Desert Treasures: Taking the road less traveled at California's Silurian Valley

The sun sets in California's Silurian Valley.

Jenny Kordick

Uncovering a hidden treasure in California's desert reveals the need for smart clean energy development.

Editor's Note: Jenny's blog originally appeared in February 2014 as part of a four-part series in which our staff explore the desert treasures we're working to preserve and protect from potential energy development.  Since publication, the Interior Department has announced a plan to release large portions of the protected land back up to developers, undercutting a key rule from the Obama administration to protect the lands.

I found myself speeding across the California desert last December on a mission. From my rearview mirror, I watched the sun slip lower into the sky as each minute passed. If I didn’t get to Silurian Valley soon, I was going to risk missing the desert’s golden hour—those last few moments of daylight when the landscape would be illuminated in rich, warm hues.

As a Washington, D.C. based renewable energy representative for The Wilderness Society, I wanted to get a first-hand glimpse of an area the conservation community has been working to protect for more than thirty years: Silurian Valley. This wild desert valley sits in between two of California’s prized natural landmarks, the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park.

Silurian Valley is ringed with park units, wilderness areas and natural preserves and has been free from development pressure because it is so remote. But recently, the valley has attracted development interest because it is home to significant renewable energy resources.

Photo: Jenny Kordick

Traveling from Palm Springs to Las Vegas, I’d spent the weekend camping in Joshua Tree National Park, and opted to take the scenic route to Nevada. I was excited to soak up as much desert wilderness as I could before reaching the bright lights of Vegas.

Just as the sky started to turn pink, I pulled off of Interstate 15 and headed up the road from Baker toward Death Valley. My Gazetteer (no hope for cell phone reception at this point) told me I was in Silurian Valley, about 100 miles west of Las Vegas.

As I drove north through the valley, I thought about how the world-class wind and solar potential in the California Desert and how the push to meet clean energy goals have put development pressure on wildlands like Silurian Valley. Yet looking out across the valley, I found it hard to imagine the wind turbines and solar panels in this remote and breathtaking place.

Learn more about California’s desert treasures!

My job as renewable energy representative is to push forward an important part of protecting wilderness: replacing dirty forms of energy with clean, non-polluting options. But poorly located energy projects can scar wild areas and harm sensitive species. To prevent this, the Wilderness Society is working to guide wind and solar development to low-conflict areas and away from special places like Silurian Valley.

During my trip, it occurred to me how wild places in the desert are going to change in the coming years. Climate change—its impacts and its solutions—risk altering the landscape forever.

A planning process currently underway could preserve Silurian Valley and other wildlands like it that deserve protection while identifying other, more appropriate areas in the desert for development.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is being prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other agencies. The Wilderness Society has been engaged in this public planning process that will ultimately decide where and where not to build wind, solar and geothermal projects in the desert.

Photo: Jenny Kordick

As the sky turned pink, I parked my car and found myself alone in the valley. I relished the vast landscape and endless sky. Hiking out across the terrain, I watched the sun turn nearby Silurian Hills fiery shades of orange. Before I knew it, the road had disappeared from sight and the sun slipped behind the Avawatz Mountains.

In contrast to an undeveloped area like Silurian Valley, I had seen one renewable energy project during my trip. A field of turbines in the windy San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs.  Along with increased energy efficiency and distributed generation, wind and solar projects in the desert can help combat climate change, but development should be avoided in irreplaceable wildlands. Just as importantly, we need unbroken, intact landscapes to allow wildlife and plants to adapt to a warming world.

Smart planning through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is needed to ensure California’s Desert Treasures are preserved in our quest for a clean energy future.

Traveler’s Tip: December in the desert is really cold. My Patagonia jacket barely held off shivers. If you find yourself in the desert in the winter, dress warmly and enjoy the solitude winter in the desert has to offer. Otherwise, consider a trip in the spring, when Silurian Valley fills with wildflowers if the previous winter’s rains have been sufficient. Be sure to visit the Salt Creek Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) on the north end of the valley, too, to see rare desert waters and catch a glimpse of the area’s resident and migratory birds.

Learn more about California’s desert treasures!