer include orbital shifts bringing the earth closer or farther from the sun, changes in solar output, changes in the position of the continents, and changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. The greenhouse effect, resulting from atmospheric CO2 and methane, has been well established for nearly a century. The signatures of past climate changes can be seen in ice cores from the Antarctic and Greenland dating back tens of thousands of years.
Changing relative abundances of isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen trapped in bubbles in the ice correlate with changes in global temperatures. Those ice cores point to a recent and on-going warming trend on earth. Other evidence for this warming trend comes from shrinking glaciers and ice caps, shifting distributions of species worldwide, and of course the recent “global warming” temperature trajectory.
Paralleling that warming has been a dramatic increase in human-generated CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere.
Most scientists believe climate change is happening and that humangenerated CO2 is at least part of the reason.
Still, this remains an extremely divisive issue. I recently overheard the chairman of a board for the University of California commenting on the breadth of the evidence for climate change, dismissing it by saying “it still doesn’t provide proof.” He is correct, but his conviction underlines a misunderstanding about science. Charles Darwin never “proved” that living things evolved by natural selection. What he did do was amass evidence from multiple sources, from taxonomy, from animal breeders, and from biogeography, that together made an exceedingly compelling case for his idea. No other theory has been put forth that explains all the evidence so completely. And so it is for modern climate change.
Warming won’t be the only change. Some areas will get much more rain, and some, like our deserts, are likely going to get drier. Weather will likely become more extreme at all ends of the temperature-rainfall spectrum. From just a human-economics perspective the possible impacts are far from trivial and could include:
- Less snow, and so less natural water storage in the mountains
- Higher water needs to offset increased evaporation rates for agriculture and urban uses, but in some areas like the southwest U.S. less water will be available
- Wildfire season starting earlier in the year and fires growing larger, spreading faster due to dry, insect, and drought weakened trees and shrubs; higher fire-fighting costs; and less lumber available for building
- Higher food production costs (either pay more for more water or ship food from Canada)
- Higher energy costs (less water in reservoirs to produce hydroelectric power, more energy needs to run more air conditioners)
- Higher insurance rates (to cover losses from flooding and drought and possibly hurricanes)
Some of these impacts seem to be cut from the headlines of today’s newspapers. Climate change is not (just) an issue to be faced by our grandchildren, the effects may have already begun.
Past climate changes have been implicated in mass extinctions. My own research in this area has focused on how desert plants and animals will fare in the face of predicted modern warming. We recently completed a project with Joshua Tree National Park addressing the climate change fate of its iconic namesake, the Joshua trees. Previous research, looking at the entire distribution of Joshua trees, concluded that this species could not survive predicted climate shifts and would soon no longer exist in much of California; certainly they would not exist at their southernmost distribution within Joshua Tree National Park. Rather than rushing to change the name to “Creosote Bush National Park,” the National Park Service and UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology teamed up to see if we came to the same conclusion focusing just on Joshua trees within the park.
On one hand Joshua trees in the Park occur at the southernmost edge of the species range and so would likely be subjected to a greater shift in temperature and rainfall than populations further north.
On the other hand, being at the edge of their range, the Park’s Joshua trees have always had to deal with more extreme climates and so might have adaptations allowing them to survive. Our first step was to create a model that described environmental characteristics corresponding to the current distribution of Joshua trees. We then tweaked the model by 1°, 2°, and 3°C (maximum July temperature) to see if there was anywhere within the park that would continue to provide conditions similar to where they thrive today.
The bad news was that Joshua trees are very sensitive to climate change and their potential range decreased with every incremental temperature tweak of the model.
The good news was that under a worst case scenario (+3°C) there was still habitat left for this icon of the Mojave Desert; Joshua Tree National Park should be able to keep its name.
Projecting results that might not be seen for many decades makes it difficult to evaluate the accuracy of the model’s predictions. We came up with the idea of measuring whether climate change levels so far had impacted the most sensitive life stage for Joshua trees – when they are seedlings and lack the water and nutrient storage to withstand drought. To answer that question we first needed to know where the seedlings were. We drafted an “army” of citizen scientists, students and desert enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds.
We gave them a GPS unit and a meter stick and then deployed our army with the directions to find the smallest Joshua trees they could, measure them, and then provide us the coordinates.
The smallest one found was just 5 centimeters; overall we received over 1000 new seedlings records. Then, using those seedlings 30 cm or less in height (about one foot) we created a new model of their distribution.
The seedling model was a near match to the adult Joshua tree model we created that had been tweaked with a +1°C change in mean July maximum temperature.
We went to the weather archives for the city of Twenty-nine Palms and found that compared to mean temperatures prior to the 1970s there was currently a mean change of +1°C in July maximum temperature. It was an amazing match between modeled projections and real changes in where Joshua trees were successfully reproducing.
Our current project is to build a network of monitoring stations where we can measure real changes in the distributions of plants and animals to track the impacts of climate change on one of our most precious resources, Joshua Tree National Park. We will need citizen scientists once again, so let us know if you are ready to be drafted.
Climate change will have a substantial impact on people and biodiversity. To slow and eventually reverse that trajectory will mean reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. It is a simple answer, but with no easy, or seemingly practical way to implement it.
Energy conservation and efficiency are part of the equation, and shifting to non-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar is another part of the solution. For the first time, our government is taking this seriously and is promoting renewable energy. However, their approach may need some tweaking. They have identified vast tracts of public land across our deserts to be developed for solar and wind energy. Each project will be built at an industrial scale of up to 5 to 10 square miles; several have already been built.
Each will require new roads, new transmission lines, and general infrastructure to build and operate them. Each being built on otherwise undisturbed, wild desert land.
Some colleagues and I just finished an analysis of the biodiversity of lizards in North America. The one site with the highest species richness included much of Joshua Tree National Park and extended to the northern half of Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
From the perspective of lizards it has higher biodiversity than any other region in North America, including both the U.S. and Mexico.
But from the distance of Washington DC, our desert must look like a wasteland, so much so that almost all the Washington DC-based environmental organizations signed a letter supporting the use of our undisturbed desert lands to begin to solve our national energy needs and to begin the shift away from a dependence on fossil fuels, foreign and domestic. Roof-top solar has many fewer impacts, as would be the case if the industrial-scale solar fields were installed on abandoned agricultural lands. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Program (DRECP), at least in concept, would preserve those areas vital to maintain the rich plant and animal life found here along with areas that appear to be important natural carbon sinks. It would also identify those desert sites that could be converted to solar “farms” without compromising the natural heritage of our desert. Doing nothing can’t be an option, but doing it right should be.
Dr. Cameron Barrows is an Associate Research Ecologist with UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology. He has been conducting research in the California desert for nearly 30 years, focusing on understanding the role of anthropogenic change of desert biodiversity.