• Soaring With The Condors: A Teenager’s Perspective
• Renewable Energy and Changing Park Views
• Climate Change on the High Desert Of Nevada
• Desert Chaparral
• A Different View of Owens Lake
• Protecting the Heart of Mojave
• ORV Routes in The Western Mojave: Adding Insult To Injury
• Searchlight Wind Project
• Current Issues
• Into the Bulrush: Protecting the Amargosa Vole
An Accurate Energy-Need Analysis Must be Part of the Plan
Encompassing 22 million acres, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is the biggest, most complicated habitat plan ever attempted. Here are a few things you ought to know about it.
To give credit, DRECP is a laudable attempt by the California Energy Commission, BLM and others to try to craft a habitat plan for the desert. The trouble is that the California desert is truly one of the last great frontiers in America, so only a tiny fraction of it has been surveyed for species. It’s also a very fragile land where impacts last hundreds of years if not millennia.
So DRECP has been hampered by scant biological data as well as no funding for BLM implementation, by no commitment from desert counties, by BLM’s multiple-use mandate, and by DRECP’s own failure to heed independent science advice. In the face of this, DRECP released a draft plan that is confusing for veteran conservationists and incomprehensible for the general public.
DRECP needs a major overhaul before it can meet the most basic legal standard, and that may actually be a good thing. Several desert counties are still working on revising their general plans for renewable energy, and county participation is essential to the task.
Meanwhile, DRECP can make important fixes now, such as updating its energy-need analysis.
Times They Have A’Changed!
In 2008 when DRECP was conceived, mega-solar thermal power plants in the desert were seen as the future of renewable energy. What has changed since then?
Well, for starters, the price of photovoltaic panels (PV) has fallen precipitously. PV used to be $5-$7 per watt installed, but now PV panels cost less than $1 a watt, with permitting and installation costs plummeting as well. Given rising electric rates, soon PV will be too cheap not to install on your roof.
But DRECP has failed to change with the times, and still clings to the notion that we’ll need over twice as much utility scale solar as customer-side (rooftop) PV. Specifically, DRECP assumes we’ll see only 7,000 MW of new customer side PV in the next 25 years. But think about this: grey and cloudy Germany installed 7,000 MW of PV in one year!
DRECP’s estimate for rooftop PV simply doesn’t pass the laugh test. It also flies in the face of state policy mandating zero net energy buildings starting in 2020.
So how did DRECP determine its asserted “need” for renewable energy in the desert in the first place? This is one of the least understood aspects of the whole plan. It’s complicated, because DRECP wasn’t designed just to ramp up renewable energy. DRECP’s charge is to reduce carbon emissions from electricity sufficiently to keep California on track to achieve its long-term carbon reduction goals.
For this purpose, DRECP created an “energy calculator” to determine future electricity demand and the likely mix of technologies needed to meet the carbon goal in 2040, which is the term of the plan. Then DRECP allocated a portion of the perceived need for utility scale renewables between the desert and the rest of the state.
Unfortunately, DRECP seems determined to achieve a certain result regardless of the facts. Repeatedly during the planning process, Sierra Club pointed out where the DRECP calculator’s assumptions about future electricity demand were flawed. In response DRECP might make some corrections, but then turned around and posited new assumptions that bumped perceived demand right back up again. While repeatedly moving the goal posts to justify large demand for mega-renewables, DRECP continually argues that its energy need assumptions are “conservative.”
But does assuming there will be 18 million electric vehicles in California in 2040, when there are only 13 million state licensed vehicles now, sound conservative? Laudable? Yes. Conservative? No.
Is it conservative to assume retirement of all in-state and out-of-state nuclear power? To assume minuscule amounts of future customer-side PV? To downplay energy efficiency? And to assume there will be no technological advances in renewable technology for the next 25 years?
The bottom line is that DRECP’s energy analysis greatly exaggerates likely future electricity demand while grossly underestimating customer-side PV and other technology that will markedly reduce demand – resulting in a plan that permits way more mega-renewable development in the desert than needed.
As before, the Club will continue to request corrections to the energy analysis. The big question is: will DRECP correct those mistakes, or will it continue to move the goal posts?
Some Good News
Here goes some good news for a change: Even by its own metrics, DRECP is half done. That’s right, and it’s worth counting megawatts (MW) to grasp this.
DRECP asserts that 20,000 MW of new utility scale renewables (which equates to well over fifty giant Ivanpah solar projects) are needed in the desert. Although DRECP’s number is exaggerated, for simplicity sake let’s take it at face value for now.
Of that 20,000 MW of new renewables, roughly 5000 MW are assumed by DRECP to be a combo of geothermal plants (needed to balance the intermittent renewables) and of smaller utility scale PV projects sited near electrical substations. Both of these kinds of projects are geographically constrained by where they can be sited, and do not require vast amounts of desert land.
So that leaves 15,000 MW of mega solar and wind proposed in the desert by DRECP. Of that, about 10,000 MW have already been approved, are under construction or have come online in the desert since DRECP’s energy calculator “baseline” cutoff date at the end of 2010. That is huge.
Much of that post-2010 renewable energy is new wind development in the Tehachapi Pass area, which has been industrialized for decades because it is the most predictable and efficient place available to generate wind energy in the desert. So infill, build-out and re-powering of older turbines in the Tehachapi Pass will meet just about any DRECP assumption of need for wind generation in the desert, and at a fraction of the acreage DRECP allots for the purpose.
Thus, planning for new desert wind development can be scratched off DRECP’s list, along with the vast acreages of pristine lands it would have allowed to be industrialized by new wind farms across the desert.
As for solar, since 2010 there have been about 6500 MW mega-solar projects built or approved in the DRECP area. The preferred DRECP alternative assumes about 12,000 MW of big solar, so by that metric they are more than half done. Interestingly, if DRECP acknowledged that even just the minimum amount of rooftop PV would be installed over the next couple of decades to meet existing state mandates for zero net energy buildings, there would be little if any need for more mega-solar in the desert.
Bottom line: DRECP can no longer justify allocating two million acres of the California desert as renewable development areas. The remaining acreage needed for mega-renewables is a fraction of what DRECP contends, even if it doesn’t budge from its exaggerated need assumptions. Proposed renewable development areas can and must be reduced to focus on truly disturbed areas and avoid natural public lands.
Final Note: DRECP Conservation, Vision or Illusion?
Is your head swimming now? Let’s close with DRECP’s treatment of habitat conservation, which is regrettably another confusing aspect of the plan!
Normal habitat plans compensate for development by preserving adequate habitat in perpetuity to offset impacts of development and ensure long term protection of species. But DRECP relaxes the standard, by reducing the current ratio for acres of compensation land compared to acres of development and by also allowing both private lands and “actions” on BLM lands to be used for compensation. This is a problem, because DRECP does not require even BLM “compensatory” conservation lands to be protected in perpetuity.
Moreover, the bulk of DRECP’s proposed conservation for species impacted by renewable development consists merely of new BLM conservation designations. These are BLM land use plan amendments, with no new funding and no permanence.
To compound the problem, most of the new BLM conservation designations under DRECP are also overlaid with new motorized recreation designations, and are afforded only 25 years or less immunity from renewable development. In its draft agreement with the state regarding DRECP, BLM’s multiple use mandate trumps conservation. BLM can amend its conservation designations after 25 years, or much sooner, because BLM can vacate the agreement upon 90 days notice.
What does this all mean? As drafted, DRECP would give a blessing for hundreds of thousands of acres of renewable energy development in the California desert without any long-term guarantee of conservation on BLM lands, which comprise the vast majority of DRECP-proposed conservation areas. BLM can erase its obligations to the state with the stroke of a pen, whereupon it would be free to amend away habitat protections, just as it has done so often in the past for consumptive users.
Let’s be honest, DRECP’s conservation is largely illusory. The desert deserves better.
Joan Taylor has been a desert activist for Sierra Club since 1970, a stakeholder in DRECP for five years, and Chair of the Club’s CNRCC Desert Energy Committee since 2008.
The Case of Charleston View
A little known corner of the northern Mojave Desert is being targeted as the latest solar energy sacrifice zone. Charleston View, California doesn’t have a Post Office or a zip code. Public meetings used to convene in front of the payphone, but then the phone company removed it, so now they occur in front of the dumpsters. There are 150 people that live in this far-flung outpost on the California/Nevada border, and they are squarely in the crosshairs of land use planners for Inyo County and the California Energy Commission (CEC), who desire the locale as a site for utility-scale solar energy production.
Inyo County has proposed Charleston View as a Solar Energy Development Area (SEDA) in its Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA). This planning process was funded by a $700,000 grant from the CEC, which, in its mad dash to help the state meet its Renewable Portfolio Standard obligations, is incentivizing desert counties to expedite the permitting of solar projects on private land. If the Inyo County REGPA is adopted, solar developers would face reduced bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining county permits for projects within the SEDAs, and potentially may not be required to prepare full Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). Charleston View is by far the largest of the seven SEDAs proposed in the county, allowing up to 400MW of generation on 2,400 acres.
This is not the first time solar power production has been proposed in this area: BrightSource Energy put forward the Hidden Hills Solar Energy Generating System (SEGS) in 2010. This behemoth 500 MW utility-scale solar project was to feature two 750-foot tall power towers, dwarfing those at the now-infamous Ivanpah SEGS, located two valleys to the south. In late 2013, the EIR was put on hold for two years, at least partially due to widespread opposition, which caused delays in permitting.
Charleston View is located in the northern Mojave Desert, perched above the beautiful Pahrump Valley (which is largely in Nevada) on the southeast slope of the Nopah Range. It boasts a stunning view across the valley to the Spring Range and snow-capped Mt. Charleston. Decades ago, a wildly optimistic landowner graded a grid of roads here, hoping to grow a bedroom community for Las Vegas. This never happened, and many of the roads have gradually returned to the desert. It is a fairly typical creosote/saltbush scrub ecosystem. There are known populations of desert tortoises and burrowing owls, bighorn sheep use it to connect adjacent mountain ranges, and it is generally what one might think of as “undisturbed.” During the Hidden Hills proceedings, a California Native Plant Society survey found seventeen rare plants, many discovered in California for the first time, and only known in the state in this immediate area.
And spread out across the landscape in isolated pockets are the residents of this largely undeveloped area. Hidden Hills SEGS would have been quite literally in the front yards of some residents, and would be directly in line with the prized view of Mt. Charleston for the entire community. The Old Spanish Trail, a National Historic Trail and route taken by explorers and traders, runs directly through Charleston View. The area is sacred to the Pahrump Paiute, and has been identified as part of the Salt Song Landscape, a vitally important ethnographic area for all Southern Paiute. The land slated for development completely envelops these modern and historic cultural areas, turning what was a quiet desert refuge into an industrialized solar slum.
Southern Inyo County, which also includes the communities of Tecopa, Shoshone, Death Valley Junction, and Furnace Creek in Death Valley, has no more than 500 residents, representing less than 3% of the county’s population. There is near universal opposition to utility-scale solar development in the scenic Owens Valley, 200 miles away on the more populated side of Inyo County, but many feel that the County “has to put it somewhere.” No matter how well-meaning, politicians have voters to please and the CEC to appease, so the REGPA plans for 45% of the utility-scale solar power development in Inyo County to be sited at Charleston View.
Meanwhile, within the environmental community there are echoes of the Great Schism of the late 2000s, when a stark divide appeared between desert activists, who prioritized land conservation, and big national environmental groups, who prioritized combating climate change. Submitting comments on the REGPA in January 2015, local Inyo County groups were unanimous in their opposition to utility-scale solar development in Charleston View, and many national groups supported that position. But not all. Some national groups told the County that private lands in Charleston View would be appropriate for utility-scale solar power.
The history of resource conflicts related to the industrialization of the West has been one of trade-offs: battles won and battles lost. We kept the dams out of the Grand Canyon and Echo Park; we let them build one in Glen Canyon. We prevented oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; we let the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming and the San Juan Basin in New Mexico turn into vast petro-wastelands. We’ve kept utility-scale solar out of the central Mojave (so far); we’ve let the Ivanpah, Chuckwalla, and Antelope Valleys get paved under with mirrors.
But who gets to decide that Charleston View is a solar sacrifice area? Do politicians representing far-off and more visible constituencies decide on the fate of an ecosystem and a community? Do state-level energy planners, drawing with pink colored highlighters on a map of a 25 million acre desert, get to put this place on the chopping block in the name of meeting abstract targets and goals? Do big, national environmental groups get to choose which areas are wild enough or full of enough endangered animals to save, and which are just “junky desert?”
By press-time, Inyo County and the CEC may already have decided Charleston View’s fate. By this time next year, Charleston View could be undergoing a dramatic transformation, from a quiet and undisturbed desert community, full of wildflowers and tortoises and humans, to an industrialized energy production zone. This is the cost of PG&E and SoCal Ed using our electric bill to fund political battles to suppress the expansion of rooftop solar. This is the cost of Californians feeling superior about how green their energy is every time the Renewable Portfolio Standard gets ratcheted up further. This is the cost of making trade-offs.
This story illuminates a fundamental problem with the way we, as a society, have chosen solar sacrifice zones. We think that only those places with formalized protection, with Wilderness status, Critical Habitat, or National Conservation Lands designation are worth saving. Private land tucked into some remote corner of the desert, full of underprivileged and largely invisible citizens, seems the ideal place to declare a sacrifice zone in the minds of some.
But at heart, this is an issue of environmental injustice. These places matter. These people and their homes matter. These tortoises and bighorn and burrowing owls and rare milkvetches matter. The Southern Paiute’s traditional sacred lands matter.
So resistance continues. Residents have mobilized, and great pressure is being brought to bear to protect this place from solar power’s shimmering hand. Groups like Amargosa Conservancy, Friends of the Inyo, and many others have been lobbying Inyo County and the CEC, attempting to give a voice to a place that is so often overlooked. At a County hearing on the REGPA in Tecopa, over 30 residents came out to express their displeasure at having their homes and landscape targeted for solar development. Perhaps the greatest quote of the evening came on the topic of appropriate mitigation to “make up” for the damage done to the landscape. “You mean if they go out there and kill a bunch of turtles, but then they make turtle soup out of ‘em, and feed it to hungry kids, well then it’s OK to destroy my neighborhood?”
Remember Glen Canyon. Remember Charleston View. Watch out. Your neighborhood could be next.
Patrick Donnelly is the Executive Director of the Amargosa Conservancy. He first came to the desert during the torrential winter of 2004-05, and knew he’d found home. More recently, he entered into self-imposed educational exile for several years in the Bay Area and spent two summers in Spain researching utility-scale solar policy. He is now back in the desert, a resident of Shoshone, California, where he and dogs Kelso and Riley love to splash around on the banks of the beautiful Amargosa River.
 The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) also targets Charleston View for solar. While the DRECP is intended to expedite incidental take permits for solar development focus areas, the County has final authority over land use designations on private land, and thus the REGPA is the focus of this article. For more on DRECP, see the cover story in the last issue of Desert Report.
 Environmental review documents have consistently ignored or downplayed the populations of these animals. And yet residents report frequent occurrences of tortoises crossing Old Spanish Trail, of dense burrowing owl burrows, and of widespread bighorn sign in the surrounding hills. Paid biologists that visit an area for a few hours or days cannot possibly ascertain all there is to know about an ecosystem.
 Interested readers may access the Hidden Hills Ethnography Report, by ethnographer Dr. Thomas Gates at (caution, large PDF file): http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/hiddenhills/documents/2012-08-16_Hidden_Hills_Ethnography_Report_TN-66701.pdf
 It is not the intent of this article to inspire partisan rancor over this issue, and thus names have been omitted. Interested readers can view public comments on the REGPA at (caution, large PDF file): http://www.inyoplanning.org/projects/documents/CommentssubmittedfortheDRAFTPEIR_REGPA.pdf
• Solar Sacrifice Zones: Who Decides? The Case of Charleston View
• Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
• Owens Lake Mitigation Finally Settled
• Meet Joshua Tree National Park’s New Superintendent: David Smith
• Notes from the Gateway to Death Valley: Home Of The Scorpions
• DRECP – Vision Or Illusion?
• Unauthorized Structure in Death Valley’s Backcountry
• From Singing Cowboys to Symphonies: Desert Music
• Evolution Of The American Nature Symbol
• DRECP Plans To Guide The Way: The Future Of The California Desert
• An Appeal From The Managing Editor Of Desert Report
• Volunteers: The Untrammeling Of Death Valley’s Wilderness
• Juniper Flats
• Energy Versus Tortoises: The Sequel
• Watching The Southwest Border
• Poems by Ruth Nolan
• Timely Documentary Film On Desert Underway
• The Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility
• The Salton Sea State Recreation Area
Neighbors Face Noise, Dust, and Toxins
Here in northern Nevada we’ve all heard tales of the Comstock District silver and gold rush, about 30 miles southeast of Reno, which started up right after the ‘49er gold strike in California. Unlike gold towns that became ghost towns, people hung on here, and today tourists from everywhere walk the boardwalks and visit the saloons, cemetery, and restored opera house of Virginia City. This was the hub of the Comstock, and in its heyday it was touted as the richest town in the country. Mark Twain ran the Territorial Enterprise from a building still standing in the center of town.
The underground mines of the Comstock made some people wealthy and ruined many others. Their riches contributed to the transformation of San Francisco while stripping entire mountains of timber for tunnel supports. The mines were centers of technical innovation in an era when engineering feats were opening up new industrial possibilities everywhere. People marvel to hear about the gravity fed aqueduct engineered in the 1879’s to supply water to the arid Comstock from the Sierra Nevada, 30+ miles away, which even today supplies residents with pure alpine water.
Less well known than Virginia City are two nearby towns that also figured in Comstock history, Silver City and Gold Hill. They lie south and downhill from Virginia City in Gold Canyon, which winds precipitously south towards Carson City. Victorian-era homes are mixed with off-grid, owner built homes and other buildings among steep hillsides pocketed with old mining shafts, tailings, and falling down wooden structures. The Comstock is now a unique, beautiful, quiet, and neighborly place to live. Silver City (population 170) residents are proud of the community center they built in 2004 to replace their old one (built in 1867) when it burned down.
All three towns lie within the Comstock National Historic District, a state of Nevada designation, as well as within the Virginia City National Historic District, a National Park Service designation. The documents for the 1961 designation of the district note that “the mines are closed and the sound of the tourist is heard in the land.” The Master Plan of Storey County, where Virginia City is located, recognizes that tourism, not mining, is the economic force in the county now.
Enter modern mining methods and the thirst for gold that never ends. Since 2010 (there were previous attempts at modern mining), the quiet in Gold Canyon has been broken by pneumatic drilling. Comstock Mining Inc. (CMI) earlier consolidated 70% of the mining claims here. They own or control over 7,000 acres of claims: 1376 acres of patented and surface claims, and 6071 acres of unpatented BLM land. “Unpatented” means owned by the citizens of the US. CMI’s plans, for which there are no Plans of Operation yet filed (a significant detail), include underground mining of old claims and more open pit mining. Today two open pit mines, Lucerne and Billy the Kid, are being worked by CMI southwest of Gold Hill and about 1000 feet across the road from homes in Silver City.
The Lucerne Pit’s effects include industrial-level noise, of which resident Joe McCarthy says the constant backup “beep beep” of haul trucks are what drives him the most crazy. Residents also hear dynamite blasting and other industrial sounds amplified in the narrow canyon. The drilling of exploration holes goes on in multiple locations.
The heap leach process used by CMI to extract gold from waste rock employs cyanide for processing; an estimated twenty tons of waste rock yields enough gold for a ring. Cyanide is trucked in on winding and narrow Highway 341 right along with other traffic. Home values in the Comstock are shaky. “One buyer here” said Joe, “CMI”. Who would choose to relocate within earshot of a working mine?
Dust blowing from the pits and processing site and possibly from explorations is made more problematic because mining during the bonanza days used elemental mercury to separate gold and silver from waste rock. The Comstock, with two historical designations and approximately a thousand residents plus tourists, is on the National Priorities List as the Carson River Mercury Superfund Site (CRMS) because dangerous levels of mercury persist in water, air, and earth, and especially in tailings at old mill sites. Arsenic and lead have also been identified as Contaminants of Concern in the CRMS.
The latest (2012) study of levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic at the Lucerne Pit site was completed by an engineering firm hired by Comstock Mining. It found nothing that exceeded the state’s actionable levels for lead and mercury. They found arsenic in mean concentrations slightly above the Residential Screening/Action Level but concluded, based on other evaluations paid for by Comstock, that the arsenic data was indicative of naturally-occurring concentrations and thus not subject to Superfund oversight.
Some residents question the credibility of data gathered and analyzed by parties contracted by Comstock Mining. Others are concerned because all mercury-poisoned sites within the 5-county area of the CRMS may not have been identified by the EPA.
Activists wanting to mitigate or stop mining disturbances around their neighborhoods and within the two historic districts must deal with two county governments, Storey and Lyon, two planning commissions, and two Boards of County Commissioners. Both counties could use the tax revenue from the mine. And the jobs argument comes up frequently in these historically economically depressed counties.
From the point of view of neighbors and the Comstock Residents Association, the worst blow came last December when Lyon County commissioners voted to grant CMI (or whoever owns the properties next) Master Plan amendments for another pit, this time within Silver City’s town boundary. Some homes are as close as 250 feet from the proposed diggings at the old Dayton Consolidated Mill site. “Master Plan Integrity Loses to Money and Power” wrote Nancy Dallas, a local commentator.
The most significant governmental issue facing CMI in 2014 is their right-of-way application for the construction and exclusive use of a haul road between their Lucerne Pit and their heap leach facility at American Flat. Since it crosses BLM-managed public land, an Environmental Assessment is necessary; if they are not granted the haul road right, they must continue to haul on State Highway 342. Earlier statements by mining officials spoke of moving the highway. Who will pay for that? CMI has yet to turn a profit and carries a considerable debt load.
Great Basin Resource Watch (GBRW) views such instances of industrial mining in neighborhoods as “residential mining.” The Comstock, in which mining also affects travel, and tourism, viewsheds and structures in two historic districts, fits and even exceeds definitions of environmental dispossession and environmental injustice.
What has now occurred in the Comstock is reminiscent of to tribes dispossessed by mining all over the globe, Appalachian residents displaced by strip mining, people affected by fracking, and closer to home, to the predicament of residents north of the Anaconda Mine in Yerington whose water is poisoned by radionuclides. The Western Shoshone lost a sacred mountain (Mt. Tenabo in central Nevada) where nearby sacred springs are expected to dry up. Archeological sites, medicinal plants, and wildlife are gone, replaced by the giant Cortez Hills Gold Mine.
In 2005 a Nevada judge ruled that Washoe County had authority to deny a company’s proposal to mine clay for cat litter near the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Washoe County had cited concerns that the mine would contaminate the air and groundwater with arsenic, lead, and cadmium. The company, backed by the federal government, sued the county. Invoking the 1872 Mining Law, which was established to encourage gold mining on federal land, U.S. lawyers argued that Washoe County could not deny the right to mine on federal land. However, Nevada District Court Judge James Hardesty disagreed. His ruling was the first to allow a local government to override the federal mining law in response to community and environmental safety concerns, said Roger Flynn, the tribe’s attorney. In spite of this case being touted by activists as precedent setting, residential mining and the 1872 Mining Law persist.
Also persisting are questions about CMI’s intent in delaying mining on public lands within the Comstock District. Are they avoiding filing Plans of Operations required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and waiting for the pendulum to swing further towards state control of public lands, when there may be no NEPA equivalent?
One possible instrument to correct some abuses and change the power differential between citizens and mining companies would be for Nevada to pass its own environmental quality law. Reform of the 1872 Mining Law is inevitable. Cumulative impacts of mining must be more broadly defined. All these changes are sought by GBRW and other groups.
Back on the Comstock, CMI may run out of money and borrowing sources. But without legislative/regulatory reform at all levels there is no guarantee that, given the enduring attractiveness of precious metals, another mining company with thirst for the gold here may not move in and the destruction will begin anew.
Susan Juetten lives in Washoe Valley, Nevada. She often gets involved with environmental issues in the state and sometimes works for Great Basin Resource Watch in Reno.
Leonard Knight 1931-2014
This is what I want you to write to the world / that the answer is “love.” / I’ve painted the word “love” at least 24,000 times out here in the desert” — Leonard Knight, desert artist/visionary 1931-2014
This is the story of a lone desert mountain, a hill really, less than an acre in size, located in California’s Imperial County in the Western Sonoran/Colorado Desert. It is not far from the old shoreline of ancient Lake Cahuilla, and is now just a few miles from present-day Salton Sea.
This, too, is the story of a man who brought his vision to that remote desert hill many years ago, and camped by that mountain, just down the road from the tiny, mostly abandoned town of Niland and adjacent to an area popular with winter campers known as Slab City. He began to paint his vision onto that lonely desert hill, until his vision began to spill out like a Technicolor dream across the desert’s barren folds, in a lonely land once abandoned by geology and time.
Salvation Mountain is an ambitious, decades-in-the-making art installation comprised of adobe, straw, thousands of gallons of household paint, tires, tree branches, broken glass, plastic, and many other recycled everyday materials, along with Bible verses and endless reminders that “God Is Love.” The site is locally and internationally famous, and was designated in 2000 as “a folk art site worthy of preservation” by the Folk Art Association. California Senator Barbara Boxer, who entered the mountain into the congressional record as a national treasure, has described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture…a national treasure…profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”
I first visited Salvation Mountain in 2006. I saw a squat, rounded, 100-foot high mountain painted in glorious, vivid colors, complete with a cross on top and the words “God is Love.” Leonard Knight, a lean man well into his 70s, dressed in his hallmark white t-shirt and khakis, rushed up and enthusiastically greeted me, offering a tour of the mountain. “I am excited that you are here,” he said. “I am anxious to share with you what I’ve built here and what I’m working on now, and to get my message out to the world about love.”
He showed me a giant, several-story high replication of Noah’s Ark that he was in the process of building, complete with hundreds of tiny windows, and led me into an exquisitely crafted and decorated chapel at the base of his mountain. He led me through walkways and corridors, pointing out endless details and embellishments he had painstakingly added to his mountain panorama. He had first come and started to paint and decorate the mountain in the 1980s, and had been there ever since. There were flowers and there were windows and there were enough compelling artistic details to rival any art museum in the world.
What was even more astonishing were two facts that he shared with us: he used only recycled materials that visitors donated to him or that he found in trash dumps across the desert – used tires, old building lumber and housing materials, leftover house paint, all kinds of household items and goods people didn’t want anymore, etc. And, unbelievably, Knight worked primarily by himself and lived at the site alone, through winter cold and extreme summer desert heat, camping in his truck. Certainly, every time I visited the Mountain, Leonard was hard at work, or giving people tours.
How could this be? How could one man create such a vivid story, one that lives on in the annals of California desert fable and lore in the wake of his death this past February at the age of 82? Perhaps it was the perfect marriage between the power of the desert landscape itself and Knight’s unique and infectious energy and dedication to his vision, to his art. His enthusiasm and energy were unmatchable.
Beloved American author John Steinbeck called attention to the power of the California desert’s special healing and spiritual powers in his memoir, Travels with Charley, written in 1960 at the height of the Cold War and atomic threat era. After stopping on a desert road in his solo travels through the Mojave, he wrote about the sacred energy of deserts: “In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert.” I can’t read this passage without thinking of Leonard Knight, a late 20th Century desert visionary, a holy man in his own right.
Countless people have visited Salvation Mountain over the years, or learned of Leonard Knight and his electric mountain through what visitors have shared through social media in the last decade, giving his vision and story an exponentially mounting level of momentum. In fact, he’s even inspired a group of artists from the younger generation: around the corner from his mountain, on an adjacent hillside, a whole new spread of artwork has been unfolding for the last few years.
I visited Leonard Knight many more times after my first visit in 2006. Usually, there were many other visitors there, too. One time, filming was taking place for the cult classic “Into the Wild,” which features a cameo of Knight at his mountain. In 2010, shortly after the death of my fiancé, I visited the mountain with a group of poets from Riverside, and I stayed in the car with the air conditioning on. The heat was getting to me, and I was feeling a little sad. Knight came right over, and chatted with me for a few minutes, offering me something cold to drink and thanking me for coming out to see him.
I don’t know really how long we talked, or how long I was there, but even though it was probably only an hour or so, it feels now like a soothing eternity. Time, at Salvation Mountain, and especially in Leonard’s presence – in the dozen trips I took there, he was always there, and according to those who knew him well and spent lengthy amounts of time at the site, he rarely left – slowed down considerably and became irrelevant. It was a pleasure to remember what it means to just sit in the wide, open desert, absorbing its healing presence. This is something I’ve savored doing all of my life, although it seems to have become harder to do in recent years, for personal reasons and because of pressures on the desert coming from powerful, outside sources.
Since that time, which turned out to be my last visit to Salvation Mountain, and the last time I saw Leonard before he died, the landscape of the desert itself has taken many unfavorable hits. The impact of the “Solar Gold Rush” – the race to bombard the California and southwestern deserts with a checkerboard of massive wind and solar technology zones – has hit full force, and there has been much more to be sad about in the face of this.
And now, more than ever, the enduring legacy of Leonard Knight’s beloved mountain has become a visual and metaphoric symbol of just how precious and rare our deserts are. In this case, the desert, with its mother lode soul, has been able to help birth and sustain one man’s vision of remembering what’s most important in life in the end: beauty, community, and love. The desert has a special gift to remind us of that, and Leonard rendered this prolifically.
And what’s important to me now, as the fate of Salvation Mountain hangs in the balance—now that Knight is gone, as is so much of what else is precious and sacrosanct in the desert, as the early years of our new centennial tick forward—is this: I circle back around in my mind and heart and imagination to remember something Leonard once told me.
“Imagine this,” he said. “If everyone stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway in L.A. just got out of their cars, and shook each others’ hands, and smiled, and shared a little bit of love with one another that way, instead of honking and getting mad, just imagine how much better the world could be that way.”
Indeed. And now, when I’m stuck in traffic, or when I’m frustrated and saddened by yet another California desert destruction story in the news – big solar, big wind, unethical water transfers of rare and precious desert aquifers, bird deaths, loss of sacred desert habitat, gold-digging multinational corporate interests – I allow my mind to wander to the vivid dream of Salvation Mountain, with its colorful dreams and promises, and I am renewed.
And just thinking about it, about Leonard Knight and his devotion to lighting up the world from a once-forgotten corner of the desert with sincerity and hope, and to encouraging every visitor who made the pilgrimage out to Salvation Mountain to see things for themselves, and to take a minute to stop and remember what it means to be human, and to remember that the desert is, truly, the one most distinct geography that “mothers miracles such as this” as Steinbeck wrote, I instantly begin to feel better.
Ruth Nolan, M.F.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 1980s.
When Mike Cipra left his job in Death Valley National Park in February 2014, his wife Jane, the park’s botanist, did not go with him. When curious park staffers asked her how much longer she was staying, her face lit up and she replied with a smile “After the Eurekensis blooms.” As it turned out, only Jane Cipra and her crew of biological technicians really understood what was waiting to happen a few months later.
This story, about the totally unexpected and magnificent 2014 bloom of the Eurekensis, has its beginnings in 1978 when the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera californica ssp eurekensis) was put on the Federal Endangered Species list along with the Eureka Valley dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae). The listing came into effect on May 27, 1978. The necessity of listing both these species had been triggered by threats to the plants and their habitat from off-road vehicles (ORV’s).
The threat posed by ORV’s actually dates back to the 1960’s when the Eureka Dunes’ steep slopes had become a popular playground for visitors fond of engine noise and piston power. Increasing numbers of people coming into the area also meant more campers. All this human activity had a detrimental effect on this fragile ecosystem, as plants were repeatedly crushed and buried. But it took some time before the threats to the dune vegetation were clearly understood. In the seventies the Eureka Valley was still under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and was not closely monitored. Also values were different in the 1960’s. Preservation and conservation were not priorities. These days we have a much better appreciation of why the Eureka Valley evening primrose as well as the Eureka Valley dune grass should be valued instead of being allowed to vanish into the abyss of extinction. BLM eventually recognized the devastation that was being wrought by people enjoying the “good times” on the dunes, and the area was closed to vehicular traffic in 1976.
The 1994 passage of the Desert Protection Act brought the Eureka Valley under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The area became part of Death Valley National Park and was designated as wilderness. Unfortunately the throaty rumble of a trespassing ORV can still occasionally be noted to tear up sand and silence. Perhaps the driver is unaware that it does not take much to significantly impact this delicate ecosystem.
The Eureka Dunes cover three square miles and are the tallest dunes in California, rising 680 feet above the valley floor. They are a visible and dominant feature of the valley. The dune vegetation, on the other hand, is usually not an attention grabber. During dry years, the Eureka Valley evening primrose remains dormant in the subsurface. When conditions are right, which tends to be only during wet years, these perennials grow from the roots. But even when the plant seeds germinate, this primrose comes up only as a tiny basal rosette of grey-green leaves. This means that normally there is little to betray their presence. But when the timing of rain is right, the stems elongate rapidly, and sometime between April and July the plants bloom. This bloom is, as most desert blooms tend to be, a spectacular but ephemeral event lasting only a few weeks. When the bloom is over, the elongated stems die off. The plants retreat into the subsurface and wait until the conditions are favourable once again. Then the cycle begins anew.
The Eureka Valley evening primrose is a remarkable plant. It is unique in that the Eureka Dunes is the only place in the world where it grows. But growing in sand is challenging business. The surface of dunes is forever in motion and anything that grows there needs to have ways of dealing with being repeatedly buried in shifting sands. The Eurekensis has a fleshy root that is capable of storing the plant’s energy underground, which is especially important during the hot summer months or even during dry years. This highly adaptive survival strategy gives it a substantial head start on flower and fruit production when conditions are favourable. The Eurekensis also has two different reproductive strategies to deal with these conditions. As well as being a prodigious seed producer like many desert plants, it can clone itself by sending out lateral underground shoots that form new rosettes at the end of every branch. This gives it the ability to rise and spread above the surface.
When the Eureka Valley evening primrose was added to the Federal Endangered Species list, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) became involved because the listing and delisting of species come under their jurisdiction. In 2007 the USFWS completed a five year review and concluded that the threats to the Eureka Valley evening primrose were reduced to a point where the plant no longer needed to be considered endangered, and it could potentially be taken off the Endangered Species list. They also turned to Death Valley National Park’s botanist, Michelle Slaton at that time, to request as much additional information as possible. Ms. Slaton initiated surveys in the Eureka Dunes to evaluate the plant’s status. When Jane Cipra took over as the park’s botanist in 2010, this project came with her new job. She increased the survey activity in 2011 and with the help of an exceptionally dedicated crew of bio-technicians and volunteers she was able to survey the entire habitat of the Eureka Dunes rare plants in the same season for the first time. Prior to this, the Main Dunes was surveyed in 2007 and the Marble Canyon and Saline Spur were surveyed separately in 2008.
Every spring for four consecutive years, Jane and her crew made the trek to the Eureka Valley braving furious dust storms, rain, sleet, and desiccating heat. The team remained at the dunes for days at a time no matter what the conditions. In 2011, Jane and four bio-technicians covered 6,568 acres between March 15 and April 11. The spring of 2009, as well as spring 2010, had been good “flower years” in the park, and the Eureka Valley evening primrose had a decent showing. But when the drought hit southern California, the Eureka Valley evening primrose became elusive.
In addition to drought conditions, there was another threat: Russian thistle (Salsola gobicola). Russian thistle, also known as tumbleweed, was documented for the first time in the Eureka Valley in the 1970’s. In the Eureka Valley, the Eurekensis and the Russian thistle grow in exactly the same habitat of dune slopes and semi-stabilized sand surrounding the dunes. In the spring of 2011, the botany crew found very little Eurekensis and instead found many thousands of acres of Russian thistle that had already dried and gone to seed in what had been historically Eurekensis habitat. The results of the 2011 survey suggested that the Russian thistle had replaced the evening primrose in its prime habitat. However, the Eurekensis’ growing season is winter and spring, whereas the Russian thistle’s season is typically summer and fall. The crew was hopeful that this offset in timing meant that the primrose was still there underneath the sand and might come back.
Monitoring continued in the spring of 2012 but there were no visible changes. When the crew prepared for their spring 2013 survey, their mood was subdued. Southern California was into the third year of drought. Jane described the scene upon the crew’s arrival in the Eureka Valley: “When we arrived and looked at the area, it seemed that there was nothing alive. Everything was brown, but then we went out and started seeing tiny little seedling rosettes. There they were. Eureka Valley evening primroses, hundreds of thousands of them. But the plants were all the size of quarters and dimes.” She continued: “The seeds had germinated, but we couldn’t figure out why. Nothing unusual had shown up in our weather information.”
Weather information is currently tracked carefully in the area. There are three strategically placed weather stations that were installed in December 2012, that record rainfall, wind and temperature on a daily basis. But they may not have been installed soon enough to provide Jane with the information she needed. At this point, the only possible explanation Jane could give for the plants’ unexpected presence was that sometime between September and December 2012 there had been a freak rain storm that was not recorded by any weather stations but was enough of an event to stimulate the seedlings.
Jane then worried about the survival of the seedlings during the summer time. She explained “the Eureka Valley gets as hot as an oven and sees temperatures that can easily push the thermometer to more than 120 degrees. I did not expect these seedlings to survive the summer.” In November 2013 Jane and her crew returned to the valley to check and found that the seedlings had not only survived the summer but were now 3-6 inches in diameter. Relieved and encouraged by what they saw, they expanded their assessment to include land outside of their survey areas. Much to Jane’s surprise they found many seedlings there as well. Then a new concern started to weigh on Jane. “I worried about the seedlings’ survival during the hard winter freeze.”
In February 2014, full of anticipation but trying not to get their hopes up, Jane and her crew once again bumped north along Big Pine Road (a.k.a. Death Valley Road) on their way to the Eureka Valley. Once they arrived at their destination, their concerns dissipated – jubilance took its place. Jane described what they found: “The primroses were still there. The plants were now the size of dinner plates and steering wheels.”
Fast forward to March 2014. The news spread rapidly among park staff and regular Eureka Valley visitors: “There is a bloom at the Eureka Dunes that you’ve got to see.” Two senior park rangers reported that they had never seen anything like this during the twenty plus years they’ve worked in the park.
The botany crew was delighted to note that there was hardly any Russian thistle and the plants that could be seen were in the seedling stage while at the same time, the primroses were in full bloom and beginning seed production. This means that while the two species share the same space, they do not share it at the same time. They are stimulated by different temperatures, precipitation and amounts of day light and do not appear to be competing for the same resources. The primroses were there all along, just waiting for the right conditions for them.
Somehow those “right conditions” occurred and the result was this “once-in-a-life-time” event. This bloom, lasting six weeks, started with fields of yellow just about as far as the eye could see. The initial stages included the yellow desert evening primrose (Oenothera primiveris ssp. bufonis) interspersed primarily with yellow desert marigolds, although many other flowers could be found as well. The yellow desert evening primrose is not specific to the Eureka Valley but can be found in desert flats and gentle slopes from south-eastern California to western Texas and south-western Mexico. It cannot fail to charm with its pale to bright yellow flowers consisting of four heart-shaped petals and measuring two inches across growing out of the center of a basal rosette of leaves. Within weeks these flowers faded. Then the Eureka Valley evening primrose exuberantly took center stage. The fields of the soft white flowers with a hint of a pink blush, interspersed with the vibrant apricot-colored desert mallow, were breathtaking.
When sunlight faded and the promise of darkness hung in the air, this playground of wind and sand, light and shadow came alive. It was the hour between butterflies and moths when the evening primroses opened their petals. Where previously the white and yellow had been barely visible, the flowers now glowed luminescent in the gentle light of the rising moon. When the wind did not provide the music and the perfumed night air hung still, one could hear the constant buzz of the night pollinators. Hawk moths, sphinx moths and other insects darted from flower to flower. The only words that came to mind: This is magic.
As the bloom was coming to an end, Jane reflected on the fact that this area is still in a severe drought cycle. The Eureka Dunes receive more precipitation than other areas in Death Valley and sand tends to hold water, which makes this area more hospitable to vegetation than one might think. However what made these plants bloom in such profusion at this time? There is no answer to that question. All we know is how little we really know.
Jane has developed a deep respect for these remarkable plants. She knows, perhaps better than most people, the ways in which these plants are challenged by human activity and natural forces. Yet the force of life prevails in spite of it all. Jane Cipra has joined her husband in northern California, but the memories of the amazing Eurekensis will, most likely, remain with her for a long time to come.
Birgitta has volunteered in Death Valley National Park since 2008. Currently she and her husband, photographer Neal Nurmi, are working together documenting Death Valley’s backcountry cabins and other structures.
Hills, Mountains, and Valleys
While this is a time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is also a good time to think about other areas that have not yet been given wilderness designation. In the previous two issues of Desert Report I have written about several wild places found in our southwest deserts that meet all the requirements for wilderness designation but have not yet been so designated. Here are a few more, including several areas that need added protection by extending their current wilderness boundaries.
Lying between Interstate 15, Highway 127, Kingston Road, and the Kingston Mountains lie approximately 450 square miles of open land, under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Practically speaking, this entire area has no land protection and is under constant threat from development and poor land management. Known as the Silurian Hills and Shadow Mountains, the area consists of a conglomeration of hills, mountains, and volcanic mesas. The geology is a blend of limestone and volcanic rocks, which make beautiful and unique landscapes and habitats. Like many places of the southwest deserts, the flora and fauna is highly underexplored and understudied, but what little information is known from the area shows that it is a place of strong diversity. It contains important animal corridors between the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, as well as other bio-diverse areas such as the Kingston and Avawatz Mountains. Surprisingly, almost no botanical exploration has been done here. A few short expeditions were made in 2011 and 2012 which found some very pristine and unique habitat, including rare plant populations such as desert bear poppy (Arctomecon merriamii) and Clark Mountain buckwheat (Eriogonum heermannii var. floccosum).
Unfortunately, like many such places, this area is threatened by off-highway vehicle (OHV) use and heavy grazing. Historically, the area saw a good deal of mining, but today the Silurian Valley is under threat from proposed large scale solar and wind projects. These would destroy pristine desert habitat and cut off an important animal corridor. Read Jack Prichett’s article in the previous edition of Desert Report for more information on this contentious project.
The Granite Mountains referred to here are north of Apple Valley, east of Interstate 15, and west of Highway 247. Just a short drive from the large and expanding urban sprawl of Victor Valley, Hesperia, and Apple Valley, the Granite Mountains are a perfect example of a large pristine area that meets all the requirements for wilderness designation, but which has not yet been so designated. Though nearly surrounded by a large metropolis, this range receives little visitation. This is surprising considering its great beauty in the form of rugged rock faces, ancient boulder piles, and hidden springs. Biologically, this area is poorly studied, but there is known to be a butterfly (Papilio indra fordi) that is narrowly endemic to the Granite Mountains. A few botanists have suggested that the Granite Mountains are one of the last remaining places in our deserts where coastal vegetation can be found, possibly because cool mists and fog can push up through the Cajon Pass, bringing extra moisture and cooler temperatures to this mountain range.
The Granite Mountains have been recently threatened by renewable energy projects wanting to install large wind turbines across their upper ridges and peaks. Such development would eliminate any chance of wilderness designation and would destroy a great deal of pristine habitat. Also, the mountains lie within the “Rodman Mountains Recreation Lands”, which surround the range on its north, west, and east sides, meaning that they are susceptible to destruction from OHV use. Luckily, this has not been a major issue to date. But it seems fitting that the Granite Mountains should be set aside as a designated wilderness to protect a section of this heavily abused part of the Mojave Desert, a place where local residents can visit to enjoy at least one location that still offers beauty and solitude, one place to get away from car alarms, urban sprawl, and the deafening sound of motorcycles and quads.
The Iron Mountains are a remote and unique range in San Bernardino County. There is very little visitation to their interior, largely due to their inaccessibility. They are biologically under-explored, but several sensitive species, such as big horn sheep and desert tortoises, are there. A botanical expedition in 2011 also revealed several sensitive plant species, and there are definitely more to be found. The sand dunes and ramps in the northwestern corner have never been studied by botanists despite their location in the transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. There are no doubt many rare plant populations still to be found here.
Despite their remoteness, these mountains have historically seen abuse from humans, going back to when General Patton used this area as a tank training ground during World War II. Even today, the California Aqueduct travels through the center of this range deep underground. Despite this subterranean intrusion, there are no roads in this mountain range, so the area meets many of the requirements for wilderness designation.
There are also many areas in our southwest deserts that could be better managed and protected by extending certain wilderness boundaries. The following are just a few examples.
The Rice Valley Wilderness, created in 1994, consists of the southern section of this valley. However, it should also include the valley’s northern half, due to the importance and uniqueness of that area. The valley consists of a dry lake bed being overtaken by sand dunes blowing in from the northwest, making it part of one of the longest and largest sand dune systems in California. The northern half of this valley was once an open OHV area, but was closed due to lack of visitation in 2002. Biologically, Rice Valley is a hotspot of biodiversity, including sensitive fauna species such as desert tortoise, kit fox, burrowing owl, fringe toed lizard, prairie falcon, and the cheeseweed owlfly (known from only about ten isolated populations worldwide). Recent botanical explorations have also revealed a plethora of rare plant populations, including the world’s largest stand of crucifixion thorn (Castela emoryi), which went unnoticed until 2012. A dozen other sensitive plant species occur here, and there will no doubt be more found in this under-explored area.
The Palen/McCoy Wilderness lies to the west of the Rice Valley Wilderness and consists of several mountain ranges, including the Arica Mountains. However, the wilderness boundary stops along the spine of the Arica Mountains, and really should continue east and north to include all of the sand dunes of this pristine and sensitive area. These sand dunes are a continuation of those in Rice Valley and, as mentioned above, contain a plethora of unique and sensitive species.
Both of these areas outside of current wilderness boundaries are under threat from rough OHV use, heavy grazing, and solar energy projects. There is a development project underway in the northern section of Rice Valley that will include a heliostat 650 feet tall (twice the height of the Statue of Liberty!). This horrible eyesore will be visible for miles around. The project also plans to dig a well in Rice Valley, possibly disrupting the water table of which could severely affect the large stand of crucifixion thorn and other flora and fauna of the area.” It is unlikely that this project can be stopped, but extending the wilderness boundary up to its border will at least prevent further development and bring much needed protection to this unique and beautiful valley.
Throughout this three-part series, I have discussed nine places that should be given wilderness designation. These are just a few examples of remote areas in our southwest deserts that could be, and should be, given wilderness designation or included in previously designated wilderness areas to provide protection and preservation for the future. These scenic and fragile places can’t protect themselves ‒ it is our responsibility to do so.
Duncan Bell is a field botanist for Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and spends most of his time doing floristic work in the under-collected and under-explored mountain ranges of Southern California.
• 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