desert bighorn sheep, © Byron Hukee

Wiring the Grid

Energy infrastructure and wildlife protection in the Mojave Trails National Monument

It had been a long drive. The sun was just beginning to creep in over the tops of the mountains. I hiked my way up a hill for a better view of the surroundings that I had traveled so far to see: The Mojave Trails National Monument.

© Ryan Covington 2016

The Mojave River in Afton Canyon

The roads were unpaved as soon as I left the highway, and after half a dozen very close calls in my rental car, I found a nice spot to park and head out on foot. I reached the top of a hill just after 6:00am to watch the sun come up. If you’ve never seen a desert sunrise, you should really treat yourself to one. The colors are truly spectacular.

As gorgeous as the scenery was, I had traveled out to Mojave Trails that morning for more than just sightseeing. I wanted to see first-hand how new energy infrastructure could impact this incredible area.

Updating our Energy Infrastructure

Surprisingly, energy transmission is currently one of the biggest barriers to expanding our use of renewable energy and meeting ambitious clean energy goals. In general, recent planning efforts have done a good job directing industrial-scale wind and solar energy development to areas that are less likely to negatively impact wildlife, like lower-value habitats or repurposed land such as former landfills. But these places can be quite remote, which creates a new challenge: carrying the energy produced at these sites to power-hungry western cities.

This is how I ended up in California – to work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to analyze the potential impacts that overhead wires, pipelines, electrical substations and other energy transmission infrastructure could have on sensitive wildlife, especially Agassiz’s desert tortoise, Mohave ground squirrel, and desert bighorn sheep. One of the BLM’s proposed transmission corridors cuts through the middle of the Mojave Trails National Monument, and puts significant amounts of high-quality habitat for threatened and endangered species at risk.

A Trip into Afton Canyon

Tom Egan, Defenders’ California Desert Representative, had agreed to guide me on a tour of Afton Canyon in the western portion of the newly designated monument. It was absolutely magnificent. The cliffs were drenched in the red light of morning, and six-foot-tall stands of cattails waved near the riverbed. We drove for nearly an hour before reaching a spot where the Mojave River flowed above ground. We left the car, grabbed our cameras, and headed for the river. We had missed the bighorn sheep coming down out of the mountains. But we had arrived in time to catch a male and three females still at the river for a drink. We captured a few photos before they climbed back up the rocky slopes.

© Tom Egan 2016

Bighorn sheep in Afton Canyon

I spent the rest of the day exploring the cliffs and caves in Afton Canyon. The BLM has worked to restore the ecosystem there. The return of the bighorn sheep and native vegetation, as well as the restored Mojave River, is all proof of that effort. But the plan to add an energy transmission corridor through the Mojave Trails National Monument threatens to undo many of these critical conservation gains. This trip crystalized in my mind just how important it is for the BLM to critically review and revise corridor routes, and to make sure spectacular places like Afton Canyon and the Mojave Trails National Monument are adequately protected for wildlife.