Sacrificial Land: Will renewable energy devour the Mojave Desert?

  • Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, nearing completion on BLM land sandwiched between segments of the Mojave Desert Preserve in California.

    Terrence Moore
  • The Broadwell Valley, with the Cady Mountains in the distance, site of the 3,800-acre K Road Calico solar project, which is under review. The site lies just west of a national monument proposed in the California Desert Protection Act.

    Jack Thompson, The Wildlands Conservancy
  • A Mojave desert tortoise.

    National Park Service
  • Solar panels blanket the landscape at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, located on roughly 4,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in the Mojave Desert.

    Terrence Moore
  • Biologist and wildlife photographer David Lamfrom on the edge of the Castle Mountains.

    Terrence Moore
  • Otherworldly light during a summer rainstorm in California's Joshua Tree National Park. The park is protected from renewable energy development, but projects proposed within the 141,000-acre solar energy zone nearby would be visible from the park's southern border.

    David Lamfrom
  • The former Zzyzx Mineral Springs Resort, established in the 1940s using mineral claims on federal land, was reclaimed by the federal government in the 1970s after the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act.

    Terrence Moore
  • Desert dwellers like Amy Noel, owner of a hot springs in Tecopa, have gone from resenting federal protection of land to wanting more.

    Terrence Moore
  • Honey dates grown on China Farm Date Ranch in the Southern Death Valley.

    Terrence Moore
  • Date trees among the desert hills at China Farm Date Ranch in the Southern Death Valley. The farm's trees live thanks to the spring-fed Willow Creek.

    Terrence Moore
  • Brian Brown harvests male date palm flowers to use to pollinate the plants by hand.

    Terrence Moore
 

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.