©Krista Schlyer/Defenders of Wildlife

Remember the Owens Valley

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.

Hector Villalobos gazies down onto the beautiful Rose Valley in the California Desert.

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.

View of Rose Valley in the California Desert.

“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.

Rose Valley in the California Desert.

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.

6 Responses to “Remember the Owens Valley”

  1. Philip Russo

    Thank you so much for this piece. In 2009, I moved to Ridgecrest, CA from Boston to marry my wife, Shelia Lynn Russo. My wife Shelia was especially found of the area and at one time was a tour guide for the Coso petroglyphs. She did extensive work with the Lone Pine and Timbasha tribes. Shelia loved the land and wildlife and spoke out extensively on environmental issues. Shelia was a veritable walking encyclopedia of California natural history and taught me much about the land. Unfortunately, Shelia was killed at the Alturas, CA mass shooting in Feb. while working with a Northern Paiute tribe. She left behind a large collection of books and her writings on archaeological and historical works as well as many fond memories of the area. Thank you for your work in showing the beauty and increasing awareness to this part of our country

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Philip, thank you for your kind words about this post, and for sharing your wife’s story with us. We are so sorry to hear of your loss, and we hope that her legacy lives on through you and the work that she did in California.

    • Krista Schlyer

      Thank you Philip. I’m sorry for your loss. Sheila sounds like a wonderful person. I’m very glad to hear the article brought you happy memories.

    • Cathy Peppers

      A wonderful blog, very evocative! Philip, thanks for telling us about your wife and her life’s work. So very sad! I wonder whether and how your wife’s work could be carried on, maybe a college or library in California could assit you if this were appropriate? Sounds like you wife was such an expert on Native lore and archaeology.Our best wishes Cathy

  2. Michael Prather

    Sorry I wasn’t able to tour you out onto Owens Lake, the largest wildlife site in Inyo County. Perhaps another time. April 2013 we had 115,000 birds on the lake on a single day. Solar is an interest of ours too.

  3. Renato

    … Yes , doubtless , an amazing/interesting article by Krista & Hector … So , “10000000000000000000000 green stars” ,
    instead of 5 , only …

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