Sunday, September 21, 2014

The DRECP: To Protect or Undo the Desert?

The Department of Interior this week will unveil the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), and it is a big deal.  The DRECP will establish "development focus areas" where the review and approval of large-scale renewable energy projects will be streamlined, and will identify other lands for additional conservation measures.  How much of each - destruction and conservation - and which lands will be affected will be revealed in the draft later this week. 

The DRECP is a big deal because it will propose the most significant changes to how we manage the California desert since Congress first ordered Interior to take better care of the of these lands decades ago.  In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that ordered Interior to establish the California Desert Conservation Area Plan (CDCA) "to provide for the immediate and future protection and administration of the public lands in the California desert within the framework of a program of multiple use and sustained yield, and the maintenance of environmental quality."   Interior finalized this plan in 1980 and it guides the management of over 10 million acres of public lands in the desert.  Depending on what balance the DRECP strikes between conservation and energy development, the DRECP could undermine the original intent of the CDCA Plan by giving one human use undue access to public lands and impair other qualities of the California desert that Congress sought to protect.

The DRECP will drastically alter how the California Desert Conservation Area (highlighted above) will be managed. Map from the DRECP website.
It's Going to Get Loud

The State and Federal agencies presenting the DRECP - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the California Energy Commission (CEC) - are likely to receive an earful no matter what the draft DRECP looks like.  There is historic precedent for what is about to happen.

Although the ecologically illiterate view the desert as a wasteland, it is apparently the most beloved wasteland in existence because there is no question that there are a lot of people passionate about the desert, and a lot of companies that have substantial economic interest in developing the desert.  These intense human demands on the desert are what brought Congress to order the CDCA Plan in the first place, and that plan elicited a vocal response from the public when it was first presented as a draft.

The Silurian Valley in the mid-day sun, north of the highway outpost of Baker, California..  It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of these wildlands.  The Silurian Valley is a vast swath of creosote bush scrub habitat that will either become an industrial zone, or be preserved for future generations under the DRECP.  The high point of the Avawatz Mountains in the distance is over 15 miles from where this photo is taken.  That is more distance than the greatest width of Shenandoah National Park, more than the length of the Yosemite Valley, and nearly twice the width of the San Francisco Peninsula.
Bill Mayhew, a zoologist and founder of the University of California's Natural Reserve System, was a member of a citizens' committee that advised BLM on the creation of the CDCA.  In an April 1980 interview with the Associated Press, Mayhew lamented the onward march of golf courses and subdivisions in the Palm Springs area, and described the CDCA plan as "the only chance we've got...[y]ou can't just have everybody out here doing as they please, not anymore. There's so many people that they just love the desert to death."  Mayhew's research focused on the fringe-toed lizard at the time - a species that continues to face habitat loss and degradation.  Mayhew warned that there would be ongoing conflict over the CDCA Plan across various interest groups.  "There's going to be blood on the floor before this thing's settled."  Then-State Director for the BLM in California Jim Ruch told the Associated Press that the "conflicts that made it necessary for us to prepare this plan in the first place are not going to diminish as time goes on...[t]hey are going to get worse."

So What's New About the DRECP?

The original CDCA Plan was published in 1980 after years of study and public comment, and acknowledged the need to accommodate the growth of renewable energy as one human use among many others that necessitated better management, including recreation, other types of energy generation and transmission, cultural and scenic resources.  The original CDCA Plan published in 1980 did not pretend to solve all of the conflicts, but it did seek to strike a balance among the various uses without granting one industry undue privilege to destroy intact wildlands.  And the authors probably could not imagine hundreds of square miles of the desert being bulldozed for utility-scale energy projects.

Renewable energy appeared to be an insignificant threat to the desert back then.  Other industrial and recreational uses of the desert seemed to be at the forefront of the public debate, and still significant enough to merit Congressional action.  Off-highway vehicle recreation, mining, and fossil fuel power plants spurred widespread concern for the desert landscape.  If you think the concerns expressed in recent CEC hearings for solar power plants are new, take a trip into the archives.  The California Energy Commission in 1981 approved Southern California Edison's plans to build a 1,500 megawatt coal power plant proposed to be built in the Ivanpah Valley (never built), and conditionally approved alternative sites in the Cadiz and Rice Valleys - all locations prized for remote and beautiful desert scenery. A coal power plant belching pollution would have been an unwelcome addition.  In an article published in the Lodi News-Sentinel, a spokesman for Native American tribes echoed a sentiment often heard in response to industrial-scale solar development today - "[w]e don't want coal power plants anywhere on the Mojave" - noting that the desert is "sensitive to religious tribal values." Environmentalists echoed similar concerns about the impacts of off-highway vehicle usage, which etched thousands of miles of tracks and new roads into the desert.

When Interior sought input from the public and other agencies on the creation of the CDCA Plan in the late 1970s, the CEC did communicate the State's desire to develop utility-scale renewable energy projects in the desert.  The BLM noted the CEC's Biennial Report from 1979 as part of the input it used to determine the extent of interest in destroying the desert for energy production, including wind, geothermal and solar projects.  The 1979 Biennial Report projected that in the year 2000 there may be as much as 1,500 megawatts (MW) of wind energy,  2,900 MW of geothermal projects, and 300 MW of solar throughout the State in a "conventional" scenario.  

It will not surprise you to learn that the CEC in 1979 identified wind resource areas in the western Mojave Desert near Tehachapi and the Antelope Valley, Palm Springs, and eastern San Diego County, and geothermal resource areas in the Imperial Valley and north of San Francisco.  Neither the original CDCA Plan nor the 1979 CEC Biennial Report identified specific areas in the desert for solar, but with a target of 300 megawatts that probably would not have been viewed as a challenge to the overall goals of the CDCA Plan.  Today, the DRECP plans to amend the CDCA to accommodate as much as 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects - a substantial increase over original assumptions from 1979.  For the DRECP, the question will ultimately be how many of these megawatts will be sited on already-disturbed lands, on rooftops, or on currently pristine desert wildlands.

A map from the CEC's 1979 Biennial Report depicts the presumed extent of viable geothermal and wind resources in California.  This report was used by the BLM in its consideration of future energy development in the CDCA.  Much less extensive than the energy zones being examined under the DRECP amendment to the CDCA.

Although the CEC's 1979 Biennial Report does not specify how much solar should be built in the desert, it seems quite appropriate to me that the image that immediately follows the wind/geothermal map in the report is that of a rooftop solar installation.  The CEC was on to something.
National Conservation Area or National Industrial Area? 

When the draft DRECP is released, we will see to what degree the Obama administration wants to respect the CDCA as a nationally significant conservation area, or convert the region into an industrial zone.  I am concerned that the DRECP may very well put the thumb on the scale to favor one type of human use - specifically, the for-profit destruction of intact desert wildands by companies that want to build large wind, solar or geothermal energy projects.  If this is the case, it could constitute undue impairment of the qualities of the California desert that Congress sought to protect with the passage of the FLPMA in 1976. 

Congress and Interior in 1976 recognized that the environmental health of the California desert was "seriously threatened" by the growing population of southern California, and the popularity of multiple human uses in the desert, including recreation, mining, energy, and grazing.  The original CDCA Plan attempted to balance all of these competing demands, without giving any single user dominance over the other and while maintaining the overall quality of the environment.

There have been two substantial changes in the energy landscape since 1976 that will be relevant to the DRECP.  First, we recognize that our current energy paradigm is too dependent on fossil fuels and has created a climate crisis that threatens our environment and communities, requiring a rapid switch from fossil fuels to clean energy.  Secondly, technological and economic evolution has made distributed solar generation, energy efficiency, and local energy storage a viable alternative to our fossil fuel addiction.  A shift to renewable energy in 1979 would have essentially required a reliance on utility-scale renewable energy power plants.  Today, policies and incentives can be crafted to ensure that our new energy path is not only renewable, but also sustainable and friendly to wildlands and wildlife.  We will see this week if the DRECP recognizes this opportunity to protect a unique, fragile, and beautiful landscape.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Time for Desert Communities to Take PRIDE

The Daily Press and residents of the Victor Valley in the western Mojave Desert are issuing a PRIDE (People Ready to Improve the Desert Environment) challenge to address the many facets of blight that are evident in the region.   As a kid playing in the open desert across the street from my Victorville home in the 1980s and 90s, I would find trash dumped by residents too lazy or cheap to responsibly dispose of tires, furniture and other refuse. 

I have written before about the need for desert communities to respect themselves and surrounding wildlands, in part by minimizing our impact on desert habitat and keeping both the desert and our cities clean.  The lack of respect by some leaves an impression for all to see, but how long we tolerate the mess is ultimately up to all of us.  In a single hour, my sister and I were able to fill five large bags  of trash that we removed from a small patch of Joshua tree and pinyon juniper habitat in the western part of the Victor Valley.  Not long after that, I heard about a couple of other organizations closer to the Yucca Valley that were committed to volunteer clean-ups of our desert.  Most recently, I was inspired by Death Valley Jim's initiative to clean-up some public lands near Barstow and Yermo that have been trashed by disrespectful users.

So it is refreshing to see community leaders in the Victor Valley taking notice, and refusing to tolerate the mess left by a few.  Most recently, Daily Press editor Steve Hunt kicked off a series to showcase both examples of blight, as well as evidence of folks taking pride in the community. 

Here are some of my own photos to showcase some of the messes I have unfortunately come across during my travels in the desert:

I came across this heap of illegally dumped trash and a discarded boat in the middle of what was otherwise a beautiful stretch of the western Mojave Desert between Palmdale and El Mirage, and just south of Edwards Air Force Base.

I got up early one morning in December 2012 to photograph sunrise in some Joshua tree woodland area in western Victorville, and had to do a lot of creative framing to keep trash out of the photos.  Eventually I gave up and made trash the subject.

The typical beautiful desert sunrise cast striking colors on the horizon, but you have to look past the trash dump.

There were several different trash piles scattered about in close proximity.  I could not help but wonder whether they were all from the same person - perhaps returning with more trash every other year - or from different people.  Either way, I was frustrated that I could not enjoy a walk in the desert without stumbling upon their mess.

On a hike in the Juniper Flats area above Apple Valley I came across a common sight - a balloon caught in the shrubs.  I have pulled at least a dozen balloons and many more plastic bags from the desert, even from areas as remote as the Silurian Valley and near the Cady Mountains. If you buy a helium-filled balloon, please do not release it.

The desert is a beautiful place, and those that have the privilege to live in the desert should take pride in their community and the desert wildlands that surround us. 

The morning sun hits yucca in bloom near Apple Valley and Juniper Flats.
As others have done, you can always set out and clean up your neighborhood or your favorite patch of desert.  Every twenty minutes or hour that you spend walking and picking up trash will add up over time, and eventually we can defeat the apathy that has allowed blight to flourish.   For organized events, I am sure you can stay tuned to the Daily Press, or check out the Environmental Awareness Day event at the Mall of Victor Valley on October 17 for opportunities to get involved.   On September 27, there are several events scheduled for National Public Lands Day across southern California, and Death Valley Jim has helpfully listed the details on his website

Sunday, September 7, 2014

BLM Reviewing Route 66 Management in California

Route 66 is an important artery providing access to California's Mojave Desert.  Like the two-lane  "Outback Highway" that runs mostly north/south through the region, Route 66 provides east/west access to stunning desert vistas still mostly unharmed by man, giving visitors a chance to share a common experience with past generations.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Historic Route 66 Association are now developing a Corridor Management Plan (CMP) that seeks to align county and Federal efforts to protect this historically significant corridor. 

A map from the California Historic Route 66 Association website shows the portion of the Route 66 corridor that will be reviewed for the Corridor Management Plan.  From Needles to just west of Barstow is about 160 miles of history, culture, and beautiful desert scenery.
I am excited about the potential for the CMP to make a visit to the California Desert a richer experience, with more opportunities for folks to learn about and appreciate the history, culture and environment.  When it was first established, Route 66 was part of the evolution of the "faster is better" mindset and engineering that has robbed people of their ability to experience the Mojave, but the "Mother Road" has since been overtaken by interstate highways where people zoom along at much higher speeds to get from point A to Z without appreciating the rest of the alphabet.  The CMP provides an opportunity to slow folks down, and build appreciation for our cultural and natural heritage in the Mojave.

Meetings for the CMP thus far have been focused on revitalizing the tourism values along the corridor, which obviously overlap with, and have implications for our desert conservation efforts.  Based on a review of meeting and planning materials posted online, here are some of my thoughts on the CMP and protecting the desert:

Visual Resources

The CMP hopefully will take a look at BLM's Visual Resource classifications along the corridor, which currently do not reflect the same value that visitors behold in the open desert landscape along Route 66.  Most of the corridor is rated Visual Resource class III, one of the lowest ratings that subsequently allows for substantial industrial-scale destruction of the landscape (I have previously written about the problem with visual resource management in the desert - the creosote scrub habitat along  Route 66 typically scores a "low" or "moderate" in BLM's scenic quality ratings).  Adjusting the Visual Resource classes along the Route 66 corridor should acknowledge one of the Mojave's most beautiful qualities - largely natural, unbroken vistas that provide us with an escape from the ubiquitous  maze of billboards and strip malls from which we hail.  Open scenery where we can watch thunderstorms bubble up over mountains and lumber across valleys, and the shadows of sunset and sunrise dance across miles and miles of open desert floor. 

This photo was taken from Kelbaker Road in the Mojave National Preserve, although the Route 66 corridor lies in the Fenner Valley between the Old Woman Mountains in the distance, and the Middle Hills in the mid-ground.  Industrial development anywhere in the region is likely to spoil a wilderness experience across a wide swath of the desert.

Lights Out (or Low) - Preserving Access to the Night Sky

Revitalization of businesses catering to visitors and outdoor lighting should adhere to dark sky principles to avoid competing with the dazzling night sky.  The night sky is also part of the visitor experience.  Almost everyone I talk to on the east coast about the desert camping experience talks about seeing the stars.  When we're in the city, you're lucky  when you can see a handful through the light pollution.  In the desert, the vastness of the landscape during the day is replaced by an even more vast scenery of stars and galaxies at night.

Teaching Moments

The CMP will also evaluate opportunities for interpretive roadside stops to tell the story of the road, and the geology and ecology of the Mojave Desert.  This is important.  Although travelers on Route 66 probably have an appreciation for the lore and mystery of Route 66 and the desert, I would not be surprised if many visitors still see the landscape as a "wasteland."  The biodiversity of the desert is not always obvious if you do not know what you're looking for, so some interpretive materials and events that educate visitors about the desert will go a long way toward disabusing people of the "wasteland" notion.

Take it Easy - Low-Impact Travel

Speeding vehicles and wide highways can impede wildlife movement across a landscape, as we have seen with Interstates 40 and 15.  Route 66 should be a road for folks that want to slow down and enjoy the scenery, not a high speed dash to Las Vegas, and the recent Transportation meeting by the Ad Hoc Planning Committee considering the CMP discussed how to repair and revitalize this section of Route 66 without encouraging excessive speed.  I am glad this is being considered, since any modifcations that encourage faster travel is only going to erode the good qualities of the corridor.

Part of the charm of Route 66 is that it's not a dangerous, fast, and enormous highway.  The section above is between Goffs and Needles, south of the Mojave National Preserve.
This section of Route 66 crosses over 128 wooden trestle bridges nearly 80 years old that lift the road above desert washes.  The CMP will discuss rehabilitation of these structures and ensuring proper drainage.  If the plan is looking to maintain the integrity of the desert, it should ensure that any modifications preserve the ability of wildlife to move across or under the road.  Maintaining a desert substrate - vegetation and soils that support and encourage the movement of wildlife - underneath the bridges would be helpful.

One suggestion highlighted in materials for an Ad Hoc Planning Committee mentions the potential to add bike trails along the road.  This would be an excellent opportunity to encourage visitors to see and experience Route 66 and the surrounding desert in a different way.

An Extended Stay

The desert can often be a daunting place for the uninitiated, but some visitors may want to stay long enough to see a night sky, go for hikes in the wilderness areas along the Route 66 corridor, or use Route 66 as a base camp to explore beyond Route 66 into the Mojave National Preserve.   The BLM could do better to establish, maintain, and publicize recreation opportunities that will encourage more folks to experience this part of the desert.  For example, finding hikes in the wilderness areas along Route 66 would require some fairly sophisticated Internet searches, combined with some cross-referencing from BLM maps to Google Maps to figure out where to go without getting lost.  And once you arrive, you probably will not find any well-marked trail heads or trails. 

Once you finish a hike, you may not feel like driving all the way back to the city, or you'd like to reward yourself with a view of the sunset, the howl of coyotes at night, or a beautiful sunrise.  BLM could create or identify primitive camp sites in the area, and provide better access to materials that direct visitors to these sites and encourage responsible, leave-no-trace use.  Although I prefer to camp in a quiet corner of the desert (away from the road), not everybody has the will or ability to camp - or maybe they need a stepping stone to get them to that point.  The County could incentivize the revitalization of some low-impact tourism accommodations - such as opening up motel space at the old Roy's Motel and Cafe.  This would provide more people with an opportunity to extend their visit beyond the couple of hours they may spend driving down the road during a day trip. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Overriding Considerations

What is human society doing differently today that suggests we learned from our extermination of one of the most abundant bird species on the planet?  On the 100th anniversary of the passing of the last passenger pigeon - a bird once so plentiful that migrating flocks of billions of birds darkened the skies - I would argue that we have developed ever more complex language, thought and institutions to justify similar destruction of the environment.  So many people participated in the extermination of the passenger pigeon, and we were left with no good reasons for the bird's disappearance.  Instead of learning from this chapter and recognizing the intrinsic value of wildlife and our moral imperative to protect biological diversity, we have simply found other ways to explain and excuse our actions.

Yes, we can point to the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other environmental protection efforts that seek to mitigate our impact on ecosystems and wildlife, but even these are failing to hold back the destructive tide.  In a bold attack on conservation, the Obama administration's chief wildlife official Dan Ashe told conservationists that we “must accept a world with fewer wolves, salmon, and spotted owls,” and "a world with less biodiversity.”   We are building a concept of the future that requires the removal of others species to make way for a human society that barely respects its own kind.

A Wild Baseline in Decline

Orion magazine published an essay this summer on the extinction of the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon.  The writer of the piece, Christopher Cokinos, takes a look at why we even bother to remember the passenger pigeon.  Cokinos draws on a book by Joel Greenberg, A Feathered River Across the Sky, that describes the awe inspiring presence of the passenger pigeon, and Cokinos notes that:
"...every generation uses its own experience to create a baseline for what the state of the natural world is. I have seen 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats coming out of a cave in the Texas hill country...And the largest group of birds I have ever seen were maybe 400,000 snow geese in Rainwater Basin in Nebraska, south of the Platte River...Both of these aggregations would have been dwarfed by flocks of [passenger] pigeons...The biological wealth of this continent has been eroded significantly to maintain our wealth."
You could argue that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was remarkable for the scale of extermination that took place.  But what is more concerning to me is society's rate of participation - you could not just blame big industry, an oil spill, or climactic changes.  Society could not have killed billions of birds if there were not hundreds of thousands of volunteers for the cause - people who carried their own reasons or excuses for taking the birds, and who joined an aggregate of ignorance and selfishness in shooting these birds from the sky and clubbing them on the ground.

When flocks of passenger pigeons appeared overhead in the late 1800s, people would fire into the sky to partake in a joyful slaughter.  Greenberg's book is full of historical accounts of people firing from rooftops and balconies, and out of their windows to take their toll on flocks passing overhead.  Commercial interests would follow the pigeons, identify their roosting locations, and kill them wholesale to be shipped back to cities for food, or ship thousands of live birds by rail for pigeon shooting contests.  While it can be said that many of the birds were killed for food, the scale of slaughter that took place surpassed what we could justify for sustenance and veered into the realm of gluttony and greed, and the death of so many birds for "sport" is most illustrative of the fact that human society truly has no good excuse for why we killed off such a magnificent species.

And when Martha - the last surviving passenger pigeon - sat alone in her cage at a Cincinnati Zoo in the early 1900s, visitors would throw sand and rocks at her to get her to move, apparently unhappy with a visit to the zoo to see such a subdued specimen.   We took far more than we needed from this species until its last breath, and human society showed the worst of its ignorance and dispassion upon realizing this bird would never grace the skies again.  Some people believed that the flocks of pigeons must have died in the Pacific Ocean as they "dashed to freedom in Asia," or veered off course in dense fog or windstorms, according to Greenberg's historical research.  For all of the people that ran to grab their rifle at the first sight of passenger pigeons and made it their goal to kill as many of the birds as possible, they still could not believe that they were the cause.

An Indirect Slaughter

As individuals, most of us are not rushing outside with our rifles anymore.  We are rarely participating in the direct slaughter of our wild baseline.  Instead, we have installed layers of insulation between ourselves and our impacts, and we use the economy and our marketplace to justify tragedy.  We are no less culpable for these impacts, but we now have the language and institutions to blame forces and organizations beyond our individual control, even though these institutions are perpetuated by the aggregate of our individual participation.

Our society takes more than it needs; more than is sustainable.  And much of what we think we "need" is as absurd as what the people shooting passenger pigeons thought they needed.  As the Los Angeles Times noted, "the electrical output of more than four nuclear power plants is needed around the clock" to keep set-top cable TV boxes running in millions of homes.  For what? So we can record our favorite TV show when we're not home.   We take water from the Colorado River to irrigate alfalfa fields in one of the driest corners of the southwestern United States so that the crop can be shipped to China to feed dairy livestock.  Subsidies for corn crops have mowed down prairie and woodlands so we can put that ingredient in everything from fuel to snack chips, to soda beverages, at the expense of growing crops that are of actual nutritional benefit.  We have replaced thousands of square miles of rain forest with palm oil plantations so we can consume things like Oreos, microwave popcorn, and crackers.  Elephants are assassinated for ivory tusks that are made into trinkets.  Much of our economy could be characterized as ludicrous in the way it functions, and the desires that it satiates.

Overriding Considerations

One hundred years after we finished off the passenger pigeon (and plenty of other species),  we have now learned how to rationalize the extinction through the excuse of "economic growth."  Federal and State agencies entrusted with protecting natural treasures are granting industry more and more permits to destroy wildlife and landscapes in the name of economic development without applying any filter that preserves our moral imperative to protect biological diversity; if it makes money, it is usually worth the sacrifice.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells us we must accept a world with less biodiversity.  Changes to the Endangered Species Act will make way for more landscape-scale destruction of wildlands and keep rare wildlife on the brink.  The misguided Breakthrough Institute claims such sacrifices are necessary to bring the world up to the United States' middle class standard of consumption, making the assumption that such an exceptional standard is sustainable and that wildlands and wildlife are only on this planet to serve humans.  (The Breakthrough Institute also assumes the global economy will allow a Utopian level of economic equality across borders when upper and middle classes are currently being built on the exploitation of others - through sweatshops, industrial agriculture and resource extraction).

Policymakers may view conservation through a prism of consumption and economic growth, but they cannot undo the fact that we are putting more and more natural treasures at risk.   This is where the language of trade-off has shamed environmental thought into accepting sacrifice.  "Overriding considerations" is a term applied in environmental law, but I think it is also a term that best describes the way we as individuals and as a society rationalize environmental tragedy. The near-term want for material consumption justifies costs we would not otherwise accept, and the costs are easier to accept because they are more distant.

It is not my intention to be cynical or pessimistic.  There is good work going on in communities to protect wild places, community health,  and previous generations of activists have left us with plenty for which we should be grateful.  But, in my view, trends remain negative and we are becoming further entrenched in an unsustainable path.  Although corporations and governments - which are often quicker to respond to each other than their consumers or customers - have the most control and influence over how we treat our environment, we should not lose sight of our individual participation in this paradigm.  Every opportunity we take to reduce our consumption is another vote that encourages a more sustainable direction.  If a couple thousand people rallied to reduce our impact on the passenger pigeon in the year 1880, maybe we'd still have a flock of passenger pigeons criss-crossing the skies over our eastern forests.  It may be too late for the passenger pigeon, but it's not too late for so many other species that are just as deserving as us to live on this planet.