Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mojave Soundscape

I've written recently about the desert's visual resources. The term itself - visual resources - seems so inadequate; as if you could actually quantify the serenity and beauty of a desert landscape.  The Mojave Desert has a soundtrack that is equally difficult to capture.  When I'm not in the desert, I can at least enjoy the photos I took of the landscapes, but my cheap camera microphone is never going to pick up all of the beautiful sounds.   I have tried using the video function on my camera to record the sound of the coyotes in the distance, but I'm left with a couple of faint yips drowned out by the breeze hitting the microphone.

Luckily a pair of naturalists, Sarah Koschak and Andrew Skeoch, travel the world recording the sounds of nature, and compiled sounds from the Mojave Desert in an album available on their website.   Sarah wrote about realizing her wish to camp amongst Joshua trees under a starry sky, and listening to the yip of the coyotes.  Near the Granite Mountains, she recorded some the sounds so familiar to some of us, but are otherwise missed by those who are not lucky enough to experience the chorus of desert wildlife at dawn or dusk.

You can listen to a sample of the album here:

The great horned owl in Sarah and Andrew's recording from the Mojave reminds me of camping near the Granites in 2011;  I drifted in and out of sleep, always happy to hear the great horned owl calling somewhere above our campsite.  The yip of the coyote is also featured in the album; I remember an early morning drive out to the Kelso Dunes, stopping for a tortoise in the road.  As I watched the tortoise from a distance, I could hear what sounded like two sets of coyotes calling to each other from among the creosote bushes. 

Photo by Sarah Koschak, from her blog Listening Earth.

The white-tailed antelope ground squirrel is featured on track 12.  I've often triggered its alarm as I have hiked across the desert.  You know you've stumbled into its territory when its gives that call - which sounds to me like a hyper-caffeinated giggle - seemingly warning others to the presence of a big, clumsy human.  The Phainopepla also has a starring role in the album;  I've heard its curious call among the riparian habitat in Shoshone, California.  This striking bird does not seem too shy, often confident in its perch atop trees along the Amargosa River.

The cactus wren is probably my favorite, even though its call is admittedly not the most melodious or endearing.  Every time I hear its distinct sound I am reminded that wildlife can find a home even among the seemingly hostile thorns and spines of desert plants.   If you cannot be in the desert as often as you'd like - which is one of my laments - this album is a nice way to bring reminders of its beauty to your home.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fighting for Local Clean Energy

I wrote earlier this week about a misguided approach to clean energy that accepts - and applauds - the unnecessary destruction of our wildlands.  Until we change the system, we will continue to be at the mercy of giant and monopolistic utility companies whose business model involves the destruction of our environment and health.

Well here is an opportunity to change the system.  The Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign in California is stepping up its efforts against utility companies, and you will have an opportunity to join the fight on August 21.  Why?  Because utility companies are lobbying California legislators to prevent the expansion of rooftop solar programs, including a bill that would have brought rooftop solar and jobs to underrepresented communities.  Apparently utility companies want us to obediently pay our electric bills and let them decide where, and how to generate our electricity.  This is a new age, however, and solar allows average folks like you and I to become clean energy generators when we have the right incentives.  Feed-in-tariffs, tax incentives, leasing, and property assessed clean energy are all avenues that can make rooftop solar accessible to all, but utility companies are actively opposing these tools in the halls of our state capitals.

The benefits of this shift are substantial.  Rooftop solar means re-directing our money back into our communities, instead of giving it to utility companies that invest in projects far away from us.  It means saving our wildlands, and clean air.  Rooftop solar also avoids the need for expensive new transmission lines.

The My Generation Campaign in July showed up at the doorstep of Southern California Edison's offices to denounce the utility company's attempts to stymie rooftop solar (see video above).  Now the My Generation Campaign is planning a follow-on protest at the Edison offices in Rosemead (not far from El Monte and West Covina) on August 21.  If you have any questions on how to get involved, email me at and I can direct you to the folks organizing this action.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Yucca Mountain: Dead or Alive?

A federal court this week ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must continue its licensing review of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in the Nevada desert.  However, Senator Reid and the Obama administration remain opposed to the waste site, and a "blue ribbon" panel suggested that nuclear energy plants could find other alternatives to the disposal site, including keeping waste in the states where it is generated. 

Although Nevada does derive some of its electricity from nuclear sources, there are no nuclear power plants in the state.  Many Nevadans have opposed the Yucca Mountain waste site because Congress cancelled the review of two alternative sites in Washington and Texas on political grounds, essentially shouldering the Nevada desert with an unfair burden.

Although prospects currently look good that nuclear energy generators will not get their way in the Nevada desert, I try to remind myself that the problem of nuclear waste is long-term, and the political dynamics currently delaying the industry's access to Yucca Mountain can change in a decade.  I am also reminded that nuclear energy, although "clean" in regards to greenhouse gas emissions, leaves a toxic trail of its own.   If communities are not comfortable living with the by-product of nuclear energy, it is not fair to dump it on the rural and wild landscapes of the desert.  In 1988, another remote desert valley in California was targeted for nuclear waste disposal.   We have a history of viewing this peaceful landscape as a place to forget bad memories. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Demanding Sustainable Clean Energy in Nevada

Industry leaders, government officials, and environmentalists gathered today in Las Vegas at the National Clean Energy Summit to discuss policy and business developments affecting the renewable energy industry.  The Sierra Club's national office used the occasion of the Clean Energy Summit to celebrate K Road's Moapa solar project, which will destroy three square miles of intact desert habitat located over thirty miles from the energy guzzling Las Vegas strip.   In a Facebook posting earlier this evening, the Sierra Club thanked its followers for supporting the "large solar farm" outside the city, featuring a photo of Sierra Club members rallying in front of the desert lands that are destined for the bulldozer.   The Sierra Club could have celebrated plans to close the dirty Reid Gardner coal plant, and the announcement of one of the largest rooftop solar projects in the world planned for a Las Vegas resort.
Mandalay Bay announced plans to build one of the largest rooftop solar installations in the world atop its casino and convention spaces, taking advantage of empty spaces in our cities to generate clean, sustainable energy.
It is sad when a government official is quicker to promote sustainable clean energy than a national environmental organization.  In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff called for an energy paradigm that focuses more on energy efficiency upgrades and the deployment of rooftop solar, giving consumers more choice.   Wellinghoff described the Nevada utility NV Energy in euphemistic terms as inefficient and unfriendly.   Nevada is sadly behind the curve when it comes to policies that support rooftop solar, and the FERC chairman was bold to call out the deficiency.

In its Facebook post, the Sierra Club credits its grassroots activists for the destruction of three square miles of desert for a solar facility.  No mention of the need for Nevada legislators to support more distributed generation like the project planned at Mandalay Bay, which can meet our clean energy needs without destroying wildlands.
Make no mistake, it will take a lot of lobbying and legislative progress to get Nevada onto a path where more consumers become clean energy generators.  But that is not what happened most recently in Nevada's capitol.  State legislators passed a bill (S.B. 123) that will fortunately lead to the closure of the Reid Gardner coal plant, but unfortunately allow NV Energy to replace it with what will likely be 550 megawatts of new natural gas generation.  The early version of the bill explicitly called for rooftop solar quotas, but it appears NV Energy's lobbying effort stripped that out before it was passed.  The Sierra Club supported the final bill, despite these significant compromises.

As Nevada builds more natural gas power plants to replace Reid Gardner, it will also add up to 350 megawatts of clean energy.  What form will this clean energy take?  Will environmental groups in Nevada continue to celebrate dozens more square miles of habitat destruction, or will they demand smart and sustainable clean energy on rooftops and on already-disturbed lands.  With large-scale solar and wind energy applications targeting the mostly-pristine Pahrump, Amargosa, and El Dorado Valleys outside  of Las Vegas, ensuring a more sustainable clean energy path will require the kind of grassroots activism seen California.  In California's Inland Empire, the Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign is creating local support for rooftop solar, and fighting back against utility companies that are lobbying against rooftop solar.

Utility companies will be quite happy to continue destroying our wildlands for whatever energy source we demand, as long as they continue to profit.  As environmentalists, we should be demanding the overhaul of a broken energy system that does not value sustainability; our clean energy solutions should prioritize the protection of our wildlands and communities, and not trade one for another.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Reforming Visual Resource Management in the Desert

America's southwestern deserts are home to some grand vistas where we can enjoy the serenity of a place mostly undisturbed by human development, and it is our obligation to protect the relatively intact landscapes that remain for the enjoyment of future generations.    However, our land management practices offer only fragmented and incomplete protection to these visual resources - pockets of mountain wilderness surrounded by unprotected valleys.  The result is that destructive projects can be permitted in remote areas that destroy not only the land on which they are built, but also spoil an otherwise intact vista of mountains and valleys that seem to stretch beyond the horizon, all in Mother Nature's domain.  We will need careful consideration of these visual resources in California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), and vocal community support for legislation such as the California Desert Protection Act and other conservation bills.   But from a more systematic perspective,  the Bureau of Land Management should reconsider how it evaluates these resources across the desert southwest when it revises regional management plans.

This photo of the Lucerne Valley was taken from the Bighorn Mountain wilderness area boundary pointing west/northwest toward the Granite Mountains far in the distance.  Under the BLM's visual resources management plan for the California Desert District, this patch of desert offers only "low quality" scenic resources, and will be managed to allow structures that can undermine a view that I hope many readers of this blog would find beautiful.
If a hike in the Hollywood Hills is the equivalent of taking a Vitamin N pill, a day in the open desert can be the equivalent of a month at a natural rehab center.  When I go camping and hiking in the desert I look for places in the where desert basins and ranges stretch beyond the horizon.  The vistas that envelop me during the day are as striking and inspiring as the blanket of stars that appear at night, and I plan my recreation around these opportunities.  This resource has eroded significantly over recent decades, and if you study plans for major industrial developments in the desert you will realize that these visual resources - vast and largely untouched landscapes - are going to continue to disappear.

Grading the Desert's Beauty
Figuring out how to save this resource requires understanding of how it is currently managed.  Much of the desert beyond and between our cities in the southwest is managed by various agencies - the Bureau of Land Management,  Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Defense.  We will focus on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) because visual resources in the desert are impacted the most by the BLM permitting of various projects, including transmission lines, pipelines, solar, wind, and transportation projects.

The way you and I might grade the beauty of the desert is much different than how the BLM evaluates this resource under Visual Resource Management plans.  Public lands are graded based on a number of factors to determine overall scenic quality with grades of A, B, or C, according to the BLM's Visual Resources handbook.  The BLM considers the following factors when evaluating the beauty of a desert landscape, which can earn 0-5 points under each factor, with more points awarded to more favorable features, and less points to less desired or spectacular features.  The BLM adds up the points after evaluating each factor.  A total of 19 or more points gives the landscape a Scenic Quality rating of "A,"  12 to 18 points will earn the landscape a rating of "B," and 11 or less points is a "C" rating.   The factors considered and how they are evaluated seem to produce ratings that are biased against the ecosystems of our basin and range deserts.

Factors considered when determining the Scenic Quality rating of public lands:

Landform:  Five points for "[h]igh vertical relief as expressed in prominent cliffs, spires, or massive rock outcrops, or severe surface variation or highly eroded formations including major badlands or dune systems; or detail features dominant and exceptionally striking and intriguing such as glaciers."  Only one point if the landscape consists of "[l]ow rolling hills, foothills, or flat valley bottoms; or few or no interesting landscape features. "  Most of the Mojave Desert includes some impressive ranges, but perhaps not as severe in appearance to earn five points, based on how I read this rating. The subtle alluvial fans and bajadas around and between these desert mountains, and the flat playas are not appreciated by the criteria in the landform factor.

Vegetation:  A rain forest would get five points, but the desert may be at a disadvantage.  Although this factor does evaluate seasonal wildflower displays and "intriguing" plant life such as "gnarled or windbeaten trees, and Joshua trees," some of my favorite landscapes are dominated by creosote bushes and other shrubs that may not strike a BLM evaluator as presenting the "variety of patterns, forms, and textures" that earn higher marks.  How much the BLM values perennial displays is not clear, and it is also not clear if the seasonal appearance of perennial plants at a level less than a "spectacular" display is considered. 

Water:  Let's face it, the desert doesn't have much water, and I highly doubt the BLM will give the desert any credit for its hidden springs and dry washes that only come to life during rare storms.  And where there are rivers in the desert, some of the water flow is actually underground, as is the case with the Mojave River. According to the BLM, water is "[t]hat ingredient which adds movement or serenity to a scene. The degree to which water dominates the scene is the primary consideration in selecting the rating score."  I think the desert will typically score low on this factor, although I think water does not have the monopoly on serenity. 

Color:  The desert has some very beautiful and striking color in some of its landscapes, such as in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and the Gold Butte area, both in Nevada.  Presumably these areas would score high in color, since the BLM's scenic quality standards require "[r]ich color combinations, variety or vivid color; or pleasing contrasts in the soil, rock, vegetation, water or snow fields," in order to score the full five points.  However, I suspect most of the Mojave and Sonoran Desert areas rate substantially lower with "[s]ubtle color variations, contrast, or interest; generally mute tones."  Again, I think the subtlety of the desert is what I find so pleasing, and I do not think the BLM considers how the landscape is complemented by different times of day as shadows from a rising or setting sun can stretch across miles of open desert, and the sky can light up in purples and pinks hues. 

Influence of adjacent scenery: According to the BLM, the "[d]egree to which scenery outside the scenery unit being rated enhances the overall impression of the scenery within the rating unit. The distance which adjacent scenery will influence scenery within the rating unit will normally range from 0-5 miles, depending upon the characteristics of the topography, the vegetative cover, and other such factors"  I suspect that if adjacent scenery is not "spectacular," a desert valley is unlikely to get many points under this factor.  For me, adjacent scenery that is equally undisturbed by human development results in a cumulatively greater experience.  The further I can see without being distracted by cities or industries, the more beautiful the view.  It doesn't matter if the spires of Monument Valley are in the distance, or simply more basins and ranges.

Scarcity:  This is the one factor where public lands can earn more than five points, although the evaluation would have to justify the extra credit.  According to the BLM's Visual Resources Management handbook, "[t]here may also be cases where a separate evaluation of each of the key factors does not give a true picture of the overall scenic quality of an area. Often it is a number of not so spectacular elements in the proper combination that produces the most pleasing and memorable scenery - the scarcity factor can be used to recognize this type of area and give it the added emphasis it needs."   In my book, the desert deserves a lot of extra credit points under this factor because the other individual factors used to evaluate my favorite desert places do not adequately capture the cumulative majesty of desert landscapes.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, these "beyond the horizon" views in the desert are also under threat of more development that would spoil the scenic qualities most of us enjoy, so they would seemingly qualify for "scarcity" points.

Cultural Modifications:  This basically evaluates other human development in the area, although it considers that some modifications may actually enhance or complement the beauty of a scene.  Although I would not advocate for paving more roads across the desert, I think looking down a lonely two-lane highway can accentuate the contours and distance of a desert view.  Similarly, old timbers and rails from abandoned mining camps from the late 1800s and early 1900s can also be an intriguing feature that I would find complementary to a desert view that is otherwise undisturbed.  Transmission lines, large agricultural fields, and other projects detract from the beauty, in my opinion.

Based on these criteria, the BLM judged that the creosote bush scrub area with sparse Joshua trees in the photo at the beginning of this blog post is "low quality," or a Scenic Quality rating of "C."  The mountains far in the distance earn a Scenic Quality rating of "B," or medium quality.  Within a single landscape view, you are probably looking at different Scenic Quality ratings.

The Old Woman Mountains in the distance, with the Clipper Mountains behind the photographer.  Open desert dominated by the creosote bush.  Sunset shot of this same area can be found in the blog of the "DzrtGrls."
We can take a look at another beautiful desert valley as a case study.  If you are on top of the Clipper Mountains wilderness area looking across to the Old Woman Mountains wilderness area, you are separated by fifteen miles (peak to peak) of desert in the Fenner Valley. This desert habitat in between the wilderness areas is designated as "low quality" by the BLM.  The remote Fenner Valley split only by the historic Route 66, and bordered by designated wilderness is "low quality".  There are no rivers, no red rock spires, no trees.  Just a subtle desert valley that gently slopes down from the Clipper Mountains and back up to the next range.

Who, and How Many People Care?
The scenic quality factors I just described above are not the end of the evaluation process.  Before BLM determines how it will manage visual resources in a certain area, it will consider the types of visitors to an area and how far they can see across the landscape, an analysis of "sensitivity" and visual "distances zones"

Sensitivity analysis takes into account the number and type of users in an area.  Tourists and people that visit the area to appreciate the beauty of the region would be more sensitive to alteration of the landscape than people in a hurry to get somewhere.  Nearby roads designated as scenic byways, or an area of critical environmental concern might also earn a landscape higher sensitivity.  Many of the BLM lands in the California desert (I don't have the data for the desert areas in Nevada and Arizona) are rated as high or moderate.   Distance zones tell the BLM how a landscape is viewed by folks from roads and trails - whether the land is in the foreground of a view, the background, or seldom-seen.  Because the desert is so wide open, much of the Mojave and Sonoran Desert is rated as "foreground/middleground."

The sensitivity and distance zone analysis guides BLM consideration of how the land will be managed, but it does not affect the grade I described in the earlier section.  As I am about to explain in the next section, that grade is arguably one of the most significant determinations in the process, especially in a process that seems to undervalue the cumulative beauty of desert landscapes.

Managing the Classes
So now that we know that most desert scenery gets a "low" or "medium" quality rating under the grading system,  and that most visitors of the desert would be "highly" sensitive to alteration of the landscape and can see most of the landscape as "foreground/middleground," what does this mean for how the BLM manages the visual resources?  Using all three of these buckets of criteria, the BLM assigns patches of land to one of four Visual Resource Management classes that will ultimately factor into what sorts of development the BLM would allow on the land.

The management objectives for each class are described below, but basically the lower the number, the more the BLM will try to preserve the landscape from significant alteration.

Class I :  Reserved for designated wilderness.  According to the BLM, "[t]he objective of this class is to preserve the existing character of the landscape. This class provides for natural ecological changes; however, it does not preclude very limited management activity. The level of change to the characteristic landscape should be very low and must not attract attention."

The Nopah Mountains wilderness pictured above includes much of the desert in the middleground, and is listed as Class I Visual Resources because it is designated wilderness.

Class II :  Lands with  "The objective of this class is to retain the existing character of the landscape. The level of change to the characteristic landscape should be low. Management activities may be seen, but should not attract the attention of the casual observer. Any changes must repeat the basic elements of form, line, color, and texture found in the predominant natural features of the characteristic landscape."  

Much of the desert in the Silurian Valley north of Baker, California is designated as Class II, although Iberdrola Renewables proposes to build a large solar and wind facility here.  Oddly, the Avawatz Mountains in the distance are rated as Class III.
Class III : This is where we start to see the BLM allow much more destructive developments. According the BLM, "[t]he objective of this class is to partially retain the existing character of the landscape. The level of change to the characteristic landscape should be moderate.  Management activities may attract attention but should not dominate the view of the casual observer. Changes should repeat the basic elements found in the predominant natural features of the characteristic landscape."  So what is distracting but not dominating? The BLM approved Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind project on Class III lands in southern Nevada, even though Class II lands and wilderness are immediately adjacent to the wind project, and the turbines would be visible to hikers in the Mojave National Preserve. The project would consist of 87 wind turbines each taller than the Statue of Liberty,  35 miles of new roads, and 16 miles of new transmission and collector lines.

This is Class III land, although much of this view is now spoiled by BrightSource Energy's 5.6 square mile Ivanpah Solar project.  Perhaps BLM rated the Ivanpah Valley as Class III because of existing disturbances such as the highway and small gambling outpost of Primm, but I'm not sure how they concluded that the solar project does not "dominate" the landscape.  Despite the pre-existing development, much of the Ivanpah Valley was still beautiful, and probably had the same (or less) relative disturbance as the Yosemite Valley.
Class IV :  If your favorite patch of desert is on Class IV lands, forget about it.  According to the BLM, "[t]he objective of this class is to provide for management activities which require major modifications of the existing character of the landscape. The level of change to the characteristic landscape can be high. These management activities may dominate the view and be the major focus of viewer attention."  The lands in the foregound/middleground of the photo at the beginning of this blog post taken in the Lucerne Valley are identified as Class IV.

Some ugly Class IV land southeast of Barstow, outside of the Newberry Mountain wilderness area . No Visual Resources to protect here.

Copied below is the BLM table showing how all of the ratings and grades determine the visual resource inventory class (I - IV).  Sensitivity rating (High/Medium/Low) on top, the Scenic Quality rating (A, B, C) on the left, and distance zone (foreground/middleground, background, seldom-seen) on the bottom.

Managing Visual Resources at the Landscape Level
The BLM should reconsider how it manages visual resources, particularly in the southwestern United States where currently unobstructed scenic areas can be easily marred by poorly-sited projects.  Not only do the Scenic Quality ratings undervalue the desert landscape, the visual resource inventory classes are applied in such a fragmented patchwork that they are inadequate to protect the desert's grand vistas as a whole.  The millions of visitors streaming through desert parks, and others enjoying scenery along quiet desert byways is a testament to the fact that the BLM's scenic quality ratings do not reflect the value the public places on desert scenery.  The DRECP would be a good opportunity for this revision in the California Desert District, but we should also reassess our visual resources in Nevada and Arizona, as well.
Given the scarcity of these vistas in the southwest, the BLM should review desert resource management plans in a way that seeks to protect more of these landscapes and apply classes in a way that preserves "beyond the horizon" viewing opportunities, perhaps in new "scenic regions" or zones.  I will admit that I am biased and would prefer to designate the entire desert as a conservation area, but objectively speaking, considerations for such scenic regions could include public demand, and the relative level of human disturbance to identify accessible but relatively intact scenery.  
  • The Route 66 corridor that also falls within a proposed monument under the California Desert Protection Act of 2011 would be one zone that is accessible and only minimally affected by modern human development.
  • The Pahrump Valley from  the town of Pahrump to the southern edge of the Spring Mountains would complement the spectacular views on the California side of the border.   
  • The Piute Valley in southern Nevada is another beautiful area bordered by mountain wilderness, including the culturally significant Spirit Mountain (assuming the Searchlight Wind project is withdrawn).  
These are merely suggestions.  As currently managed, however, all of these potential visual resource zones are managed in a patchwork of classes that would permit the loss of mostly uninterrupted scenery.  It might be worth using a programmatic EIS process focused on visual resource management in the desert, seeking input from desert users of all varieties to identify and protect some of the most valued scenery.


Below is a map of the Visual Resource classes in the California Desert District produced for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, but I would caution that there are some errors in this map, such as some missing wilderness areas.

The map below is from the Las Vegas Resource Management plan, and shows visual resource inventory classes for southern Nevada.

Below is a map of Arizona's visual resource inventory.  Blue is Class I (wilderness), green is Class II, yellow is Class III, and red is Class IV.  Notice the abundance of Class IV in the northwest, and even north of the gorgeous Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Also, there is plenty of class III land north of the Grand Canyon.  Arizona's visual resource inventory strongly suggests that they apply low scenic quality status to desert wildlands, and the inadequate patchwork of management is also evident in some areas.

[click on image to expand]