Part Three: Journey through the California Desert
I woke that morning to the smell of rain. A desert long-denied, in the throes of an historic drought, was breathing its creosote-scented sigh of relief. In the eastern United States, where I live, rain doesn’t provoke an olfactory response. It is just wet, sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet. But in the desert it’s rare and memorable, and always accompanied by desert plants’ rendition of the Ode to Joy. Once you smell desert rain you never forget it. And for me it is more than enough motivation to face a 4 am wake-up call and a battering cold morning wind.
I drive to a ridgeline that overlooks a vast valley formed by the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the Tehachapi and El Paso mountains. I’m here for one reason–tortoises.
My project is broader than that, much, much broader. In two weeks I’m trying to capture the beauty of the California desert, and the impact that energy development–wind, solar and geothermal–are having on the region. The project is an assignment from Defenders of Wildlife, and it was scheduled now because there is a major planning process in the works that will determine the future of the fragile desert and its creatures.
But today I’m focusing on one particular creature–the desert tortoise. If there is a poster-child for the potential and already realized devastation energy development in inappropriate places could bring to the desert, the tortoise is it. These hardy, desert-adapted creatures have suffered a 40-year decline due to human development of various sorts. They have lost 90 percent of their population despite being a protected species for most of that time.
The Desert Tortoise Natural Area is a stronghold for tortoises. There are far more in this preserve than in the surrounding areas, even those designated critical habitat by US Fish and Wildlife Service. Because the tortoise preserve is so well protected (it even has a fence surrounding it to thwart off-road vehicles), it has maintained a surprising diversity of desert plants—more than 230 species!—many of them the yummy forbs that form the basis of the tortoise diet.
The value of this location was illuminated for me yesterday during a visit with Dr. Kristin Berry, one of the nation’s leading experts on desert tortoises. Dr. Berry has worked for tortoise conservation for 40 years, and much of what we know about their habits, needs and threats is due to her research. And the Desert Tortoise Natural Area has been a focal point for study and conservation of the species.
Despite the essential nature of this preserve the government is considering designating this region a location for large-scale solar production, which would scrape the land of vegetation and displace or kill the tortoises here. But it’s not a done-deal. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP)—a draft of which is currently open for public comment—is a tool for deciding future land use in the immense California desert area. A responsible DRECP is desperately needed and has the potential to map out a conservation vision for this unique wild region. Without a plan, energy development will proceed ad-hoc, which has not served the wild desert well in the past decade.
But the plan as it stands does not adequately protect wildlife and the survival of wild lands and tortoise hangs in the balance. For decades these charismatic creatures, icons of the Southwest, have been forced onto smaller and smaller pieces of viable habitat and faced ongoing threats from human introduced predators and disease. And now they face the chaos of climate change, which is shifting the seasonal arrival of their foods and exacerbating drought. Climate change is also bringing a market for renewable energy development to their home. We usually label renewables as “green” energy, but like oil and gas and coal, when done on an industrial scale in the wrong places, it has the power to devastate the land. Solar scrapes the land bare, solar and wind and geothermal bring powerlines, new roads and invasive plants, and can drain scarce water resources. An added complication with renewables is the impact of climate change hanging over our heads.
Under this pressure we can forget the costs of the wrong kind of development and fail to see the alternatives right in front of us: energy efficiency and conservation; industrial scale renewable energy development on already degraded lands; and small-scale energy production in urban areas, on rooftops, roads and parking lots.
The energy systems of the future will be distributed power, micro-grids, roof-top solar, project sited on degraded lands, cutting-edge efficiency, and energy conservation. The question is, will we realize this before we needlessly sacrifice the desert and its vulnerable wildlife?
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.