Monthly Archives: August 2010


Two weeks ago, lying on my back at 7,400 feet watching the stars peer down at me through a canopy of piñon and juniper, it struck me — once again — that I have been fortunate.

I was in the White Mountains, trying to fall asleep after a day of meeting with some of my fellow desert protection activists, and as usually happens on my first night sleeping on the ground it was a little hard to drift off. My mind replayed the conversations of the afternoon, the beautiful places threatened and the brilliant attempts to preserve those places, the politics and the annoyances of politics, and every now and then I would wake from a half-doze with a start and find the conversations in which I’d been enmeshed were just replaying in my head, chatter in my excited mind as the Pleiades slipped up over the eastern horizon.

Three or four times I woke that way, and last waking brought with it that realization, dredged up out of my semiconscious mind somehow.

I looked at my life, my work and home and writing and love, and then I thought of where I was three years previous. Three years ago I was broken, a life’s love dead, another on its way to dissolution. My heart had gone out. I had been coasting through my life for a long time. And then the crisis came, and the break. A smarter, more prudent man might have scrambled to save little bits of his life. There was much good in my marriage. The Bay Area was the first place that ever felt like home. I had a lifetime’s worth of friends and a garden and a widely popular website and a life that was in all physical ways comfortable.

I look at things I wrote even before Zeke died, and my isolation and my alienation fairly leaps off the page, a longing for the chance to walk away from all of it and start over. I wrote those feelings off, back then; romantic maunderings of a middle-aged man. Who doesn’t imagine another life? Who doesn’t wonder, when traveling, what it would be like to vanish into the new town they’re seeing, to rent an apartment and fill out those change of address forms? Fantasy.

And then the break came. Two years ago I jumped. House and garden, family, job, trails I loved and mountainsides I saw with a heart’s shudder each day, I left it all. I headed away from the place I’d made my home, moved to a house I knew I’d have for three months, no leads for further employment and scant savings.

A smarter, more prudent man would not have, and oh, what he would have missed. I have a community of colleagues who eat and breathe the desert. I have a mission rekindled in my life.  I have a temporary home in a new city that provides me with something new to delight in most days. I have sweet new friends I never would have met. I have a cat.

And I have The Raven, who sees me better than anyone ever has.

I would have none of these if I had done the smart thing, the prudent thing.

Some years ago today The Raven came into this world. We spent the day together celebrating, a quiet joyous day with close friends I did not know not long ago, sweet details and happy errands in a new-familiar landscape, and I thought again of that night two weeks ago, up in the Whites. I leapt and I found new friends, new homes, new tasks to stoke my passion but mostly I leapt and I found her. She does not complete me: she merely makes me a better man.

Happy Birthday, beloved. Many more.

Some real science on desert energy development

Via Basin and Range Watch’s Laura Cunningham, the Independent Science Advisors draft report to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for the State of California. Laura says:

You can’t get better scientists, and they recommend good things, like not placing any solar projects on desert ecosystems, not to ever translocate tortoises, don’t block sand corridors, etc. …
Good synopsis of the key ecological values of the deserts and how renewable energy facilities should be sited to avoid further harm to them.

DRECP ISA Report Public Draft August 06 2010

Non-depressing Ivanpah item


The alluvial fan pictured here is about five miles north of Nipton. I always meant to go for a little hike through the canyon that feeds it, and probably ought to soon.

Anyway, Geoblogger Kyle House has some interesting observations about this oh-so-familiar (to me) landform at hsi Posterous blog, here: The Barbie Fan: A pathologically perfect Nevada alluvial fan. He mentions the Ivanpah Valley Mapping Project, about which I would love to learn more.

How you can help save Ivanpah — a concrete action

The California Energy Commission has indicated that if they get more public comment on their proposed decision to approve the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, they may have to delay their decision.

I can’t stress how important even a short delay might prove. The contractors basically have to have the tortoises moved off the site by the end of October. If they don’t do so, they can’t start construction until next spring. If they don’t start construction by December 31 2010, they lose their ARRA (stimulus) funding.

In other words, a few weeks’ delay might severely impair the project, perhaps truncating or even preventing it.

How often do you get a chance to really make change by writing one letter?

The more detailed and hard-to-answer questions the CEC gets in comments, the more likely they are to delay their decision. I can provide you with topics to cover, and you can choose one or more to write in your own words. The more varied voices we have here the better.

But don’t think you have to be an expert in anything relevant to contribute a comment. You merely have to be concerned about the privatization of public wildlands for industry. And you have to be able to write it and submit it in the next few days. The deadline is September 3.

Obviously, more detailed and expert and devastatingly argued is better, but I’d rather people submit comment even if all they have time and energy for is one sentence, even if that sentence is just “Don’t approve the Ivanpah SEGS.”

If you think you can do this, let me know: leave a comment here or email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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. I can provide you with material that will help.

I’m begging you. Please do this with me.

Driving stakes into the heart of the desert

image A note from Laura Cunningham of Basin and Range Watch just popped into my inbox:

Hi Chris,

Kevin and I are at Ivanpah, and BrightSource has starting staking out the entrance road, Colosseum Road, for tortoise exclusion fencing! We are not sure they can do this, but will look into it. Also it appears Phase 1 has stakes put into the desert.

Please spread around as you see fit. Thanks!



Carbon sequestration by desert landscapes

…is what this post was supposed to be about, except that I wrote it in a browser window without a backup copy, because I am an idiot, and ExpressionEngine failed to save it properly. I need to reconstruct the entire post, which took a couple hours, and though I have to do that in the next day or so for other reasons I am unwilling to do so tonight and now I hate everything.

So here’s a picture of a bunny.


Avian mortality at a desert concentrating solar facility

This study, done at the Daggett Solar One plant in the Mojave in the early 1980s, concludes that while local bird populations may not have been critically endangered by Solar One, larger concentrating solar plants could potentially imperil more sensitive bird populations in other places. Mortality resulted from two main causes;

  1. Collisions with structures, especially reflective surfaces, and;
  2. Flying into the concentrated sunlight and getting incinerated, Icarus-style.

Golden eagles and several other bird species of concern frequent the Ivanpah site, which would be many times the size of Solar One. 

Solar One Avian Mortality Study

Ocotillo solar site would doom archaeological treasure

From Basin and Range Watch:

At the Imperial Valley Solar Project site, cultural resources are very dense, including lithic artifacts, ceramic pieces, prehistoric camps, ancient trails, cairns, agave roasting pits, geoglyphs, sleeping circles, ancient trails, lithic workshops, fire pits, ceramics, a “village,” shell middens, geoglyphs, and a metate fragment, according the California Energy Commission Staff Assessment/Bureau of Land Management Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Cremation sites of concern to Native Americans would also potentially be disturbed by the placement of 40-foot tall SunCatcher dishes…

Fragile human remains on the project site should be completely avoided, the Tribes say (Quechan, Cocopah, and Kwaaymii), but the only choice offered them has been to cover the cremation sites with a cement cap.

Cultural experts for the CEC revealed that the Imperial Valley site has the most cultural and archaeological resources of any of the several large solar projects proposed for the California Desert, the second being the Calico Solar Project with half the density of artifacts and features. In fact, the CEC expert gave testimony at today’s hearing that the Imperial site is so dense with cultural material it surpasses in amount all other CEC cases to date.

Of course that hasn’t stopped CEC from approving the project. Read the rest.

Desert tortoises on film

I meant to post this when it came out in March. Don’t know why I didn’t. This is a wonderful if downbeat video by the USGS on what it’s like to be a desert tortoise these days. It’s broken up into four parts for YouTube purposes.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

A few other desert solar things

Item: I had a significant uptick in people signing off of the email version of this site’s feed as soon as yesterday’s edition hit the tubes, no doubt due to my dissing the Sierra Club. Such things happen, but it reminds me that I should make something clear. I have a huge amount of respect for Sierra Club activists. Much of what I’ve learned about big desert solar has been as a result of Sierra Club activists. Having worked in environmental non-profits for quite some time, I completely understand that an organization can have policies that its rank and file members and staff do not share. Hell, at Earth Island there were often projects that had conflicting policies, so that no staff person could have possibly agreed with every one of EII’s policies. I’ve criticized The Wilderness Society, and there are Wilderness Society activists, some of them well up in the hierarchy, who I count as dear friends. This is about policies, not people, and I call out individuals only when they happen to be the architects of said policies.

Item: on the other end of the spectrum from the unsubscribers are those people who have said rather kind and generous things about the things I’ve posted the last few days. For that I thank you, but I really feel like I haven’t been pulling my weight in this discussion. The real standard-bearers on this issue have been our friends at Basin And Range Watch, which site you should be reading as often as possible. It’s as close to a one-stop shop for fauxnewable energy news as exists online, and Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham have been tireless advocates of saving our irreplaceable ancient desert landscape from get-rich-quick Big Energy schemes. Most of what I know about desert solar that I didn’t learn from Sierra Club activists I’ve learned from them. They jumped in to intervene in the Ivanpah permitting process among many others, and for that thankless task they have my undying gratitude and should have yours too.

Item: Another person who’s done a lot more on this topic lately than I have is Shaun at the recently redesigned Mojave Desert Blog, which is another site you should be checking daily. Shaun posted a rather scandalous item a few days back that says a whole lot about the kind of people pushing these big projects:

As energy companies rush to bulldoze open space in the Mojave Desert, they are required to conduct surveys to determine the extent of damage that would be done to plant and wildlife. Tessera Solar, the company seeking to build the Calico Solar project on nearly 8,000 acres of pristine Mojave Desert wilderness managed by the BLM, contracted with Mr. Jim Andre to survey the site for special status plants earlier in the CEC application process.  Mr. Andre is an expert on desert plant life, and is considered one of the best-qualified individuals to provide impartial assessments of how energy projects will impact the Mojave.

Given Mr. Andre’s respected knowledge of desert plant life, community groups seeking to discuss the harm the project would do to biological resources presented Mr. Andre as one of their witnesses to give testimony, prompting Tessera Solar to object and have Mr. Andre barred from speaking at the early August evidentiary hearings.

Jim Andre isn’t just a respected desert biologist. He’s the Director of the Sweeney Granite Mountains Research Center, a research station run by the University of California. He’s notable for publicizing the rather surprising biodiversity of the Mojave Desert. As he wrote in the December 2008 edition of the Desert Report;

There is a broad misconception among the public (and to some extent among scientists and land managers) that we have completed our floristic inventory of the California desert, and that the remaining hotbeds for botanical discovery are limited to places like Indonesia and the Brazilian Amazon. Yet the California desert is, in fact, one of the remaining floristic frontiers in the United States. Numerous mountain ranges (e.g. Turtles, Dead, and Avawatz Mountains) have fewer than 100 herbarium voucher records currently housed in herbaria. The vast majority of herbarium specimens from the desert region are recorded along paved roads. New, rare, and localized endemics continue to be discovered, noteworthy range extensions are still frequently reported, and distributional limits of common taxa are poorly established. Even in areas of high research focus, such as the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, a new manzanita species was found growing on a ridge overlooking the laboratories below. Clearly, the Jepson Desert Manual represents only a work in progress rather than the final word on floristic diversity and distribution in our desert.

Efforts to inventory and document plants in the California desert, as measured by the number of vouchers collected per decade, have actually declined since the early half of the 20th Century when famous botanists such as Willis Jepson and Phillip Munz explored and documented the region extensively. Much of the information that populates our agency and herbarium inventory databases is based on collections made more than 50 years ago. Despite the overall decline in field collections, taxonomists have still added an average of three plant taxa per year to the California desert flora during the most recent half century. Most of these are newly described taxa, but some represent taxa previously known only from adjacent states or bioregions of California. With the improved tools for DNA and morphometric analysis, there has been a pulse of new species added to the California desert in the last decade. Using the trends from the past 50 years, if we extrapolate forward in time, we can expect another 120-200 native taxa to be added to the California desert over the next 50 years.

The take home message is that we are far from completing even the basic inventory of species in the California desert. We should be humbled, next time we are hiking through the desert, to know that up to 10% of the plants we see on the ground may in fact not be represented in the Jepson Desert Manual, and many of these are yet to be described by science!

Barring Andre’s testimony in a hearing to permit the bulldozing of 8,230 acres of intact desert habitat at Calico sends a clear message that the developers aren’t interested in a fair, honest record of what might exist on the site. And Calico isn’t the only project on Tessera’s drawing board. They clearly can’t be trusted, and yet the same Energy Commissioners who scoffed at Tessera’s attempt to squelch actual science about Calico rubberstamped their project at Ocotillo.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The Sierra Club National defends its support of paving desert wildlands with solar sprawl by saying things like “rooftop solar is great, but we can’t install it soon enough.”

Apparently they really meant that. Our pal Morongo Bill did a little research so brilliant I wish I’d thought of it:

In the screen capture above, the rooftop where the A inside the orange balloon is the building housing their national headquarters in San Francisco, California. Why are there no solar arrays atop this building housing what is alleged to be one of the greenest organizations in the country and self charged with protecting our environment, especially from global warming?

There’s more of his methodology on his Backporch.