« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Sacrificial Land: Will renewable energy devour the Mojave Desert?

 

Over breakfast at the Crowbar Café in Shoshone, Calif., Brian Brown explains to me how he makes a living. Shoshone is a town of 31 in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border; Brown runs his own business here, the China Ranch Date Farm. In the late summer, he strips offshoots from unproductive palm trees and sells them to landscape designers in Las Vegas; in early fall, Orthodox rabbis descend from New Jersey to procure unopened palm fronds, or lulavim, for Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival. But in the winter and spring, Brown caters to tourists. They come from faraway places -- the East Coast, Canada, Europe -- drawn by the limitless views and thick, dark nights. So many come from Germany, in fact, that one local restaurant prints a version of its menu in German.

Brown is 58, green-eyed, tall and fit, dressed in striped shirt, jeans and sneakers, his graying hair combed to the side like a small-town mayor's -- conservative in demeanor, forward-thinking in philosophy. Long ago, the ranch belonged to his great-aunt, Vonola Modine, daughter of Ralph Jacobus Fairbanks, who founded Shoshone in 1909, and grandmother of actor Matthew Modine. The property abuts a wet trickle of the Amargosa River and slot canyons where you can bellow out arias and hear your voice echo back in triplicate; it's a popular birding spot for locals and an almost mandatory cool-down hike for expeditioners coming east out of Death Valley National Park. Brown serves them date shakes, date-nut muffins and bags of well-bred Middle Eastern varietals, all much sweeter and softer than typical store-bought Medjools.

A fourth-generation desert native, Brown grew up back when you could do as you pleased in the Mojave: Put up a shack and drill a well; start a family business around a talc deposit; test a nuclear bomb. "I drove dunebuggies and dirt bikes everywhere," Brown remembers. "Nobody stopped me, nobody ticketed me." Then came the 1970s, and Brown, like a lot of local residents his age, watched as the federal Bureau of Land Management, empowered by land-protection laws written for a nation caught up in the environmental movement, closed popular off-road routes and evicted elderly couples from cabins they'd built by hand. "They came in like stormtroopers," Brown says, "burning cabins to the ground to restore the land to its natural condition." To this day, he resents the way BLM deputies enforced those laws.

For a long time, Brown and his neighbors reflexively opposed every federal land-management effort, every habitat protection plan, even the very idea of desert conservation. They regarded the landmark 1994 California Desert Protection Act -- which raised Joshua Tree and Death Valley monuments to national park status and established the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve -- as "something getting pushed through by the Sierra Club and its henchmen."

Over time, however, those laws changed not just the landscape, but the local economy, its culture -- and eventually its longtime residents' minds. If you couldn't mine minerals, graze cattle or sell nail-biting Jeep adventures over desert rocks and dunes, you were left with one option: To serve the people who come for the desert's singular beauty and emptiness -- people willing, as the late desert naturalist Elden Hughes once put it, "to get past the color green."

"We had to figure out what assets we have," Amy Noel, who owns a local hot-springs resort in nearby Tecopa, says. "And we figured out that the greatest asset we have is the desert itself." The Mojave's nowhere-else-on-earth species, its spectacular light play on volcanic mountains, the wetlands that pop up like exotic bird carnivals among the winter sands, became the basis for a new economy. Even the night sky brought tourists: Noel is busiest on the night of the new moon, when astronomers set up a projecting telescope to look at the stars.

And so it was that Brown, along with many other local businesspeople, became a conservationist. In 2004, Brown, his cousin, Susan Sorrells, and a number of other residents founded the nonprofit Amargosa Conservancy, an organization dedicated to "telling the story of the desert," Brown says. He even joined the Sierra Club.

Lately, though, Brown has again begun to worry about federal intervention, only this time moving away from conservation toward industrialization of large tracts of untouched land. Since early 2009, when then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar fast-tracked renewable energy projects on public land, the Mojave and the adjacent Colorado Desert have been racing toward a radical transformation, unlike anything the locals ever imagined. Large-scale wind and solar projects, each occupying thousands of acres, have already begun to destroy habitat and mar prized views. "I think if we don't set (certain) places aside and say not there, then eventually what we have here will be lost," Brown says. "We're at a historical point where decisions are being made right this minute that will change this place forever."

Brown now finds himself speaking out alongside environmental groups like the National Parks Conservation Association and the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of a new California Desert Protection Act, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced in 2009 and again in 2011. The new bill folds in some of the lands left out of the 1994 bill, and would designate two new monuments in the Mojave, expand Death Valley National Park and add several hundred thousands Mojave acres to the wilderness system. It also offers formal protection to off-road vehicle recreation areas, keeping Jeep trails safe from energy development and other interference.

The bill has already died twice in the Senate, and will probably fail again: 2013 does not seem an auspicious year for new environmental laws. But that doesn't mean it's doomed: Feinstein's predecessor, Sen. Alan Cranston, spent eight years working on the 1994 law; after he retired, Feinstein braved local opposition and Senate filibusters to push it through. That kind of patience could pay off again.

But compared with the hundreds of thousands of acres that renewable energy could potentially occupy, the new desert bill protects very little. While it wends its way through the political maze, the Mojave's fate will have been determined; the sacrifice of this land, once protected by its own climatic extremes, is already under way. Whether the remaking of the Mojave yields one small but crucial contribution to the salvation of the whole planet's climate or goes into the annals of energy history as a grand but failed experiment is anyone's guess.

Five years ago this spring, I reported on the first wave of people resisting industrial renewable energy projects in the Mojave -- solar fields covering six or seven square miles, wind farms eight or nine times that size. Over the years, I watched them start nonprofits, launch blogs, lobby the media to tell their stories. When a reporter wrote an unalloyed success story about how big solar in the Mojave would fight climate change and secure U.S. energy independence, the activists filled up the newspaper's comment section with statistics about Germany's rooftop solar, the decline of the threatened desert tortoise whose habitat these projects destroy, the desert's function as a carbon sink.

Mostly, though, opponents testified at public meetings hosted by the BLM as it weighed various projects. Local businesspeople learned to talk like biologists. "Ninety percent of the biota in the desert exist beneath the desert soil," Paul Smith, the owner of the "tiny, tiny" 29 Palms Inn near Joshua Tree National Park, said at one meeting. "So a lot of what you think is a relatively dry environment, without a lot of things growing, is actually a rich biological environment."

None of those efforts could stop the juggernaut. The BLM has approved nine solar projects on 24,000 acres of public land in California and Nevada; several more large wind farms in process will take up tens of thousands of acres. Many more proposals appear as splotches on a map, squeezed between mountains and spread across valleys that few humans have sought to inhabit. Some of the solar plants, all pricey capital investments, will fall to the vagaries of financing; others will fail to secure contracts with utilities. Some wind developers will discover that their proposed locations don't have enough wind.

Still, many more projects will go forward, buoyed by California's mandate to generate 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and rushed by ephemeral tax incentives. Nor are public-land projects all there is to worry about. On the May morning I met with Brown, he talked about a 500-megawatt installation planned for five square miles of a former ranch near Pahrump, Nev., 15 miles east across a mountain wilderness from Shoshone and Death Valley. Hidden Hills, a concentrating solar thermal plant proposed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., will deploy two circles of mirrors, or "heliostats," each two miles wide, to focus sunlight on 750-foot towers, heating fluid inside until it flashes to gas and spins turbines. It will require new transmission through Nevada wilderness, plus natural gas lines to fuel a small start-up generator. Brown expects that infrastructure "will wedge open the door to more," noting that two more projects are on the docket in the Pahrump Valley. "That whole Nevada strip will become a big industrial zone," Brown says. "Nights will be ruined; we'll be looking at tens of thousands of acres of towers."

This desert of varied elevations can swallow grazing allotments, freeways, mines and military installations. Mountains surround it: the Panamints and Sierra to the north, the San Bernardinos and San Gabriels to the south. If you climb Telescope Peak in the Panamints, braving narrow trails above thousands of feet of scree, you can take in both the lowest point in the Lower 48, at Badwater in Death Valley, and the very highest, Mount Whitney in the Sierra. Within the Mojave National Preserve, craggy hills rise to 5,000 feet and descend into gravelly bajadas that explode with pink-and-gold blooms in a good spring. Fog rolls in, snow falls, and summer thunderclouds focus dramatic beams of light. Landscapes that look barren up close take your breath away from great distances.

What the desert's vistas can't absorb are miles of wind turbines and skyscraper-high solar towers, like the ones already standing at BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, the first big public-land solar project, now nearing completion on California's border with Nevada. Situated at the base of the Clark Mountains between segments of the Mojave Preserve, Ivanpah will generate 400 megawatts of electricity to potentially power 140,000 homes. The plant occupies six square miles, or roughly 4,000 acres -- twice the land area of Jackson, Wyo., almost the size of eight-square-mile Ogden, Utah, or the entire city of Redondo Beach, Calif.

Given that the planet's climate is already changing, partly because of carbon emissions from coal plants, we may need scaled-up clean energy to head off catastrophic environmental change. And plenty of people, good environmentalists all, consider Ivanpah a necessary achievement. The Natural Resources Defense Council's director of Western Transmission, Carl Zichella, was on board with Ivanpah from the beginning, back when he held a similar post at the Sierra Club. Local chapters were less gung-ho, but national leaders set out to convince them: Brian Brown remembers Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's national president, showing up at a meeting of the Sierra Club's Desert Committee in early February 2011. "What he said was, basically, the Sierra Club knows there are inappropriate places for solar. Then he launched right into the political speech of saving the planet."

The persuasion, however, worked the other way -- especially after biologists confirmed, in the spring of 2011, that the Ivanpah site was home to many more threatened desert tortoises than the company's surveys had predicted. By the end of that year, even Brune and Zichella agreed that future large-scale solar and wind shouldn't proceed without land and species conservation in mind. Both the Sierra Club and the NRDC filed lawsuits against a solar project in the Mojave that would have interrupted desert bighorn sheep migration; the NRDC also came out against the company's proposal to build a 500-megawatt plant in the central Mojave near the town of Twentynine Palms, a gateway to Joshua Tree National Park.

Barbara Boyle, a Sacramento-based Sierra Club energy policy analyst, says that for most environmental groups, "the focus has really shifted from chipping away at the problem to understanding how we can protect ecosystems on a landscape scale." To that end, the BLM and the Energy Department, staffed up with stimulus money in 2009, pressed forward with a plan to designate certain areas in six Western states as appropriate for renewable energy development. Future developers who choose these sites could move quickly from application to construction, confident that environmental reviews have been completed in advance.

It was, from most perspectives, an honest and vigorous effort to lessen the impact of renewable energy on ecologically sensitive lands. Two areas environmentalists had objected to, one north of Joshua Tree called Iron Mountain, and another around the Pisgah lava field south of the Mojave Preserve, were removed from the proposal's original draft. Other, more appropriate areas -- the West Mojave closer to exurban Los Angeles, the Chocolate Mountains, which abut an Air Force gunnery range -- are being considered as alternatives.

Those zones are not binding; they're only incentives. The agencies have also left 22 million acres open for development -- "roughly 13 times the 138,000 acres BLM predicts will be needed to satisfy the 20-year demand for utility-scale solar power under California's aggressive renewable portfolio (standard)," The Nature Conservancy's Laura Crane pointed out at a public meeting.

Worse, "they came five years too late," says Brendan Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity's public-lands director. Ivanpah lies outside the zone, as do the many projects clustered around it: First Solar has put up a 60-megawatt photovoltaic field here and plans to build two more, five times the size of the first. Bechtel Corp. has applied for rights to install six square miles of photovoltaic panels a few miles south along spring-fed Soda Lake, in an area California Fish and Wildlife has already identified as bighorn sheep habitat. That project would need only a tiny amount of water, but that tiny amount of water, drawn from the local aquifer, could be the ruin of a small and locally famous fish, the endangered Mojave tui chub, which persists nowhere else on earth but in Soda Lake's small, isolated springs.

"The solar developers say to us, 'You guys always find something,' " Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, says with a laugh. "And it's true, we do. Because there is always something."

The day after my breakfast with Brown in Shoshone, I go for a drive with Seth Shteir and David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that in the last decade has gone from quiet lobbying to open activism in its determination to protect this desert from renewable development. We plan to visit some of the wild places included in the new desert protection bill, blue pools choked with green reeds on the rugged edges of Death Valley and the variegated mountains farther south, near the Mojave Preserve. Lamfrom, 34, is a dark-haired, southern Florida import with a sharp eye for wildlife; even at night, he's constantly pointing out camouflaged creatures -- a fringed-toed lizard in a sand dune, a coiled Mojave green rattler soaking up the night heat on an asphalt road. Shteir, 45, a fresh-faced, blue-eyed Midwesterner, is like the science guy, backing Lamfrom up with binoculars and facts. In a 4x4 truck rented for the day, we drive up a dirt road to the remains of a 1907 mining camp, where old trash sometimes surfaces. "Sardine cans and whiskey bottles," Lamfrom says, picking up a shard. "Signs of a hard-living crowd."

At sunset, the three of us stand on a high slope and face north toward the Castle Mountains, which look, in essence, like little castles -- castles that were once full of gold. The range and the surrounding area, the 340-square-mile Lanfair Valley, were left out of the original 1994 Mojave Preserve boundaries because, until the end of the last century, gold and silver were still being extracted from the rocks. The desert bill would include them, a prospect that has already scared away developers. "Two solar projects had been proposed for this parcel," Lamfrom says, "but the fact that they were being spoken for by a powerful U.S. senator added a discouraging layer of complexity."

Nothing so far, however, has discouraged San Diego-based Oak Creek Energy from testing the wind resources in these mountains as it considers building here, on one of the few high-elevation grasslands left in the Mojave, and just outside the boundaries of Feinstein's proposal. It's an area thick with Joshua trees –– "a different subspecies than the one you find in the park," Shteir explains. "Those are Yucca brevifolia brevifolia; these are Yucca brevifolia jaegeriana," or "pygmy" yucca. "If you look at the leaves, they're more compact, and the trees have more branches on them." Once they're gone from here, they'll be gone forever.

Nor would Feinstein's bill deter any project on the Nevada side of the border. One of the three desert peaks visible if you look east from the Castle Mountains is a black-and-white batholith known as Spirit Mountain, designated as a "traditional cultural property" in the National Register of Historic Places. To the Native American people who lived here until the federal Department of the Interior pushed them out in the early 20th century, that view wasn't just scenery: It was the seat of all creation, and they believed a clear sight of it was essential to their very survival. In March, Duke Energy of North Carolina won approval to build a wind farm on 19,000 acres between the mountain and the Nevada town of Searchlight.

Lamfrom pilots the truck to the top of the road and parks. We get out. "Look, this is a great view of Spirit," he says, retrieving beers from his backpack for each of us. The beer is slightly warm, but welcome in the dry air. I note from the label that it happens to be German.

"There you go," Lamfrom says. "We give them our open space. They give us their beer."

In 1927, when Brian Brown's great-grandfather, Ralph Fairbanks, homesteaded on 160 acres along the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad line, he probably expected some of that open space would have filled in by now. He wisely picked a spot where the railroad line crossed the Arrowhead Trail, the first all-weather road between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Then he harnessed local springs and established a water stop for motorists in the town of Baker.

During the 1930s, while Hoover Dam was under construction, Fairbanks and his son-in-law, Charles Brown, Brian Brown's grandfather, grew the family business into an all-purpose rest stop and kept it open 24 hours a day, putting every able body in their remnant Mormon clan to work. "It was so isolated, everybody had to stop," Brown says. "You had to get water, you had to pee, you could buy liquor." When Brown's father, Charles Brown Jr., came home from World War II, he spruced the compound up for a new era, with a full-service market, three gas stations and a trailer park.

As I drive to Brown's date ranch in August, I wonder what his great-grandad would think -- watching his descendant argue for less development rather than more, fighting to keep civilization at bay.

My plan is to arrive in Baker at sundown and drive Highway 127 toward Death Valley as the temperature descends from its late-summer three-digit high. When I stop for a falafel at the Mad Greek in Baker, the temperature is 109; 20 miles out of town it rises to 110. Sixty miles later, at 10 p.m., the sensor on the dashboard display ticks up to 114. Irrationally panicked, I pull over the car and get out, forcing myself to walk into this infernal sink where neither man nor beast can survive for long, even at night. The wind blows, hotter than the still air.

A short distance from my car, I spot two figures several hundred feet from the road. I can hear them laughing and talking. One is a woman, and in the light of the waxing gibbous moon I can see that she's blonde. Whatever language they're speaking, it's not English. I imagine their flushed and happy faces, sunburned from the desert day.

When I get to my tidy room at the Shoshone Inn, the temperature has dropped to a tolerable 95, but the woman who checks me in says this is the longest period of extreme heat she's experienced in the 25 years she's lived here. "The climate, you know," she says. "It really is getting hotter. Everywhere."

The next day, balanced in a lift about 30 feet off the ground, I help Brown scour a date tree for red fruit with white flesh, still crisp like an apple. The slightly unripe Hyany dates are prized by the Coptic Christians at a monastery south of here. "The red dates have a symbolic value," Brown says. "The red is for the blood of the Coptic martyrs, the white inside stands for their purity. And the firmness of the date symbolizes their resolve." We tear off whole stems and lay them lengthwise in shallow cardboard boxes.

The work is slow and meditative, leaving lots of time to talk. By 9 a.m. the temperature is pushing 100 degrees. Brown tells me his forebears dealt with the desert heat at night by wrapping themselves in water-soaked sheets, an altogether energy-efficient way of cooling, if not so good for uninterrupted sleep. "When the sheets dried, they'd wake up and wet them down again."

Brown knows the climate is changing. And he wants to believe there are appropriate places for massive wind and solar plants. First, though, he'd like to see rooftops exploited to their full potential in Southern California's sunny cities. He can imagine parking lots covered with solar canopies in the baking west Mojave cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, supplying those Los Angeles exurbs with the kind of "distributed" electricity generation -- electricity generated close to where it's used -- they need to keep their air conditioners running. "I don't understand why these utility companies aren't embracing distributed generation," he says. The simple answer: California's three largest utilities are owned by investors who expect a return. Putting solar panels on rooftops is not how they make money.

Nor is private land such an obvious option anymore. "For years, the conservation community has been saying, 'If you're going to do these things, do them on private land. Make them water-thrifty.' Well, guess what? Hidden Hills would be on private land. And the usage estimate is 140 acre-feet a year, which is pretty low. I struggle with that. Because if they can't do it on private land with a water use of 140 acre-feet a year, are we saying no solar anywhere in the desert?"

In early April, BrightSource Energy asked the California Energy Commission to suspend Hidden Hills' application. Recent hearings about the project had been contentious, with the commission's own staff presenting evidence showing that  heliostats could fry birds' wings as they flew through the solar field. Richard Arnold of the Pahrump Paiute Indians had claimed the project would interrupt the sacred Salt Song Trail. Even the Nevada BLM had weighed in, concerned that the plant's water use would deplete the springs that sustain a federally endangered pupfish.

None of those concerns caused BrightSource to pause on Hidden Hills; nor is the project done for. Instead, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said in a statement that the company needs time to develop "more flexible resources," such as solar power with storage.

"Hidden Hills is a good site to deploy solar thermal with storage technology," Wachs wrote, but to change technology now will require new hearings and evidence. In the meantime, the company will focus on a solar-with-storage collaboration with Spanish developer Abengoa. The 500-megawatt Palen Solar Power Project will occupy 5,200 acres, all within the Riverside East solar zone. It is not without controversy: Its two 750-foot towers will be visible from the higher mountains in southeast Joshua Tree National Park.

Later, Brown and I head south to the monastery with our bounty of dates, pausing in the place where I felt the intense heat the night before. It's called the Silurian Valley, where the road descends from a high plateau to a dry lake just a few hundred feet above sea level. It got hotter on the way down, and windier, too, because the 6,000-foot Avawatz Mountains to the west concentrate the breeze in the playa. In the winter, it freezes.

It's here where you can stand on what feels like the edge of the earth and look far into the distance at uninterrupted space, here where I saw the couple I took to be European staring in the dim moonlight at a landscape that looks no different than it did 100, 300, even a thousand years ago. That, however, may soon change: Spanish developer Iberdrola is eying 15,000 acres in the Silurian Valley for a combination wind and solar facility. Fifteen thousand acres is hard to grasp: 23 square miles, sandwiched between the Avawatz Mountains and the Kingston Range -- wilderness areas that would be protected under Feinstein's new desert bill -- and Dumont Dunes, a popular off-road playground. Trucks, towers, construction and new roads; an industrial park where there once was nothing but extremes -- of distance, of heat and cold, of silence.

As of this writing, Feinstein hadn't yet reintroduced her desert bill. Rumor has it that her staff is busy writing up a new provision that will require renewable energy developers to pay into a wildlife habitat mitigation fund instead of finding land to replace lost habitat on their own. The retooling may take some time, and will have little near-term impact: With the state of California having nearly met its renewable energy goals and state and federal incentives close to exhausted, renewable energy development in the desert will probably stall out in the wake of the projects currently under way.

That lull will give us "some breathing space to get future planning right," Brendan Cummings says. He's hoping that California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan helps both developers and environmentalists figure out where to put large plants when and if demand ramps up again. A state-federal partnership, the conservation plan has brought together private landowners, utilities, municipal governments and environmentalists to determine appropriate places for renewable energy, piecing together private and public parcels where necessary and lining up approvals in advance.

The Sierra Club's Boyle, who's heavily involved, says that a draft plan should be out next fall. "Right now, we're nailing down lists of covered species, biological objectives for keystone species, really getting into the important details," she says. "We're trying to tie the conservation effort to actual biological goals so it has scientific integrity."

Cummings hopes it works. "From a climate perspective," he says, "we want and need more renewable energy projects. If we're going to meaningfully address climate change, the state needs to raise its renewable energy standard from 33 to 50 to even 100 percent. We're an energy-intensive society. So even if these planning processes feel like we're planning for something that's already happened, the time will come again when we need them.

"If we don't," Cummings warns, "we'll have failed on the matter of climate policy. And if we fail on climate policy, we'll have far worse problems than arguing over the viewshed in the Silurian Valley."

In mid-September, a few weeks after my visit to Brown's date farm, my husband and I drive home through thunderstorms that start at the Virgin River Gorge in northwestern Arizona and carry on all the way to the California border. We've just been camping in Utah's Wasatch and Uinta mountains, and hiking around west Yellowstone. But nothing could top the dramatic scene we hit as we cross the Nevada border, where sunlight pierces curtains of rain over painted mountains, storms over the Mojave. We leave the interstate for lunch in the town of Nipton, and stand in line at the local trading post with an effusive electrician, blond and sunburned and well-fed, on lunch break from his wiring job at Ivanpah. "I have work lined up in this state for two years!" he tells me. We buy beers and Fritos to go with our packed leftovers. Then we sit outside at the picnic tables to watch the dramatic sky.

It's a view I used to love, across the Mojave Preserve to its next section, which begins on the other side of the freeway at the Clark Mountains. You can't see the freeway from here; you can't even tell it's there. You can't even detect the cheap circus carnival that is Primm, Nev., with its gaudy roller coaster and fast-food chains, tucked over the border to the north. What you can see, what I see for the first time, are the three towers of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station, spaced one mile apart, each 500 feet tall, topped with large white frames around empty black spaces. They look like skyscrapers over a small city, built to power a small city -- a city nowhere near here.