Part One: Journey through the California Desert
By Krista Schlyer
The following is the first in a series of four blogs from Defenders’ California Desert Recorder, Krista Schlyer. Stay tuned for updates as she continues her #DefendOurDesert tour, and follow along via social media.
In the foothills of the Coso Mountains, I stand with Hector Villalobos gazing down onto the beautiful Rose Valley in the California Desert. The vista spreads west to the eastern slope of the towering Sierra Nevada, and aside from Highway 395 and a barely visible utility corridor, it is quiet, wild, and breathtaking. But it’s what you don’t see here that has drawn me, at the start of a two-week photo tour for Defenders of Wildlife.
Beneath the pale green, obsidian speckled ground lies a labyrinthine matrix of tunnels, the unseen but essential underground home of the imperiled Mohave ground squirrel. Also unseen are the complex geological underpinnings of this valley, a dynamic mixture of water, heat and fissures, that in some places presses water toward the surface as springs and small lakes–which are essential to birds traveling the flyway through this arid valley.
“This is a very special place,” Villalobos muses quietly. He would know— he used to manage it. Villalobos recently retired his post with the Bureau of Land Management for this piece of the California Desert Conservation Area. He knows the deep values of this place, and the pressures that are bearing down on it— and there is worry in his voice.
This is why I’m here—development pressures bearing down on the Mohave ground squirrel and fatigued bird-travelers, as well as other wild creatures and special places in the California, Mojave and Sonoran deserts. I’m meandering a vast California desert complex, from Death Valley to the Salton Sea and the Mexican border, to document some of the wild places and critical wildlife habitat, and to help convey the importance of making smart choices about energy development–specifically renewables like solar, wind and geothermal.
Defenders has been working as a voice for wildlife in a process that will help guide the future of renewable energy development in the region. This planning process, called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), takes some much-needed steps toward guiding development on already degraded lands, but it falls far short in some places, and one of those places is the Rose Valley.
Pressure is mounting for development of geothermal, solar and possibly wind generation here, despite the Valley’s importance to wildlife, and despite the incredible loss it would be as a scenic valley on the doorstep of one of America’s largest and most beautiful national park—Death Valley.
Late in the day I sit on a high rocky ledge overlooking Little Lake, watching thousands of migrating waterfowl, including northern shovelers, grebes and coots. As I listen to the birds’ boisterous chattering and watch them dive and dabble, I recall the devastation a century ago when Los Angeles’ thirst for water drained the nearby Owens Lake, sending reverberations throughout this valley, for birds, people and the economy. Owens Valley will never be the same, but we can still make the right choices for Little Lake, Rose Valley, and what remains of the beautiful Owens Valley, in the gentle shadow of the Sierra Nevada.
Krista Schlyer is a photographer and writer and longtime collaborator of Defenders of Wildlife. She is the author of Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, and winner of the 2014 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography from the Sierra Club. Stay tuned for more from Krista’s California Desert tour. Find her on Twitter at kristaschlyer and on Instagram at krista_schlyer.