The not-so-endless Mojave Desert: Saving a rare landscape from looming development

Kingston Range in the Silurian Valley. Photo by John Dittli, Courtesy Campaign for the California Desert.

Gazing across the California desert, one is rewarded by a startling beauty found nowhere else on earth.

It is a rare landscape, painted in ever-changing hues from soft lilac to fiery crimson, its palette shifting as the sun tracks across the ancient lakebeds, volcanic fields and rugged peaks.

It’s also a refuge where springs, waterfalls and year-round rivers support oases brimming with life.

The flora is extraordinary, from Joshua trees to barrel cactus, to a rainbow of annual spring wildflowers.

Rare animals like the California desert tortoise and the bighorn sheep also thrive in this unique habitat.

But these extraordinary wild lands — squeezed on both ends by the mega metro areas of Los Angeles and Las Vegas — face imminent development.

The historic opportunity to protect the most critical of these desert public lands — while also responsibly planning for renewable energy projects — is Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act of 2010.

This legislation will preserve nearly 1.5 million acres of desert land by creating two new National Monuments, expanding Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve and adding new wilderness areas.

The bill would also clarify permitting processes for all renewable energy projects on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels and create innovative ways to compensate for the impacts of solar projects on private lands.

The desert will play a role in helping California meet its 2020 goal of producing one-third of the state’s energy needs from renewable power.

That’s why many residents, businesses, desert cities and conservation groups like The Wilderness Society are partnering to strike a balance between preserving this rare desert habitat with the development of renewable energy projects in appropriate locations.

The BLM is already studying the suitability of 351,000 acres for potential solar projects — and none of these study areas are within Sen. Feinstein’s proposed protected areas. Although these areas are being refined to identify the most promising sites for solar energy development, the total acreage is more than double what the state estimates is needed to meet its 2020 energy target.

At the same time, The Wilderness Society is continuing its objective to ensure that through careful planning, renewable energy is developed without compromising environmental values, especially ecologically fragile lands in the California desert. TWS will continue to push for small-scale generation wherever possible and, where new large-scale generation is needed, using degraded lands first — abandoned mining operations or idle agricultural sites — instead of wild lands.

Ajo Lily in the Kingston Wash Silurian Valley. Photo by John Dittli, Campaign for the California Desert.Much of the appeal of the California desert lies in its sheer expanse — seemingly infinite and timeless vistas of the American West. This immensity also makes it vulnerable for proposed landfills or a nuclear waste repository.

“There is nothing out there between here and Las Vegas,” said one Riverside resident in a recent conversation.

And it may be a view shared by highway motorists on I-40 or I-10 whose only desert connection is a freeway blur at 70 miles an hour.

Yet, the Mojave’s most special lands cannot be experienced at that speed, or on those routes.

Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, the Mojave National Preserve, the historic Route 66, and the proposed monument and wilderness areas — all require a detour off the superhighway.

But the rewards are unforgettable:

  • The Kelso Dunes, a Sahara-like vision of pink sand that softly “booms” when the conditions are just right.
  • Joshua Tree’s primeval rock jumbles and cathedral-like spires.
  • The delight of Surprise Canyon, a hidden year-round river that nourishes a riparian oasis.

The California Mojave is a place to savor untamed beauty unchanged for centuries. And now its future rests with our decisions.

Kingston Range in the Silurian Valley. Photo by John Dittli, Courtesy Campaign for the California Desert.
Ajo lily in the Silurian Valley. Photo by John Dittli, Campaign for the California Desert.