Category Archives: Desert

The giant ancient forest you cannot see

Imagine we found a country the size of France covered in ancient forest, where trees a century old were mere saplings just getting started, where the oldest sprouted when near-mythical monsters roamed the landscape.

Imagine visiting this country, standing in a particular spot and watching. Perhaps you’ve left the house on an errand. Perhaps you just went out to get some air. And you walk a half a block from the place you’re staying, caught up in one important thought or another, and you suddenly realize that within 60 feet of you are three trees more than a thousand years old. You turn your head and there are two more.

You start to see the open, park-like forest with new eyes, really seeing the unimaginable ancientness of it. Everywhere you look: trees 700, 1,000, 3,000 years old. You rack your brain for half-remembered scraps of human history. Charlemagne was emperor when that tree sprouted, and that one a dozen paces east was probably sending out leaves when the Magna Carta was written. Every now and then you see a tree that could have sheltered Nefertiti, had she the airfare.

And imagine that as you really see the trees for the first time, you remember hearing about a hundred different plans to cut them down. It’s not that their timber is valuable, or that people need centuries-old firewood.

It’s just that people have deemed this incredibly ancient forest worthless, and they’ve decided the land it occupies could be better used for other things. And so they plan to bulldoze it, stack the trees in debris piles to rot, and build their more important parking lots and garbage dumps.

This country, this forest: they exist. I live there. The trees rarely exceed ten feet in height. They are well known to science: Mojave yucca, diamond and buckhorn cholla, Mormon tea, but mostly, and almost everywhere you look below 5,000 feet in the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, creosote.

creosote

A mere baby of less than a century

The oldest known creosote bush, about 40 miles from my house as the raven flies, is estimated to be 11,700 years old. It’s a ring of seemingly independent shrubs. A single creosote seed germinated, its stem grew and widened for perhaps a century, then a side shoot emerged from the ground next to the original stem. It grew. Side shoots emerged. After another century or five, the oldest stems began to die, leaving a widening hole in the clump of stems.

That 11,700-year-old creosote, which for a tiny fraction of its life has been known as King Clone, expanded outward across the Mojave landscape at an average rate of three quarters of a millimeter per year. It’s not the only creosote that has done so. When I take my dog out for her walk in the morning, I pass within stone-throwing distance of two or three dozen smaller rings, some of them ten or twelve feet across at the soil. Some have open soil in their centers. Others have not yet cleared the dead stems from their hearts.

Do the math, and use a much more conservative millimeter per year to defend against charges of hyperbole, and that’s 300 years of age for every foot in width of those rings. Creosote stands in excess of 500 years old are as common as dirt where I live. (That’s literally true: just about the only humus you’ll find in this part of the desert gathers at the base of these creosote clumps.) A ten-foot clump of creosote may have germinated about the time David threw his stone at Goliath, a 12-foot clump before people in Japan started growing rice.

I have been thinking these days about a particular large-scale plan to convert much of the California desert to renewable energy generation plants. This plan has been a decade in the making. It is controversial, but it is getting less so as the years pass. There are provisions in this plan to set aside wide swaths of the California desert for conservation, in arrangements as permanent as anything can be when it’s the U.S. government doing the arranging. There are provisions to protect certain threatened species, and to preserve habitats that are rare or ecologically important or which possess the ineffable characteristics of wilderness.

And so many environmental organizations have been persuaded to support the plan, which trades those protected areas for freedom to convert a large number of square miles of desert deemed to have no wilderness characteristics, lesser ecological significance, fewer endangered animals, fewer rare plants.

Creosote is the most common woody plant in the Mojave. No one fears its extinction. In this renewable energy plan, creosote is mentioned primarily to identify the kind of habitat it dominates. It is not a special status species; it is barely a regular status species. It is ubiquitous and environmentalists peer through its branches hoping to see something interesting on the other side.

I have seen creosote rings 1,500 years old on the footprints of proposed desert solar facilities, at the verges of dirt roads in off-road vehicle sacrifice areas. I have seen them bedecked with discarded plastic bags in vacant lots next to chain drugstores.

They make up the only ancient forest I’ve ever heard of that no one can see, though they look square at it.

I see it lately, and it tears my heart. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

Berta Cáceres and the California Desert

caceres

Berta Cáceres | Photo courtesy COPINH

In March of this year, Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras. Her family is certain the assassins were sent to end Cáceres’ opposition to a twenty-megawatt hydroelectric project at Agua Zarca, on the Gualcarque River near Honduras’ border with eastern El Salvador.

The project, which is still being touted as a source of carbon-free power for more than 100,000 Honduran households, would have blocked Cáceres’ Lenca people from access to the river. The Lenca hold the Gualcarque as sacred. Cáceres’ work to stop the project, on behalf of the group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was lauded worldwide. Her efforts won her the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Her death is mourned by human rights and environmental activists around the world.

Also in March of this year, The Bureau of Land Management held a meeting with Native tribes in the California desert to discuss the proposed Crimson Solar Project, which would generate more than 20 times the power of Agua Zarca, using six million solar panels on as much as 4,000 acres of land adjacent to the Mule Mountains, which the Mojave people and others hold sacred.

The project is new, and local Native people sometimes take a while to draft opposition to specific projects. I don’t wish to put words in their mouths. But after talking to a few of them, it’s clear to me that Crimson enjoys little support among local tribes, and is opposed by many. Aside from infringing on landscapes held sacred for millennia, Crimson risks depleting valuable groundwater — solar panels in the desert do need washing, and dust control is a serious public health issue — and the Mohave in particular suspect their rights to use Colorado River water may be a casualty to increased water demand from industrial solar.

And yet few of the environmental organizations who lent early support to COPINH and to Berta Cáceres as they fought renewable energy development on the Gualcarque have not said word one to oppose Crimson Solar, or to support the project’s Native opponents.

There are two main reasons for this. One is sad, the other ugly.

The sad reason? While Agua Zarca is one of just four planned hydroelectric projects in Lenca territory, there are dozens of solar projects proposed, under construction, or completed on culturally significant lands in the California Desert. Across the interstate from the Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat Crimson would convert to an industrial facility lies the nearly 2,000-acre Genesis Solar Project, which generates 10 times as much power as Agua Zarca would, and the construction of which was halted time after time as construction crews found cultural artifacts, habitation sites, and human remains. Being built not far to the east are the Blythe solar projects, which will generate 485 megawatts on a bit under 4,000 acres, and the adjacent McCoy solar project, now generating 250 megawatts on about 2,300 acres — though McCoy’s owners hope to double its output once they find a buyer for the additional power. To the west, the 3,800-acre Desert Sunlight solar project has been powering Californians’ video game controllers for a few years, at the cost of culturally significant landscapes and the views from Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds the plant on three sides. Down the road from Desert Sunlight, the ever-changing Palen Solar project might convert as much as 5,000 acres if it ever gets built. The proposed 3,600-acre Blythe Mesa solar project and 4,900-acre Desert Quartzsite project, both within view of the shifting sacred sands Crimson would occupy, merely drive the point home: part of the reason you haven’t heard of the Crimson Solar Project’s harm to Native people is that Crimson is just a drop in the bucket.

And that’s only counting projects within an hour’s drive of Crimson. There are just far too many projects to track.

The ugly reason: It’s easier for American environmentalists to support Native activists living in lands far away, where their activism doesn’t risk cramping the environmentalists’ lifestyles.

And, of course, we do things differently for the most part in the United States. Cáceres’ assassination was an atrocity, as are the killings of her COPINH compañer@s both before March and since. In the U.S., we don’t bury our Native activists in unmarked graves so much any more: we bury them in paperwork and poverty and bureaucratic inertia. The Bureau of Land Management is obligated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to consult with federally recognized Native tribes when considering a project, and to take steps to protect the kind of artifacts and remains found on the Genesis Solar site and to protect the location of other sensitive sites by keeping them confidential. But while those distinct and discrete artifacts and sites are important to the tribes, they aren’t the whole story.

There are few generalizations one can make about the dozens of diverse Native cultures in the California desert, but here’s one, as near as my faulty understanding can manage: The whole desert landscape is considered something like sacred. That “S” word, mind you, carries connotations of piety that are both too exaggerated and too superficial to describe the actual relationship of people and desert. The people see themselves as part of the landscape. They see the landscape as part of the people. They see landscape, people, and a metaphysical layer of ghosts and supernatural entities inextricably intertwined.

In this world view, paving the living landscape of the wild desert is something akin to homicide. Wreaking massive changes on that landscape — industrial conversion of 40 square miles just in eastern Riverside County, if all plans proceed — is a blow to both Native culture and Native lives every bit as threatening as the joint Honduran-Chinese plan to dam the Río Gualcarque.

And yet some of the same environmental organizations that lauded Cáceres’ work, and wrung their organizational hands over her murder, are supporting the wholesale conversion of California desert Native people’s sacred landscape to power plants to run coastal cities.

It’s easier to oppose colonialism when it’s someone else doing the colonizing. When you are the colonialist, it’s important to mask it in procedure, to make a show of formal consultation and grinning respect, to speak in high-minded tones of stakeholding and win-win solutions.

That illusion must be maintained. Faults in the rhetorical armor must be defended. Those of us who’ve spoken up have often found ourselves criticized by our erstwhile colleagues; ostracized, barred from supposedly public meetings and conferences, having our jobs threatened for the simple sin of saying something about the growing cultural genocide that is renewable energy development in the desert Southwest.

 

Day and night

Antelope Ground Squirrel 06

Photo by Aaron Fellmeth, some rights reserved

I’ve been seeing neatly dissected prickly pear fruits out here the last few weeks, and yesterday morning I learned who might be responsible for some of them. I watched as a pair of white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, Ammospermophilus leucurus, examined the fruit on the cactus outside my front window to see which ones might be ripe. They were engaging, showing what seemed like affection, coming together every few minutes to rub noses and groom each other. A few minutes later, one of the heaviest, reddest tunas on the plant had had its insides surgically removed.

It’s clear that if I want seeds from that cactus, I’ll have to collect them soon.

I was bleary. I’d been up late. A poet-neighbor-friend and I had met for dinner the night before and drank pints of iced tea. This is what passes for debauchery in my life these days. She and I sat on the restaurant’s patio, catching up on the last few weeks, and as the sky darkened bats came out of the nearby palm oasis and began to drink from the hotel pool next to us, skimming mouths full of water as they flew just above the surface. And then the nighhawks came, swooping and arcing twenty feet above us, in pursuit of moths and small dragonflies. They used to visit my yard in Nipton every night, but that was nearly a decade ago. It took me a long while, and several false guesses made aloud, to identify them.

Nighthawk

Photo by Steven Kersting, some rights reserved

Return to Ivanpah

ivanpahSEGS

 

I hadn’t been back since they built it, since they denuded six square miles of old-growth desert, shredded ancient cacti and yuccas for a project with an expected functional lifespan shorter than my own remaining life expectancy.

I hadn’t been back. I’d been monitoring the plant’s construction, and then its operation, about as closely as anyone not in the employ of a government agency or energy company. But I couldn’t bring myself to go look.

The valley saved my life not long ago, less than a decade ago, reminded me in the midst of grief and dislocation that there was still beauty to be found among the head-high creosotes and the swooping nighthawks, and then I failed to return the favor. Instead, I heard from people who told me the sacrifice wasn’t all that big. The valley was worthless, they said, or at best a place it was a necessary shame to lose. And I didn’t go back. I didn’t force myself to go back.

And then, yesterday, in the pursuit of a walk and photography session in what will very likely become the Castle Mountains National Monument, I went back. I was well prepared: I took a pit bull. And some coffee, and a friend who likely feels the loss of those six square miles even more keenly than I do, whom circumstances have forced to drive past the fucking thing at frequent intervals.

After a ceremonial first glimpse of the lair of Sauron The Renewable, we went across the valley to Nipton, where I lived for much of 2008, and we ate burritos we’d imported from Barstow and the dog snoozed in the shade of a eucalyptus and we spoke to a long-time resident who hadn’t seen the place yet when I lived there. It was much as I’d left it, except that the restaurant was closed and the town was for sale and my little house looked slightly more inclined toward the ground.

And then, after I walked Heart through what had been my backyard, the three of us headed up the road toward Nevada and over the shoulder of Crescent Peak. The power plant is till intrusive as hell from that remove, and I fought the dangerous impulse to stare into it, blinding even from 15 miles distant.

I yield to no one in my regret that the thing was built, and when I sift through the ruins of the site in 2050 for shards of mirror to build solar cookers I will feel the same way, because I knew the land before the machines came.

But I can report that no matter how egregious, profit-driven and soulless the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System might be, no matter how bereft of clear vision its planners and admirers, no matter how visibly jury-rigged, insensitive and inappropriate the technology, no matter how it slashes the face of the valley like a hit man hired by the urban power companies, no matter how ugly and evil the power plant is, it turns out its power is insufficient to overwhelm the gut-punching beauty of the valley. I belong there, it turns out.

I will be back soon.

At that first glimpse, pulled on the little extension of Nipton Road at that road’s westernmost end, where the Interstate takes a deep breath and plummets headlong toward the state line, I swallowed hard and grabbed my camera, stepped out of the rented F-150. I took a few steps, raised the camera, took the shot above and a few others.

David and Heart sat in the truck, waiting for me to finish so that we could hie for Nipton and eat cold burritos. I tried to think of something sonorous and weighty to say to mark the occasion to the yuccas and the air, but no words came. Instead, I set the camera gently on the ground a few steps behind me, returned to my vantage point, unzipped, and then pissed in the power plant’s direction. It seemed appropriate.

As it happened I was pissing into the wind, which also seemed appropriate.

Some reasons I have been called a radical environmentalist

I often express approval of landscapes that show no specific evidence of human activity.

I find your profits over the next fiscal year way less important than the existence of the species your company threatens.

I think the stories told by species’ distributional ranges are way more compelling than your favorite multivolume fantasy epic.

I have wondered aloud whether running for elective office should be a privilege granted only to those who achieve a 4 on the Biology AP.

I mistrust people who assume human comfort is sufficient excuse for hurting wildlife.

I kinda thought that proposal to preserve half the planet as wildlife habitat was a weak compromise with The Man.

I’d rather listen to silence on the playa than techno.

I think people who wear earbuds while hiking need a couple weeks in a reeducation camp.

I would support Americans going without power for two hours every day as a more reasonable approach to limiting climate change than paving another square mile of desert with solar panels. (Hospitals and nursing homes could be exempt.)

I consider all writing that mentions the non-human world solely as scenery to be part of a minor literary genre.

I am unconvinced that human beings are more important than all other species combined.

 

 

Louis Sahagun makes it into the Joshua Tree book

… for vectoring two pieces of folklore:

“The species scientists know as Yucca brevifolia isn’t actually a tree; it’s a succulent. ”

and

“They were named for the biblical figure Joshua by members of a band of Mormons traveling through the Cajon Pass back to Utah in 1857. They imagined the trees as shaggy prophets, their outstretched limbs pointing the way to their promised land.”

Why are these wrong? Answers lie below the photo of the succulent trees which probably did not get their common name from migrating Mormons.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

On Cima Dome. Photo copyright 2009 by me.

Answer number one:

“Tree” is a job description, “succulent” is a water conservation strategy. You can be both a tree and a succulent. There are plenty of trees that are succulents, from aloes and dracaenas to the ones in the Mojave Desert with a National Park named after them.

You sometimes hear this as “Often called a tree,Yucca brevifolia is actually a member of the lily family.” That’s even more wrong than Sahagun’s version: partly because “tree” is a job description and “lily family” is a pedigree — it’s like saying “often considered a dentist, Dr. Bob Goldstein is actually a German.”

What’s more, Joshua trees aren’t in the lily family any more. They were removed from the lily family (Liliaceae) some years back and placed in the Agave family (Agavaceae). Then the Agave family was demoted to a subfamily of the Asparagaceae, whose common name you can probably puzzle out. So good on Sahagun for sidestepping that version of the folklore.

Answer number two:

It’s complicated, but while Mormon settlers seem to have originated an early version of the name, it probably wasn’t on the trail so much as after settling in southwestern Utah. I go into detail in this piece at KCET.

Orthodoxy in the Climate Movement: Franzen and His Deniers

Fair warning: tl;dr.

Fair warning: tl;dr.

 

Novelist Jonathan Franzen walked up to a hornet’s nest and hit it with a baseball bat in his recent New Yorker essay “Carbon Capture,” which you should read. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s a longish piece, but that’s fine. I’ll go make a sandwich.

Back?

When I read it approximately fifteen minutes after it came online, but not before I had a dozen emails asking me if I’d read it, my reaction was a little nuanced.

I wished he’d avoided the doom argument — not because he isn’t correct, but because people would attack it and miss what I thought was his main argument.

I wished he hadn’t taken on the National Audubon Society’s study on climate change and birds, but mostly because there are bigger, juicier, slamdunkier, lowhangyfruitier targets he could have chosen, and more on those in a bit.

Lastly, I winced hard when I saw Franzen didn’t disclose in lauding the American Bird Conservancy that he is on the fundraising board of the American Bird Conservancy. That’s a basic bit of journalistic ethics there, and Franzen blew it by not so disclosing.

But those winces aside, the overwhelming sense of my reaction as I read the essay was this:

Finally.

Finally, someone prominent is saying this.

Franzen’s main contention is that the overwhelming focus of most of the mainstream environmental movement on climate change has come at a steep cost: a shifting of that focus  away from biological diversity issues.

Those of you who have been reading my work for a while won’t be surprised at my being pleased at this idea’s hitting the pages of the New Yorker. For a while, the climate change movement has seemed from my perch here in the desert southwest to have abandoned any concern for biological diversity. Those who bring up concerns that renewable energy development might actually harm wildlife or their habitat have been scoffed at, accused of being climate change deniers or (to cite an example from 2011 that my Coyot.es Network colleague Madhu still ribs me about on occasion) useful idiots.

And some, myself included, have been working to promote the idea that we can address both the perils of climate change and the rights of non-human species to continue existing even if they’re in our way. So I forwarded the piece around myself, gratefully.

I saw three basic kinds of reaction to Franzen’s piece in the days that followed.

Grassroots wildlife protection activists and their supporters sometimes expressed regret about the essay’s weak points, but on the whole said “yep.”

Scientists working on biodiversity issues, whether independent, university-employed, or agency staff, often expressed those reservations a bit more forcefully than us lay folk, but also basically said “yes.”

And people who identify with the climate change mitigation movement completely, as they say, lost their shit.

In The Guardian, Robert Manne wrote:

Franzen’s claim about a conflict between conservation and climate activism is psychologically-driven, a product of his private prejudices, irritations and resentments.

Rebecca Leber, a staff writer for the New Republic, chose as her main criticism of Franzen’s essay his concern over the wildlife impacts of wind and solar, saying:

He makes the strange assumption that wind turbines are destructive, but doesn’t make any mention of the harm fossil fuel development already causes to the environment (ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm pointed out fossil fuels kill many more birds than wind or solar energy do). Franzen doesn’t sound much different than Republicans who mock solar and wind, like Mitt Romney did in 2012—even though renewables are becoming an economic force.  [Link added.]

Grist’s David Roberts was sophisticated enough to condescend to Franzen rather than ranting, saying:

A Climate Thing is not always wrong, though it frequently is. Just as often, it’s a kind of distortion, a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others. For some people it’s nuclear power. For some people it’s about models, how there was no warming when the models said there would be. For some people it’s Al Gore, or solar power, or consumerism, or population, or “I heard that we’re basically fucked no matter what,” which I’ve heard more times than I can count.

For Franzen it’s birds. His experience of climate change, in his social circles and intellectual orbit, is that it seems to be eclipsing bird-habitat conservation in the minds of environmentalists. And that bugs him.

So that’s his Climate Thing. And as with most people’s Climate Thing, it’s a little eccentric and a little myopic.

That accusation of myopia is a bit of irony I’ll come back to.

Roberts continues by invoking the big imaginary graph of deaths to birds leading climate activists seem to carry around in their heads:

Take one step back and you see that birds are far more threatened by the combination of fossil fuels and climate change than they are by any other threat, including cats and wind turbines combined. Times a thousand. 

I have written a couple times on the problems involved when you use “dead birds” as a metric of ecological harm from different things. Here’s one essay from January 2013, and here’s another from August 2014. The elevator version: a starling is not a condor. Or as I said in that second piece:

Say you’re a person passionately concerned about African wildlife, and in particular the plight of the white rhino, and you’re talking to a friend about the threat to that magnificent animal from illegal poaching. “It’s a shame,” replies your friend, “but you know, domestic cats kill far more mammals.” You’d likely look at your friend as if he’d lost his mind. Who would lump a house mouse into the same category as a rhino just because they both fit into the taxonomic order of “mammals”? … [and ] birds are far more diverse than mammals.

That’s not a controversial assertion, or it shouldn’t be. It’s an issue of scientific fact. And yet the “more birds” trope gets trotted out every. single. time. a renewable energy facility is scrutinized over its potential harm to birds and other wildlife.

Every. Single. Time. Despite its being scientifically illiterate.

One could reasonably decide that it’s used not so much as a way of advancing a scientific position on the issue of wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities as a facile way of shutting down discussion of wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities.

I certainly have decided that, because that has definitely been my own experience of the trope. In fact, after a couple days of climate change activists’ ranting about Franzen’s piece, I felt compelled to detail some of my experience since 2008 or so on Twitter. First, I tried sardonic and then, when the furor showed no signs of slowing down, I got more verbose. There’s a series of 15 tweets at that second link, detailing reactions I’ve gotten from climate activists and renewable energy advocates, including demands that I be fired and emailed threats.

The vast majority of people concerned about climate change I have met are quite concerned about the currently accelerating mass extinction. And Franzen’s detractors made much of that fact this week, with (for instance) David Roberts saying:

Ultimately, every green-minded person wants to save bird habitats and mitigate climate change. The big problem is that people who care about climate change and people who love birds are both vastly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about either. 

An interesting choice of phrase, that “wants to.” Wanting to do something costs nothing. Making that thing a priority, on the other hand?

Roberts just left the popular online environmental publication Grist this month after working there since 2004. Grist is an interesting environmental publication for our purposes here: it devotes a huge percentage of its editorial attention to climate change, and a scant amount to the issues of habitat protection or dwindling wildlife populations — unless the threat to that wildlife or its habitat happens to be climate change.

Here’s a screenshot of Grist’s navigation menu:

What Grist thinks we need to know about.

What Grist thinks we need to know about.

That’s a pretty human-centered list of options in the middle between “Climate & Energy” and “Science,” focusing on what humans eat, where humans live, how humans entertain themselves, how humans argue, how humans make money.

I’ve always found it a bit odd that Grist doesn’t have a “wildlife” or “nature” top heading, but if we look at the likely category that reports on endangered species and such would be filed under, Science, we find that Science is almost wholly given over to reports on climate change. Of 105 Science stories published on Grist since April 17, 2012 — a date I picked because I got tired of counting at that point — 47, or a full 45 percent, are about climate change. Ten of those concern climate change’s likely impact on wildlife or its habitat.  25 stories concern wildlife outside of a context of climate change, of which only seven — six percent of total Science stories — are reports on non-climate-related threats to wildlife or its habitat. The rest are “cool wildlife” stories.

Since January 1, 2010, if the site’s onboard search engine is at all accurate, Grist has run just 28 stories that even contain the phrase “Endangered Species Act,” one of which is David Roberts’ description of how everything changed for the U.S.’s premier wildlife and habitat protection law when environmentalism “gave way to … well, no one knows what to call it yet” in the face of climate activism. Another is Roberts’ interview with Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal, in which Madrigal says:

I also think — and this may be a more controversial suggestion — that it might be worth trading some of the landmark ’60s environmental legislation for stronger support for green technology. The way the Endangered Species Act works right now is sometimes counterproductive. It rests on this odd structure of one animal standing in for whole ecosystems, at a local level, preventing changes we might need to prevent global-scale environmental change.

(By way of self-serving contrast, since July 2011, KCET has run 167 pieces that include the phrase “Endangered Species Act,” and some of the best ones weren’t even written by yours truly.)

Grist has some mighty fine writers, Roberts included, and it’s not fair to assume that those writers necessarily share the editorial policy sentiments of the site’s management. But my pal Judith Lewis Mernit did, in the course of an informative debate with Michelle Nijhuis on the Franzen piece, unearth this exchange she had on Twitter about six square miles of the best habitat in the Mojave Desert being destroyed for a wildlife killing power plant that turns out not to work:

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter conversations, that’s Roberts answering “Yes” to Judith’s question whether the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System was worth the cost in habitat loss adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve — one example of dozens in the southwest of climate mitigation undercutting wildlife protection, any of which Franzen would have done much better to focus on.

Mernit asked Roberts a clarifying question, and he answered:

Sure, we all want to protect bird habitat. But reading sites like Grist, or listening to climate pundits like Roberts, we may never learn that anything other than climate change and fossil fuels threatens that bird habitat — and if we start to find out that our efforts at climate change mitigation may actually cause further harm to that habitat or the birds in it, our concerns over that cost are dismissed with a monosyllabic answer.

Grist has a right to whatever editorial focus it desires. But it’s not just Grist. Take a look at this graph, which shows the frequency of the phrases “climate change” and “biodiversity” in all the books and periodicals indexed in Google’s database, charted by the year in which those works were published:

Sometime just before 2006, probably not coincidentally the year Al Gore’s movie came out, climate change overtook biological diversity as the main topic of discussion in the environmental field. And since then, biodiversity’s importance in the public mind has actually waned.

People will think about topics that are being discussed. People will tend to lose track of topics that are not being discussed.

And even considering those outside drivers of our political concerns, most of us who are (justifiably) concerned about climate change are still also mightily concerned about the mass extinction in progress, when we’re reminded that it’s taking place. But there’s a difference between people in general and those public or semipublic figures who have created an identity as Climate Activists, who too often respond to reminders of the importance of non-human species with impatient dismissals, Argumentam ad Petroleum, or subtly attempting to get the writer fired.

The climate change mitigation movement has become an orthodoxy, and environmentalists challenge it at the risk of ostracism or worse.

That orthodoxy even carries with it its own special flavor of the science denialism with which it (again, justifiably) charges climate change deniers. One of the most frustrating responses to Franzen’s article has been the idea that instead of a novelist, the essay should have been written by an environmental journalist or a scientist, who would have done a better, more accurate job.

With regard to the “a journalist should have written it” idea, I’ll turn to Judith Lewis Mernit for a response, which she posted in a Facebook comment thread:

The problem… is that Chris and I, and many, many other writers *have* written that story, over and over and over and over. I think when you look up the phrase “Bleating Into the Void” in the Urban Dictionary you might see all of our faces lined up, as talking GIFs. It took a nationally famous fiction writer galumphing around in the issue from his personal slant to make it a Real Thing. 

The scientists have written that story too, and there’s no better example than the one provided by a group of scientists that were solicited to provide feedback on early drafts of California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an ungainly and complex document — 12,000 pages in its most recent draft — that would have planned renewable energy development within 22 million acres of the California Desert. That panel of Independent Science Advisors came up with a report in 2010 that offered a sober, not-at-all hotheaded, appraisal of the likely ecological effects of some of the developments then proposed for the California Desert.

The 2010 report’s Executive Summary includes this passage:

[S]iting and developing energy projects must be done carefully to avoid unnecessary damage to fragile desert ecosystems. Desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by human changes to the landscape, including urbanization, roads, transmission lines, invasive species, and disturbances by recreational, military, mining, and other activities. Additional stress from large-scale energy developments, in concert with a changing climate, portends further ecological degradation and the potential for species extinctions. 

And this one:

We also strongly advocate using “no regrets” strategies in the near term— such as siting developments in already disturbed areas — as more refined analyses become available to guide more difficult decisions.

And this one:

To the greatest degree possible, site all renewable energy developments on previously disturbed land (areas where grading, grubbing, agriculture, or other actions have substantially altered vegetation or broken the soil surface), and site all linear facilities within or alongside existing linear rights-of-way, paved roads, canals, or other existing linear disturbances, so long as this does not create complete barriers to wildlife movements or ecological flows. Habitat fragmentation and impediments to wildlife movements are among the greatest threats to desert communities and species, and maximizing habitat connectivity is essential to climate change adaptation. The combined effects of both new and existing linear features on wildlife movement should be mitigated with appropriate crossing structures or corridors to facilitate wildlife movement.

 

And this one:

To the greatest feasible extent, avoid and minimize any new disturbance of soil surfaces in the siting, design, construction, and maintenance of any and all project features. Arid ecosystems are strongly shaped by characteristics of soils and other geological surfaces that develop over millennia and that cannot be replicated by human actions. Ecological impacts of projects that disturb the soil surface should be presumed permanent, despite promises to decommission renewable energy projects at the end of their useful life and restore what came before.

How effective was the Independent Science Advisors’ 2010 report? To what degree has it been heeded? It’s worth noting that almost without exception, the large solar facilities that have broken ground on public lands in California are on sites that have been essentially wild, with largely intact desert soils and wildlife habitat, now lost. A few large solar projects on private lands in the Western Mojave and in the Imperial Valley have been sited on land that qualifies as “disturbed,” with a concomitant reduction in air quality downwind as those desert soils lift and blow away in the slightest breeze.

And the most recent draft of the DRECP places (energy) Development Focus Areas on important wildlife habitat and migration corridors, including the established Desert Tortoise Natural Area near California City.

The Independent Science Advisors report is just a very prominent example of scientific counsel going unheeded when renewable energy developers and climate activists see it as impeding their agenda. There are many others. In sum, the scientists have spoken, they have spoken in venues that should arguably be far more influential than a novelist’s essay in a literary magazine, and they have been — at best — thanked politely for their time and disregarded.

Federal land managers denied those scientists’ recommendations. Renewable energy companies want to deny independent scientists access to data on their projects actual effects on the environment. And now, by saying Franzen’s piece should have been written by a scientist when dozens of scientists have already weighed in, climate activists are in effect denying the scientists even exist.

Looks like no one side has a monopoly on science denialism.

Franzen may have made some mistakes in his piece, but his thesis — that a focus on climate change makes it harder to talk about preserving species and habitat — is essentially sound. If you don’t frame those threats to wildlife in terms of climate change or the fossil fuel use that causes it, climate activists simply do not want to hear it. They won’t write about it, they’ll criticize you for saying anything about it, and if journalists or scientists write about the conflict between climate activism and protecting wildlife, the climate activists will assiduously deny that that work even exists.

Which is why those climate pundits have reacted to Franzen’s piece with such outrage. His essay may have been a poorly aimed blast of buckshot, but a bunch of that shot nailed the Climate Orthodoxy in its ass.

Desert words I want

This week The Guardian published perhaps the finest piece of writing I’ve ever seen in its pages, and it has gotten me thinking.

The article, by British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, comes as a sort of prologue to his book Landmarks, due out next week. The book and the article in The Guardian discuss our increasing loss of a vocabulary befitting the landscapes in which we live.

There’s a paragraph in Macfarlane’s Guardian piece that’s gotten a lot of attention, fittingly enough as it’s the springboard from which the rest of his essay sproings. That passage concerns a revision in 2007 to the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.

If I can’t spend my childhood having acorns and conkers be relevant to me, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. Still, Macfarlane notes, the 2007 revisions to the OJD are just the culmination, reductio ad absurdum style, of cultural trends outside Oxford University Press. Macfarlane has spent a lifetime collecting odd regional words used throughout the British Isles to describe natural phenomena, and the 2007 deletions from the OJD spurred him to formalize his hobby.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. 

The rest of the article is a delight, and it’s a longish read by the standards of The Guardian. Macfarlane trots out a vocabulary of words used in a number of British Isles dialects that seem archaic and yet far from obsolete:

Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.… On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. 

And my own personal favorite:

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Important, that detail: without a word for a thing, our chances of noticing the thing when we see it are diminished.

I never pass up the chance to use the word “autochthonous” in a sentence, and that’s what the lexicon Macfarlane has curated is: a collection of words that emerged out of the very soil of the countryside.

And of course there’s a problem for us American nature writers, bound as we are to the traditions our nation’s dominant cultural whatchamacallits have attempted to import wholesale from the British Isles. American natural history writers owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Brit forebears, the Gilbert Whites and Strata Smiths and Chuck Darwins, without whom we might not have had a genre at all. But the natural history of Great Britain bears only a passing resemblance to that of eastern North America, and both of those two exotic and unusual places share little but carbon-based life forms with the Mojave Desert.

We in the Mojave may cross swords rather often, but we rarely cross swards. The autochthonous vocabulary of fen and moor and marsh does not, in general, apply to us, despite some of the vocabulary of river people like the Aha Macav, lately known as the Mojave. (The Mojave phrase ‘a’ii hana’e, “wood that has been in water a long time,” makes sense coming from a riverbank language, even in the desert.)

There are words that have sprung organically from the North American deserts, though many of them are loan words. Likely the best known in this age when Burners run the world is “playa,” Spanish for “beach,” used to describe dry lakes — though salina is better used for those dry lakes made more of salt than dust.

The jargon of geology has permeated modern desert language. When rocky detritus builds up a pediment at the mouth of a mountain canyon, it forms an alluvial fan; when a number of alluvial fans merge at their margins, they become a bajada: an apron (the literal translation from Spanish) girdling the mountain.

(In case you’re starting to think all the loan words come from Spanish: when a bajada envelops an isolated prominence of the local mountain range so that it appears to be an island mountain disconnected from its parent range, it’s called an inselberg: German for “island mountain.”)

In the desert we have rivers of sand that flow under the force of wind, and they create a unique and dynamic kind of habitat that’s crucial to animals like a few species of fringe-toed lizards. It’s called blowsand habitat.

Sometimes rainstorms head in from the coast, or from the Sea of Cortez, and they shed precipitation that doesn’t reach the ground, sublimed instead into the greedy desiccated air. Such a rain is called virga, and it frustrates those of us who live below.

And as I mention above, there are whole libraries of words in disappearing languages spoken by those who lived here for millennia, whose languages and lives hang on by the slenderest of reeds. Another Mojave phrase: ‘amat iimiith, the fine, hairlike tendrils of grass or moss that grow suddenly in wet places after a desert rain. The Chemehuevi call the beans in mesquite pods opa, the berries of Rhus trilobata “hu’upi,” and an abandoned settlement ka’nip, all of them perfectly useful words, the last especially in today’s Mojave Desert.

I’m no expert on the lexicons of languages I don’t actually speak, but I do know that there are some words desert English lacks.

That Exmoorian “zwer” works as well for a covey of Gambel’s quail taking wing as it does for Devonian partridges, so that’s covered. But I want a word for that season in which those Gambel’s coveys dissolve into mated pairs, the formerly cooperative males suddenly regarding one another with something like suspicion. That season would roughly correspond to summer, but longer, beginning with spring nesting and mating, ending when the baby quail no longer require their parents’ solicitude.

I want a word for the ring of chaff surrounding the hills of the Mojave’s ubiquitous small red and black ants, created when each hill’s workers take the seeds they’ve gleaned from the surrounding desert and husk them, then carry the inedible seed coats only as far as they have to from the nest.

I want another word for the circle of bloom that bursts forth when the flower seeds those ants accidentally discarded with the chaff get enough water to germinate.

A word for three days after a rain, and the difference in color of the desert soil at the surface and just below the surface.

I want a word for the scent of rain a dozen miles away, and another for the sight of storm clouds on the hundred-miles distant horizon.

I want a human word for that coyote word that is neither bark nor howl, but something unresolvably between. I want words to distinguish the group howl from the solitary, the tentative yip from the full-throated song of the successful rabbit hunt.

There ought to be a word to describe the islands, raised up a foot from the sea of surrounding desert, buttressed with ancient roots and well-fed with resinated humus, that surround every single creosote bush in the desert.

I want a word for the spiny gloriole of backlit cholla. I want a word for the tracks of Pinacate beetles, fearlessly straight across a desert full of beetle-eaters.

I want a word for the earth’s shadow in the sky on a summer sunset evening, that terminator between pink and indigo, and the knowledge in the gathering chill that tomorrow’s sun will be every bit as hot.

 

Ethical malfeasance and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

Today’s the deadline for commenting on the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). Many of the people I know have been putting in long hours for the last several months pulling their comments together on the plan, which is gargantuan.

The plan covers 22 million acres of the California desert, with a huge amount of land proposed as renewable energy Development Focus Areas (DFAs) and an even huger amount proposed for a modicum of protection, but what that protection actually entails is a matter of both vagueness and controversy.

I suspect that most of the comments submitted by today on the DRECP will dive into the details to a formidable degree. One such set of comments, crafted by Basin and Range Watch, was so good I signed onto it myself.

But the comments I submitted today were very specific, and concerned an issue not addressed in the draft DRECP itself.

Here they are.


 

I am Chris Clarke, a resident of Joshua Tree in San Bernardino County, and of the 22-million-acres covered by the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). I work as a journalist talking to Utility Saving Expert technicians, covering renewable energy issues for KCET TV in Los Angeles, but I make these comments solely on my own behalf as a private citizen.

These comments are submitted in addition to a comment letter by Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch, which I co-signed.

My comment here centers on the fact that the identification of Development Focus Areas (DFAs) in the draft DRECP has been tainted by an instance of personal malfeasance by high-ranking Interior Department staff, to the extent that the ecological and energy resource justifications for any of the wind-oriented DFAs are now likewise tainted with the prospect that they may have been tailored to maximize the personal gain of Interior Department brass rather than to either develop renewable energy or protect public lands’ biological resources.

On November 7, 2014, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General posted a report on its investigation of malfeasance by Steve Black, a senior counselor to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Interior’s lead on renewable energy siting. The report identified several areas in which Black at least appears to have improperly influenced renewable energy policy to benefit either his own professional advancement or that of his then-paramour, Manal Yamout, who at the time worked for NextEra Energy Resources.

According to that report, which I have attached, Black put pressure on federal agency staff preparing the draft DRECP to increase the acreage of wind-oriented Development Focus Areas in the draft DRECP. This pressure induced staff to reconsider areas they had previously ruled out as too ecologically sensitive or lacking in wind potential, or both.

At the time that Black pressured DRECP authors to increase the amount of acreage available in the draft DRECP’s wind DFAs, he was seeking employment as the Executive Director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Black did not notify the Interior Department of his conversations with AWEA until nearly two months after he pressured agency staff to add wind DFAs to the draft DRECP.

According to a timeline included in the Inspector General’s report, NextEra Energy Resources’ Vice President of Development, a member of AWEA’s board of directors, asked Black in early January of 2013 whether he should add Black’s name to a list of candidates for AWEA’s Executive Director position. Black agreed but asked that his interest in the position be kept quiet.

On January 11 of that year, Black received an email from the director of the California Wind Energy Association, a member group of AWEA, complaining that his group felt the draft DRECP should include far more wind development areas.

On January 17, says the Inspector General’s report, Black directed state and federal agency staff working on the draft DRECP to — in the words of the report — “find more areas in the plan for wind development.” The DRECP program manager — not identified by name in the Inspector General’s report, but presumably Vicki Campbell — told investigators, again in the words of the report, that

“she and other DRECP team members disagreed with Black about adding certain areas for renewable energy development to the DRECP because the areas were not biologically supportable. She said that the areas were ultimately added, but the DRECP team decided to add requirements for them to mitigate the environmental issues. She said this was one of the ways the team ‘dealt’ with Black’s involvement. She stated that DOI officials, including Black, also asked the team to find more areas for wind development in the DRECP, but doing so would be difficult in the desert because the eagles and condors that lived there were ‘not real compatible with giant spinning blades.’”

Black did not inform Interior Department ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position, according to the Inspector General’s report, until March 4, at which point he was informed that he “should not engage in matters that affected AWEA’s finances.”

Had Black informed Interior ethics staff of his interest in the AWEA position when it first arose, in January, that proscription would assuredly have included intervening to increase the acreage available for wind development in the draft DRECP.

Black’s unethical tinkering in the DFA selection process is a matter of public record. And yet the draft DRECP contains no indication as to which DFAs may have been included or expanded as a result of Black’s influence.

And that means that those of us who are observing and commenting on the DRECP process can not extend our full confidence that those DFAs were selected and mapped under the highest scientific standards required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and general best practices followed by the state and federal agencies contributing to the draft plan.

Ethical lapses like those Black committed must not be allowed to shape land management decisions and policy in the California Desert. At a very minimum, the Interior Department should fully disclose precisely which areas were added to the roster of wind Development Focus Areas as a result of Steve Black’s unethical influence into the process. Those DFAs should be removed from the final DRECP or else supported with the best available science to explain just why the initial decision by agency staff to exclude them from consideration should not be trusted.

Without such disclosure and transparency, the full plan will remain shadowed by the suspicion that the DFAs were chosen more to benefit Steve Black’s personal and financial well-being than to move California to a renewable energy future, or to protect its irreplaceable desert public lands.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

Chris Clarke

PO Box 1086
Joshua Tree, CA 92252
(213) 254-5382

Decision

IMG_3852.JPG

I stood tonight at sundown at the south edge of the Mojave National Preserve after a day spent seeing one wonderful aspect of the Mojave after another and the thought came to me: “I live here.”

It’s not the first time I’ve had the thought, but it struck me hard tonight.

This late summer I made one of the hardest, most personably frightening decisions I’ve ever made. It felt correct at the time even when I feared its consequences most.

Had that decision gone the other way, I realized, I would have had to amend my thought to “I could have lived here.”

As painful as that decision was at the time, I have never been more convinced that I chose the proper path this past early September.

Found while reading the Draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

“Siting renewable energy only on private land would not provide balance or flexibility in siting renewable energy development because there is limited private land throughout the DRECP Planning Area and the private land does not always correlate with areas with the highest energy resource values. In some instances, development on private land would not align with existing transmission corridors. Meeting statewide and federal renewable energy goals within the DRECP planning area boundary exclusively on private lands would result in substantial conflicts with current and proposed land uses on private lands. Some counties expressed concern that development of renewable energy on private land could impact county land-use programs and controls, and could negatively affect local economies, county resources, local character, jobs, property tax revenue, agriculture, and recreation and historical resources (County of Riverside 2011a, DRECP 2011a). Private lands that were not incorporated into the analyzed alternatives have high biological resource conflicts and do not align with DRECP purpose and need. For these reasons, the Private and Previously Disturbed Lands Alternative was not retained.”

headdesk

Bump me with your plastron, you sexy Threatened thing you.

Making new desert tortoises in Joshua Tree.

Fencepost hawks

Interstate 5 near Lost Hills. Photo by Annette Rojas

Interstate 5 near Lost Hills. Photo by Annette Rojas

I drove twelve hundred fifty miles this weekend, a quick trip to Oakland and then back again. Our anniversary. Six years.

From 1990 through 1998 I lived with my ex-wife and Zeke in an apartment not far from downtown Oakland. It was the longest span of time I have ever spent with one address. Annette and I stayed a few blocks away this weekend. Awoken Saturday by the sound of distant trains, the smell of trees, I remembered oddly that I woke that way every single day for eight years. Wondered how I could ever have forgotten.

Back then I drove that same route, more or less, on desperate trips to forsake Oakland for the Mojave. Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley was a gauntlet to be run, and I breathed deeply only after dropping down the far side of Tehachapi Pass into the gloaming desert.

After a few trips I began to find things to value before the desert. Place names: Ortigalita Creek and Crows Landing. The cats’ paws of wind in green oat stems. As years passed and the spread of almond orchards swelled, February would fill the valley with vivid pink blossoms. Along the west verge of the highway, red-tailed hawks stood watch on rough fence posts, one hawk to the mile or more.

The suburbs have filled the valley. They strain against the freeway. They will soon break past it and run rampant through the Coast Ranges.

I saw not a single red-tailed hawk this weekend in more than 1,250 miles of driving.

There have been other losses since last I drove that way. A majestic old Joshua at roadside just east of Kramer Junction has gone missing. And so, it would seem, has this:

Outside North Edwards

Outside North Edwards

There are a hundred thousand blinking red lights outside Mojave now: the wind that stole at least three of my perfectly good hats has been broken to wheel, and turbine blades reflect the scarlet aircraft warning lights.

But it is the loss of those fencepost hawks that hurts today. In their stead, a thousand signs blame liberals for the drought.