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

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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."

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