©Krista Schlyer/Defenders of Wildlife

Under the Desert Sun

Part Two: Journey through the California Desert

Krista Schlyer

The following is the second in a series of four blogs from Defenders’ California Desert Recorder, Krista Schlyer (you can read her first blog here). Stay tuned for updates as she continues her #DefendOurDesert tour, and follow along via social media.

The sun has a special relationship with the desert. It showers attention on this land in intense, killing heat, a kind of fiery stare only the heartiest of wild creatures can endure. But it also rewards the desert with some of the most soul-breaking beauty that a mind can manage, a beauty so profound it hurts your heart to witness it, like it’s going to explode your chest with the generosity of life.©Krista Schlyer/Defenders of Wildlife

Last night in the Silurian Valley in California I felt that sweet pain as I watched clouds in the broad valley amphitheater fade from white, to yellow, to pale blue-gray, and just as I was packing up my cameras for the night, two lightning bolts of blindingly bright salmon-pink shot like comets across the sky. The land itself turned rosy in the reflected glow of the radiant clouds.

There are many who dismiss the desert–I’ve heard it often. It’s just a desert, barren, lifeless. Nothing could be further from the truth, a truth shouted from the Avawatz Mountain peaks that tower above the Silurian Valley; declared indisputably in the thundering of bighorn hooves against rock; and whispered in the branches of creosote, and beneath the ground in the burrows of desert squirrels, lizards and tortoises.

The value of this land is also apparent in a roomful of desert dwellers gathered to give feedback on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which will map out the location of future energy development in the California Desert. Perhaps 400 people turned out in Victorville on October 29, and the majority of them spoke a simple, clear message— large-scale solar, wind and geothermal development do not belong in many areas in the wild and fragile desert. This kind of development belongs on rooftops and degraded lands, in areas where it won’t impact wildlife and the special places in the desert.

©Krista Schlyer/Defenders of WildlifeThere are areas of the desert where renewable energy development can be appropriate, but it doesn’t belong in the Silurian Valley, or the Soda Mountains to the west. These lands lie on the southern doorstep of Death Valley National Park and they form the northern boundary of Mojave National Preserve. They do not lie within either national park unit, an odd omission. Silurian and Soda are both every bit a national park by merit. And because they were left out of the designation, conservation of these wild lands takes on a special importance.

These lands provide critical linkages between Death Valley and Mojave for wild species like bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats as they travel between islands of protected habitat. Never has this been more important than now, as an historic drought brings home the reality of climate change. Animals will have to be able to move if they are going to survive the changes we’ve set in motion, and we have to make sure they have protected lands and protected migration corridors to be able to do that.©Krista Schlyer/Defenders of Wildlife

The fate of these precious places hangs in the balance, as they are proposed as possible locations for future solar and wind energy development. Energy development, whether you call it green or not, is still development. It requires scraping the ground, building roads and transmission lines, water consumption and traffic for maintenance. It will alter wild desert forever and the loss in this particular area would be incalculable, as articulated by one desert resident in the Victorville meeting: “When you break the ground in the desert, it’s permanently broken.”

A cadre of desert advocates are giving their every ounce of energy to make sure that doesn’t happen here, including David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association, who put the situation like this: “This is one of the truly crucial issues of our time. We are talking about the future of the desert.”

The issue at hand is not whether we pursue renewable energy, but where we get it. Do we get our energy from rooftops and degraded lands–or from the last remaining wilderness and critical wildlife habitat?

For creatures like the imperiled desert tortoise, which has suffered a 40-year decline due to human development, survival on this planet swings on a renewable energy pendulum. The DRECP is the instrument that will decide the fate of the desert and its creatures, from bighorn, to tortoise, to wilderness-starved human being.

©Krista Schlyer/Defenders of WildlifeWe have a great opportunity to set ourselves on an ethical renewable energy course, and so we need to make sure that we do it right. Once the decision is made, there’s no going back. The DRECP must take into account critical places like the Silurian Valley, Soda Mountains and others and make sure that those are not the areas where development occurs.

I’ve been traveling the California desert for a week so far, on an assignment for Defenders of Wildlife to document the beauty of the desert and the need to conserve this place in light of pressure for energy development. The purpose is to help others, especially those who would dismiss the desert, see what desert dwellers see: the sun setting in Silurian Valley; a baby desert bighorn back-lit by the rising sun; the gentle morning light falling on a drought-haggard cactus in the Soda Mountains. To understand the desert is to love the desert, and what we love, we protect.

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. Follow Krista’s California Desert tour on Twitter @kristaschlyer and on Instagram at krista_schlyer.