Part Four: Journey through the California Desert
Curious creaturely shadows dapple the landscape of Mojave National Preserve, awash in the pale dawn hues of desert yellow and midnight blue. Wordlessly they beckon, and I am compelled to halt my journey to the Ivanpah Valley, and stand for a moment in the hushed foothills of the New York Mountains.
I have seen Joshua trees before many times, but not in this density, and something about the glittering starlight against the deep blue-black sky has bid me stop. I find a Joshua tree flanked by my two favorite constellations, Canus Major and Orion, with Sirius blazing brightly on the western horizon. This moment, so quiet. I haven’t seen another car, or person all morning. A solitary cloud floats above the mountains, and begins to turn a luminous pink, completing the quintessential desert scene, from sky to mountain to beguiling otherworldly plant life. This will be the last I see of the Joshua tree for a while. I’m heading back east tomorrow after 16 days in the desert. I will be back among my neighborhood maples, poplars and oaks, and happy to be home. But I always miss the Joshua tree. So I say goodbye, and save the sight of them in the rosy light of the rising sun–tucking it away in my space for extra-special memories.
I drive up the road and over the crest of the mountains where the Ivanpah Valley spreads before me. And the serene beauty of the morning collapses. My eye is drawn immediately to a glowing white blotch on the far side of the valley. I know right off what it is, and suddenly I grasp with sad clarity the importance of the past two weeks and the critical nature of the work Defenders of Wildlife and others are doing here in the California desert.
In a blinding flash of reflected sunlight that dominates the valley I see a possible future for the wild California desert if a good, smart, planning document for renewables is not created, and soon. The Ivanpah solar plant is the largest solar thermal plant in the world spread over 3500 acres of public land at the doorstep of the Mojave National Preserve.
LLess than 10 years ago I came to the California desert to write a story for Defenders magazine about desert tortoises and their seemingly unshakable decline. One of the people I interviewed for that story feared that solar and wind development would be the proverbial nail in the tortoise coffin. At the time the Ivanpah development had not been approved, it was still a theoretical threat on the desert horizon. Today it is a shimmering scar on the horizon of the Ivanpah Valley – a valley that lies largely within the boundaries of the Mojave preserve, one of the wildest national parks in the lower-48 states.
The Ivanpah scar runs deep. Planning documents estimated about 36 tortoises would be displaced by the development, but just a year after the plant’s initial construction, more than 150 have been found, removed, and many have died. When birds fly close to the development’s solar towers they burst into flames. These excruciating bird deaths have become so common, the solar plant’s workers have taken to calling the birds “streamers.”
Over the past few weeks I have had some feedback from people following this journey to the California desert. Most of it has been positive, expressing a strong interest in a smart approach to renewable energy. But some people have pushed back, saying we have to support solar technology, and we have to accept that birds and other animals will die in order for us to get the energy we need from a non-fossil fuel source. I don’t personally believe that is an ethically justifiable position–particularly in a society as wasteful of energy as we are. I spent some time in Las Vegas on this trip–one of those places where energy consumption vaults over the line of obscene. But more importantly, the solar-at-any-cost mentality is a false dichotomy. We don’t have to take wild land and critical habitat to develop sufficient solar, wind and geothermal energy. We have enormous amounts of land already degraded where large-scale renewable energy can be responsibly sited.
With climate change already altering our natural systems and impacting wildlife we must be prepared to use cleaner energy sources. Solar is a good technology. It has the potential to revolutionize our relationship with energy; but the ultimate judge of any technology is how it is used. For solar and other resources this means ensuring that it is developed in areas with low conflicts to important natural resources and operated in a way that minimizes impacts. We must be particularly concerned about development i the wild desert. This is a unique place that provides the last habitat for desert tortoises, the last open flyways for warblers and raptors and waterfowl, the last viable corridors for bighorn sheep and other wildlife in search of suitable habitat in an era of climate change.
Places like the Silurian Valley and Soda Mountains, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, flyways in the Rose Valley and near Butterbredt Springs, the Portal Ridge and Juniper Flats–these places are the last of their kind. Their value for wild things and humankind cannot be measured, not in dollars, not in megawatts. The people I have met with over the past few weeks in the California desert spend their lives trying to save special places and vulnerable species–they are all heroes who deserve to be heard. It isn’t too much to ask that our very real need to switch to renewable energy be thoughtful. Our society has lost so much already from not thinking clearly about the impacts of energy extraction and consumption–now is the opportunity for revolutionary change, a paradigm shift in our relationship with energy.
The field of medicine, passed down from the time of Hippocrates, adheres to a guiding philosophy in its care for the human body. First do no harm. It’s time we adopted this philosophy to guide our relationship to our planetary body.
Yes all development and industry has costs. But a thoughtful society can minimize costs. Where renewable energy is concerned the answers require us to work together to find the right places, including degraded lands and infill development; replace old wind turbines with newer, more efficient designs, and hold ourselves accountable for becoming more conscious about our energy use.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan can be a vehicle for mapping out a smart approach to renewables in the California desert. In draft form it has gotten many things right: conservation of the Chuckwalla Bench, support for restoration of the Salton Sea, much development focused on degraded lands. But it also sacrifices some important places that should not be sacrificed.
Its authors can find instruction from the grave mistakes of the Ivanpah Valley. The plan can be made better and the DRECP can be an instrument of a new renewable green Hippocratic ethic–first do no harm.
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