Monday, November 30, 2009

Mojave Day trip to Amboy Crater

If you find yourself on the way out to Mojave National Preserve, going to or from Arizona on I-40 or Route 66, or just feeling up for an adventure, check out Amboy Crater, and the surrounding lava formations. Just don't upset the habitat of the endangered Mojave fringe-toed lizard, which prefers the sands around lava fields in the area. You can climb the crater and take in the view from the rim. It's an easy 30-45 minute hike to the crater from the parking lot just off the 66.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Solar Energy Development in the Mojave

Why Renewable Energy Requires A Thoughtful and Balanced Approach in the Desert
Even though desert plants and animals are a tough bunch, climate change is still a threat to the desert as much as it is to the polar ice caps. Wildlife in the deserts are so uniquely adapted and have balanced their ecosystem in such hostile conditions that even slight changes can be disruptive. The struggle between desert wildlife and the harsh conditions it contends with year-round is a reason to respect Mojave, where everyday of survival is a triumph. Consider how hot it can get in the Victor Valley on an average summer day? Anywhere from 95-112 degrees F, right? The temperatures are even higher closer to the ground in the desert, so if you are a desert tortoise, leopard lizard or a fledgling desert shrub you face temperatures that can reach 140 degrees F (or 60 degrees Celsius).

So what difference does a little bit of global warming make? One recent study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) discovered that nitrogen levels in desert soil, which plants depend on for nutrients to grow (and everything else depends on the plants), are affected by the heat. As the soil gets hotter, more nitrogen is released from the soil, which leaves plants with less nutrients, which could lead to fewer plants, and then fewer animals and insects that depend on the plants...you get the point. So if you appreciate the delicate balance life has struck in the desert, you are probably in favor of "green energy" so we can reduce our fossil fuel use and emission of greenhouse gasses. Or so it would seem at first glance.

The problem is that utility-scale solar energy requires vast tracts of land in a sunny place, and the Mojave Desert meets the criteria for the best solar real estate in the country. The government is fast-tracking utility-scale solar energy fields and providing financial incentives for their construction in order to quickly shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This shift in energy economics is leading to a large demand for construction of renewable energy projects on open desert land, most of it owned by the taxpayers.

The Federal Government controls much of the Mojave Desert through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and most companies interested in building utility-scale (large power plants) solar energy have to apply to the BLM to use the land. The application process also involves applying to the California Energy Commission (CEC). The BLM is currently reviewing approximately 63 solar power applications that, if approved and built, would cover over half a million acres of the Mojave Desert. Check the BLM's Solar Energy development site for updated statistics on applications and a map of proposed projects in the Mojave.

Renewable energy development is essential to curbing our impact on the climate, but we should strike the right balance between energy development, and conservation of the desert wilderness. State and Federal authorities (the CEC and BLM) should carefully consider the locations they approve for the construction of solar and wind energy projects in order to preserve critical habitat and the peaceful and unspoiled vistas that have greeted Americans for ages.

How can we increase renewable energy use and preserve open wilderness?
  • Solar power projects should be built on land that is already considered disturbed, such as farm land or areas close to population centers. This preserves untouched wilderness further from population centers, and the need to carry the power produced at the power plant long distances, which makes it less efficient.
  • If projects are constructed further from cities, they should be located close to existing power lines, so new power lines do not have to be constructed. This limits the impact on the desert (if developers must build away from cities).
  • Federal and State government officials must consider the impact each proposed site would have on the species inhabiting the site and adjacent areas. Construction can bring invasive plant species, lead to erosion, and displace or destroy endangered species, such as the desert tortoise and rare desert plants. For example, one proposed solar project in the Eastern Mojave (Ivanpah) would probably destroy 11% of the remaining population of the rare Rusby's Desert Mallow, and displace many tortoises.
  • State and local governments should create incentives for property and homeowners to install solar panels on rooftops or on urban land.
  • Finally, the Federal Government should designate more of BLM's desert land as Wilderness Area or as National Park space in order to ensure that a minimum-level of critical desert habitat and open space can survive the current push to develop so much of the Mojave. These new designations would preserve our natural heritage and beautiful desert landscape for generations of Americans.

Your role: You can monitor the progress of various energy projects and communicate with public officials regarding the proposals.

  • Study and track the proposed projects through the CEC website. Here is a list on their website of proposed projects under review. Click on any of the links (the major projects currently under review in San Bernardino County are the Ivanpah Solar, SES Solar One, and Abengoa). Once you are on the page for a specific project (like this one for Ivanpah) you can sign up for the List Server so you can receive updates.
  • Each project review will ultimately require public comments, at which point you can convey your concerns about the specific location of the project, the impact of the project, and alternatives that should be considered.
  • You can check out an example of public comments at the website of the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Study Area, such as the comments and recommendations submitted by a number conservation organizations in this example. You do not have to submit comments as technical and in-depth as those in the example, but being specific about your concerns and recommendations is always helpful.
  • You can also link-up with concerned organizations, such as the Sierra Club (here is the site for the San Gorgonio Chapter which covers the Mojave Desert) or the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy .

If State and Federal Government offices are not aware of how much you value desert wilderness, you cannot blame them when you see buldozers claiming thousands of acres of the Mojave.
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Monday, November 23, 2009

Google Trash in the Victor Valley

Why do the denizens of Victor Valley cities trash their surroundings? I noticed last weekend at the shopping center on Mariposa Road in Victorville with the movie theaters, Michael's crafts, and the Red Robin, and plastic bags and newspapers swirled about the parking lot. The trash clearly was not the result of a singly windy day, but had accumulated over the course of days if not weeks. When did the shopping center and its patrons become so complacent? Sadly, this is the state of the entire Victor Valley. Look around at the empty lots and parking lots when you're going down Bear Valley Road, or Cottonwood Avenue. Look at the plastic bags and other litter blanketing the open desert and wrapping around the Creosote and Sage bushes.

If you're sitting at the computer but cannot remember seeing the trash, open up Google Maps and use the "street view" function. You can probably check out any open desert lot near you, but if you need an example check out 15840 Outer Bear Valley Rd, Victorville CA on streetview.

Do people that live in the mountains allow so much trash to escape them and to build up in their surrounding environment? What is it about the desert that invites people to lose respect for their home?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Preserving Inspiration

Open Space. When was the last time you saw some? I'm not talking about the park down the street, or a good spot to park your car at the grocery store. When was the last time you could look around you and not see another sign of human beings or hear them or their creations. No car or train noises, no garbage or roads, signs or sounds. If you drive East from Los Angeles on Interstate 10 or 15, into the middle of the Mojave Desert, you'll find the start of the journey required to find some of the best open space left in America.

The Mojave is a wilderness that has challenged generations of Americans; starting with American Indians and including economic migrants from the Mid-West during the Great Depression, it has tested the mettle of strong-willed miners, and provided an open canvas for daring test pilots.  Generations of Americans have smelled the sagebrush warning them that a rare rain shower was nearby;  gazed at the blankets of wildflowers that appear in spring;  startled jackrabbits and reptiles as they have trekked through a place where life is not familiar with bounty or comfort.   Life is everywhere in the Mojave, but each day is a triumph.   Every American that has truly experienced the Mojave wilderness -- the searing heat by day and frigid nights -- must have carried away an inspiration of some sort.  In the quiet solitude of the desert you're left to only your ideas and motivation -- not encumbered by the onslaught of messages and instructions you receive in daily life in the suburbs and metropolises.  What Americans have achieved, buoyed by the inspiration, solace or capacity bestowed upon them by the open vistas of the desert is not quantifiable.  There is no sure way to locate the sources of ambition or provenance of strength, but surely our country is stronger because of the wilderness that nurtured its young psyche.

Today, the side-effects of American inspiration are easier to identify.  Skyscrapers and highways, jets and sports cars, capitols and constitutions. The wilderness that nurtured our ambitions must now survive them. We have a tendency to use open land as a blank sheet of paper for the long list of our needs and desires. If America is going to maintain an original course, we have to preserve our original inspiration. We are a country that has tamed wilderness, but that same wilderness has emboldened our spirit and fostered a sense of boundless liberty where anything is possible. Today the Mojave challenges us to preserve this past for the sake of our future.
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