Interview of Laura Cunningham & Kevin Emmerich ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guests today are Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich. Laura Cunningham is an artist-naturalist, author, and biologist. Kevin Emmerich is a biologist and former National Park ranger. They co-founded a conservation organization, Basin and Range Watch that works toward preserving the last non-destroyed regions of California and Nevada deserts.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

KE: Well thank you, and thank you for having us. It’s actually quite flattering that such a great writer and speaker asked us to be here. I’m really honored.

DJ: Well thank you for saying that. And you’re doing really important work. Can we use that as a transition into what is your work? Tell listeners a little bit about where you are, what deserts you work with, and why you founded the organization in the first place?

KE: I’ll start with why we founded it. We’ve been living out in the desert here, I have, essentially, since 1991. And we had bought a fairly large ranch out here in the Death Valley region and we decided that areas in Nevada, very open, arid areas that were really beautiful and diverse were just not getting a lot of attention. So we decided that we wanted to create a website about that, and that’s Basin and Range Watch, and try to follow, at least part time, some of the issues that were going on locally. That included a large strip mine. That’s still an issue, actually. And some large off-highway vehicle races that were being permitted by the BLM.

I think what kept us going and made us popular was this giant flock-like rush of solar applications. We attended a meeting with the Bureau of Land Management in 2008 sometime. And the managers said “You guys should be concerned.” And he showed us a map of giant solar applications throughout the desert. And we got really concerned about this, because some of these applications were 4000 acres, 5000 acres. And they were covering an area called the Amargosa Valley, and this was all due to a fairly large green land rush that was taking place from – well, the Obama administration, they wanted to subsidize a lot of green energy and try to replace fossil fuels and send that to different cities, and they wanted to use public lands to do so. And there are a lot of public lands in Nevada and California.

And that was kind of a sacred cow because it’s supposed to be an environmental industrialization. And there were a lot of other environmentally-minded people there who didn’t really want to oppose it. They wanted to intelligently put it in locations that they felt were appropriate for that kind of development, and that just happened to be the whole desert area.

And so, I think, in effect, that’s how we got started and that’s how we kind of clicked, because we were the only group really that wanted to touch this particular issue. And we did so by going out to a lot of these sites, taking photos and identifying different species on the sites and essentially telling people how diverse they really were, how they’re not just wastelands.

LC: We both worked as wildlife biologists in the desert for a couple of decades. I mean, you walk out into an area that someone would drive by on the highway and call a “wasteland,” and say it’s a creosote-bursage flat. I mean, if you walk out there, you begin to see burrows that have kit foxes and badgers, maybe half a dozen types of rodents, like kangaroo rats and pocket mice. And of course a huge diversity of reptiles. Desert tortoises, western whiptail lizards, sidewinder rattlesnakes. And so you begin to see that there’s actually a lot of life out here, and if you look closer you’ll see a lot of the barren dirt is actually composed of living biological soil crusts, which are a combination of fungi, algae, liverworts and moss. And these actually contain a lot of carbon, too. But the fungal fibers go through the desert sands in places, so even what looks just like barren desert dirt is actually microscopically alive and is a carbon sink.

And so when we see bulldozers coming, I mean, this is what we would see. Gigantic machinery has to prepare this desert for a solar project that could be 4000 acres. And so you have scraper graders, these huge things that just come and gouge out dirt and level things and pour dirt on to level everything flat. Tractor dozers that look like they have tank tracks, tractor wheels and huge shovels, and they just plow down things. And there’s even a little machine called a, help me out here Kevin, what was it? For the Mojave yuccas?

KE: It’s a mastication machine, and what it does is it’s a large motorized machine with kind of a shovel-type attachment on it. The shovel is actually a large shredding device, and it basically obliterates any kind of tree or yucca, anything woody in its way.

LC: And so we would go out to these beautiful areas full of life, and a lot of it underground, so they would come out at night, lizards and snakes, burrowing owls, and we’d see the so-called “green energy” projects completely destroy this living landscape. And Kevin and I were appalled. We said “We’ve got to oppose this” and we started commenting on environmental reviews. A lot of this is, since it’s public land it will go through an environmental review, which will have public comments.

So that’s how we got going, and more and more projects were scraping up the desert, and part of our mission became to educate people that, you know, you can come out here in the middle of summer and it looks hot, but if you come out here after an El Niño rain in the spring, it’ll be full of wildflowers, amazing wildflowers.

And then this will all be bulldozed to make a solar project. We just didn’t feel that was right. This is old growth desert. Some of the creosote are clones and they have been estimated to be older than 10,000 years, a single clonal shrub. So to us, it’s like bulldozing redwood forests.

KE: Some of the solar projects in the area called the Ivanpaw Valley were all built out, and they had to clear most of the land for these solar projects. In toto, I would say about 10-12 thousand acres of land has been bulldozed. And there are certain plant species like the Rusby’s desert-mallow that was only found, most of its habitat was on the percentage of two of these solar projects in the State of California. So that’s how significantly large some of these facilities actually are. You can actually stand on one end of a solar application and not see where it ends because the horizon is there. That’s how big they are, like six square miles of land where it’s completely changed for one use and that’s solar energy. In many cases, photovoltaic panels, which actually don’t care if they’re out in the desert or sitting on somebody’s roof, and that’s a whole other issue.

LC: We’ve learned along the way, too, that the Mojave Desert, for example, has a huge potential for people to find new species of plants. There are botanists we’ve talked to that every year they go out in the spring or the fall after a summer monsoon and discover entire new species of plants. And apparently there were maybe quite an abundance of plants that are undiscovered in these deserts. So there are scientific frontiers that we’re destroying here for so-called renewable energy that can be put in other areas, like rooftops.

KE: So we have the desert tortoise, and this is really the endangered famous species of the Mojave Desert. It’s kind of the spotted owl of the Mojave Desert. It’s federally threatened, and the Ivanpah Valley, as I mentioned before, just happens to be one of the most important recognized habitats for the desert tortoise. Some of the projects were built on habitats where desert tortoise densities were over ten per square mile. And so what they had to do basically was move all of these animals out of the way. And so they would hire an army of biologists to literally go and check and collapse every animal burrow. If they would find a desert tortoise they would move it out and put it in a holding facility and eventually relocate it to another area, or translocate it; the definition of that being “five miles away.” But they had to make these tortoises survive, and that just doesn’t work all the time. It works some of the time, but it’s a sensitive species and when you take an entire chunk of its habitat and cut it off, and then move it just on the other side; the animal’s kind of intelligent and has a memory, and it’s trying to find its old habitat. And they’ve run into problems where the desert tortoises will pace the fences that they build to keep them out of the solar project.

And sometimes, because they’re reptiles and ectotherms, or cold-blooded, they’ll overheat. And then another secondary problem is that you’ve got the intelligent predators that actually will patrol the areas and look for desert tortoises that are pacing the fences. We’ve had some of these projects that were built that have had some rather significant numbers of predator attacks, just for translocated animals. They do get really good biologists to monitor this stuff. But it’s just a huge disruption of the habitat.

LC: Part of the California desert is called the Colorado Desert, which is like a low Sonoran desert, without the Saguaro cactus. I’ve been going to the desert since the 1980’s and this was a unique part of California, too. It had what are called microfill woodlands out in these dry, baked basins, but there are trees such as palo verde and mesquite and desert ironwood, even desert willows. Unique sorts of trees that a lot of the time will have a tap root that will go down maybe 60 feet and get into the groundwater. And just full of a diversity of birds. Verdins and gnatcatchers, there are some rare woodpeckers. Some of the Arizona Sonoran Desert birds will come into this part of California. And unfortunately, a big chunk of it was made into what they call a solar energy zone on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And, again, they are bulldozing down, or have. This solar push peaked pretty much in or around 2013. But they were bulldozing down the palo verdes and ironwood trees. There’s even a kind of rare species of mule deer called the burrow deer, which is a subspecies of our common mule deer, that is specialized to live in the Colorado Desert. They live along the Colorado River and then they go into these microfill woodlands and dine on mesquite seedpods. Where were these deer going to go? This is something we would comment on to federal agencies, but we didn’t receive an answer.

So there is a large portion of this Chuckwalla Valley, for instance, in Riverside County, that’s being built up with industrial solar projects, that formerly were just beautiful and large, wild, intact landscapes of desert.

KE: There actually is another project down there, though, that is pending, and it happens to be called the Palen Solar Project, and we can’t believe they want to build this where they want to do it. It’s a desert sand dune habitat. In the Mojave Desert – this is the Colorado Desert – in the California desert, sand dune habitats only make up six to ten percent of the entire desert region. And so when you think of that, they’re almost as rare as wetlands, out in the desert. There are a lot of really interesting species that have adapted and live on those sand habitats. In a lot of ways, those habitats are really good because they can hold some water and they can actually create some good wildflower blooms when other areas are a little bit more arid. There is a species of lizard that gets some notoriety, called the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, that actually has these little fringes on each one of its toes, that allow them to just run over really soft, fine-grained sand. It has a shovel-shaped nose that allows it to dig right into the sand and burrow in there. And it only occurs on these types of habitats, along with a lot of other endemic species of insects and plants. And this is what they want to bulldoze, to put these solar projects in. It’s almost ironic that the blowing sand really isn’t the best place to put anything glass or ceramic because it sandblasts things. I don’t really think they’re worried about those longterm issues.

LC: And each one of these solar projects; it’s public land, so formerly you could go hike across it and camp and backpack and look at wildflowers, birdwatch. But each one of these solar projects has a chainlink fence around it after it’s built, with barbed wire fence on top, razor wire. And it actually encloses off a big chunk of public land from people, but also stops connectivity for wildlife. There’s whole movement corridors that stretch between mountain ranges in the desert. Desert bighorn sheep will cross basins to access new mountain ranges, and so when you plop these 4-6 thousand acre gigantic fenced-off industrial energy sprawl projects on the basins, you’re cutting off a lot of genetic connectivity for these native species, too.

Deserts are undeveloped because they don’t present a lot of water opportunities for development, and they’ve stayed historically undeveloped for quite a few years. So a lot of species, including avian, bird species; a surprising amount that I’m learning, just looking at all these solar projects, are using the deserts. A lot of the deserts occur on the Pacific Flyway. And then there are a lot of complex paths of migration for a lot of different species. And the solar projects have actually created a really interesting problem for avians, which is that they look like lakes. It would kind of be like putting a large glass building in a vast, empty area that didn’t have one before. We’re all familiar with birds hitting windows. What about these flat solar panels that are sprawling across the deserts for four or six square miles?

If you go out and you look at one of these from an adjacent hill or mountain, if you like to hike, you’ll say “That just looks like a lake.” And then we have plenty of photos on our website where you can actually see that. A lot of the scientists say that it’s a polarized effect that makes us think it’s water. That’s how our eyes see it, but we think it’s probably a lot of other identifying factors as well.

As a result, a lot of the solar projects down there in Riverside County near the Colorado River have turned up a pretty large number of species of birds that have collided with the panels. And a lot of them are water birds, like great blue herons. Teal, different types of ducks.

LC: There’s a story of, for instance, grebes, which is a type of water bird, are very specialized, and they cannot take off from the ground. They can land in water and they need water to take off. I guess they have to run across the surface of water while they’re flapping. So if they land accidentally on the ground, they will dehydrate and die. And so this has been happening, and ironically, we’ve been learning how biodiverse these deserts are, because water birds are flying from the Gulf of Mexico to the Salton Sea, and then across 100 or 200 miles of dry desert, over to the Colorado River, and then up to the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake and other lakes in the Great Basin. So when you put these lake-like giant solar fields that reflect the blue sky, grebes will land on them and then they can’t take off and they die of dehydration.

And they’ve even found American white pelicans, whole flocks of white pelicans landing out in the middle of this dry desert on these solar projects.

KE: In the Imperial Valley, that’s in Southern California, there’s a lot of adjacent agriculture, some agricultural areas that have been turned to solar projects, and they have found some interesting species. The blue-footed boobie that migrates up from the Galapagos Islands is apparently a mortality on one of those solar projects down there.

Another mortality that’s occurred just in a couple of incidents, but enough to get everyone’s attention, is called the Yuma Ridgway’s rail, or the Yuma clapper rail. And that’s a federally endangered waterbird that generally occurs around the Colorado River area. And they actually found a dead clapper rail on the Desert Sunlight project that’s down in that same area in Riverside County, and it’s concerned a lot of folks in the Fish and Wildlife Service. I believe there are less than a thousand of those known in existence. But after this happened it still went on. They just continued to build more of the project close to the river, including another almost 8000 acres after that.

DJ: Another problem I’ve heard about too, with birds, which is that on the other type of solar, the concentrated solar, that it will burn birds to death.

KE: Well, yes. That was the other thing we were going to bring up, the solar flux. So you’ve got photovoltaic solar panels and these basically derive energy from light, and then you’ve got the concentrated solar thermal plants that derive energy from heat. So they have literally tens of thousands of large mirrors the size of houses, or maybe garage doors, depending on the project. And they’re called heliostats. And what these do is they reflect the sun’s light and they concentrate it on a central receiver tower. And that, in turn, in one case actually, causes water to spin turbines to produce electricity, and in another case in Nevada, heats up molten salt, which has its own system of spinning the turbines to produce the electricity.

They’re concentrating the heat on these towers so much that it’s creating a – Laura can help me out. It’s an electromagnetic radiation. It’s solar energy flux and it’s actually more intense than fire. It actually can transfer its energy to any particle that’s in the air, any kind of debris. Like say there was a piece of paper floating off of the tower after construction. Well, in the other case, if a bird is flying through that, it really almost plays the role of a giant bug zapper, if you want to get almost literal about it. It’s just because they actually – you can go to some of these solar projects, we’ve done it ourselves, and see what they’ve nicknamed “streamers,” which are actually birds and insects that will start to transfer this energy and actually start to smolder and catch fire, and sometimes even vaporize.

In January of 2015 there was a power tower that was doing a test, that was just north of Tonopah, Nevada, and concentrated the energy on this halo up above the tower, and there is actually a video of it, and they saw about 130 birds just vaporizing in this solar flux.

LC: Yes, it’s a strange technology where this solar flux, which is heat energy per unit area, and so it’s a form of electromagnetic energy. There’s been a lot of confusion about it and we had to consult some experts. It concentrates as heat energy onto the tower and heats up a transfer fluid. Either water slashing it into steam or this molten salt, which goes into storage tanks, which is supposedly going to save the world with energy storage. But that’s another topic.

But if a bird flies into the solar flux, I think the closest we can say is it’s like getting an extreme sunburn. It doesn’t actually have fire. It’s like an electromagnetic radiation that transfers onto the tissues and literally disintegrates the tissues. We examined a prairie falcon, a beautiful prairie falcon that had accidentally flown into the solar flux of this power tower near Tonopah. It was in a wildlife rehabilitation center. So we were able to really look at this. It wasn’t charcoal or blackened. The wings were literally melted. The feathers were melted off and curled. And there were red wounds on this bird’s wings. It had flown into the lesser part of the flux and then landed somewhere, injured. So we actually got to see this and take photographs, and thought, well, there are quite a lot of birds that fly through the desert, especially in spring and fall migrations. So some of the dead birds that have been found in the Ivanpah project include every species of swallow in North America, swifts, warblers, yellow warblers, flycatchers. They’ve had willow flycatchers. And a lot of the resident birds that live in Mojave yuccas and creosote, like ash-throated flycatchers and black-throated sparrows. All of these have been found dead or injured in these solar fields. But that’s not even counting the ones that get into the real intense solar flux. The air temperature right at the tower when the plant is operating can be 2000°F. It’s very hot air and if a bird flies into that, the technical term is it pyrolizes. It just vanishes, disappears, it’s completely vaporized into nothing. So you can’t even count that.

DJ: This is not to even mention the uncountable insects who are killed by it as well.

LC: Right.

KE: They did a study of that, and they just found debris from a lot of dragonflies on the Ivanpah project, and considered it kind of an ecological trap. There’s an attraction of insects hypothetically around the tower, which attracts birds that want to eat the insects. And equally, some of the falcons and hawks that may be getting burned in the flux are attracted to some of the smaller birds that might be coming around there eating the insects. And so it’s very complicated. It’s really difficult to guess the numbers, because the solar companies can only survey so much of it, and don’t really have to give out all of the results. A lot of it has been made voluntary for them. So you have to wonder what happens when you have a team of surveyors that go out, and they survey about 20% of this project. And they do that maybe a couple of times a month, or they maybe only walk around a little bit of it every day, but they miss a lot. A lot of the projects have good access for different types of scavengers, such as ravens, coyotes and kit foxes. And many of those critters will pick up the dead or the injured birds before any kind of surveyor can even know what’s out there.

And furthermore, a lot of the birds don’t always die at first. Like Laura said, we saw that one at the wildlife rehab center. We think of the ones that are slightly injured or weakened that go out in the wild and three days to a couple of weeks later get killed by a predator because they’re disabled by their injuries. And so a lot of the numbers and estimates of what these power towers are actually killing are probably off the charts. Nobody really knows exactly what’s going on.

LC: To bring it back to the biodiversity of the desert and how amazing it is; I used to come, into the 80’s, all over and explore the California desert. It was always a vast, intact landscape that to me seemed relatively untouched compared to other parts of California and the Southwest. I could, I’m just trying to estimate, if I walked out into a typical basin in the Mojave Desert, I would probably see something like 15-20 different shrub species, native shrubs. Maybe three to four are cactus. And say it’s a good spring wildflower bloom. There might be 20-30 different wildflower species that were blooming at the same time. And then, if I were in the Colorado Desert I’d see some desert ironwood trees towering overhead. And birds in a typical desert basin, say it’s a good May morning. I mean, you could birdwatch and see maybe 50 species of resident and migrant birds. And if you camped out in this basin at night and had a nice flashlight, you’d see maybe as many as 10 different rodent species, desert shrews, kit foxes, bobcats. Mountain lions who cross basins and go hunting deer and bighorn sheep.

So the biodiversity is just amazing. I almost wish there could be more films on natural history of the desert. It would be really fascinating to educate people that this is definitely not a wasteland. But we’re plopping these, constructing these energy sprawl facilities right in the middle of all of this.

KE: I think that the deserts are always going to have a lot of threats. Even with solar energy slowing down, it seems like our economy is picking up and we’re starting to see urban sprawl really take off, and speculations and people wanting to scrape up desert ecosystems and try to build little planned communities all over the desert. So as the economies shape up, we get to see this all the time, but the solar projects really added a new element to it. It’s just that we’re going to use these areas, and we’re going to use them to really save the world from climate change. And we just always felt that they were just trying to use public lands because it was just easier to try to permit them and easier than for them to provide their own land. And there are quite a number of private lands that they could do this in if they wanted, and easily quite a number of rooftops and parking lot structures that they could build solar facilities over.

So we felt that the entire biodiversity of the desert got overlooked, but I think it took a lot of the projects getting built to get people aware. And it seems like a lot of the mainstream environmental groups at least now unanimously dislike the power towers. They’re a little bit divided still on the large-scale photovoltaic projects, the solar panels. But it took just a few projects like the Ivanpah project to get people to see what the impacts actually were.

LC: And during all of this, we’ve been working on trying to get better alternatives to show that we don’t need to scrape up these biodiverse ecosystems in the desert. So we’ve been really promoting distributed generation and energy efficiency and microgrids. The ironic thing about what’s happening now is that so many large-scale utility-scale solar projects have been built in California that the grid has become overloaded. California Independent System Operator actually has a strategic plan that is trying to figure out how to get to this theoretical 100% renewable energy goal that California has. Kevin and I actually don’t think it’s possible. But that’s what Governor Brown wants and Cal ISO is saying “Well, we actually, right now, have to curtail,” meaning shut off, “some of these solar projects.” Because they’re pouring too much solar energy-generated electricity into the transmission lines and causing rolling blackouts.

And this isn’t getting reported a lot. There’s no planning going on here. We want to build, like, the Palen solar project and put even more of this electricity onto the grid instead of slowing down and saying “Wait a minute. We need to look at better alternatives that are not going to overload the grid.”

DJ: The whole 100% renewable energy thing is a propagandistic scam. For one thing, they say 100% renewable energy but what they really mean is electricity. And electricity is about 20% of total energy use. And the other part that’s a scam, of course, is that there are always costs associated, as you’ve been so eloquently describing. There are always costs associated with this. With solar, there are the terrible costs of rare earths mining, the terrible costs of the entire production process, the terrible costs of what do you do with the materials after their utilitarian span, when the photovoltaics are no longer effective. And then in addition, there’s the big thing. And I mentioned this before we started recording, that there was this great headline in the L.A. Times several years ago about destroying the desert to save the world. And where I want to come back to on this is that – one of the things I love about your work is that so much of the environmental movement on global warming has been converted into a lobbying arm of the solar sector of the capitalist economy. And that’s not our job.

There was a time when environmentalism was actually about protecting wild places and wild beings, not about powering the industrial economy. And I just want to thank you so much for your focus on actually protecting the forest instead of trying to power the economy.

So first off, thank you for that. And second – we’re getting close to running out of time. We’ve got like ten minutes left, and we haven’t yet talked about water. And I’m wondering a) if you want to say anything more about the solar – geez, we also haven’t talked about offroad vehicles.

And there’s another thing I want to mention, too. Sorry. Which is that you were talking about the biodiversity of the deserts, and … I am a forest person. I was raised in the plains of eastern Colorado, and they’re okay, and I recognize that they’re an amazing thing for themselves. And I lived in the desert for awhile. And it’s amazing, but it’s not – when I moved into the forest, I felt at home. So I love the redwood forest, but now, I have to admit, with some – I’m still defending the forest with all my might, and defending its biodiverse honor. But I have to tell you; I don’t see that many species of plants. And I live in the forest. But I don’t see that many species of plants. I don’t see that many species of birds. I don’t see that many species of rodents every day. So what you’re saying is the beautiful redwood forests might be less biodiverse than the desert.

KE: It’s a hard thing to say. I really hate to compare two habitats, because in the past, a lot of environmental groups try to bargain off one less diverse habitat –

DJ: Oh, I’m not going to do that. I’m just kind of making a joke. I’m not saying we should bargain either one. I’m just – I love how biodiverse this forest is. And then you say that, and I’m just blown away that it’s like that’s even more biodiverse.

KE: Yeah. There are some folks who have told us that there are more plant species, for example, in the Ivanpah Valley; and that’s that desert area in the sands of California and Nevada, and it’s not really large in comparison with the redwood forest. And that’s kind of interesting to me as well. I didn’t know that either. So yeah, the desert has quite a lot of hidden mysteries, and a lot of them are just still out there, because of that you say the lack of water.

DJ: So let’s talk for a moment about – you can either go water, or you can go offroad vehicles, or if you want to make them short you can go both. And offroad vehicles, I’ll just say off the top of my head, just piss me off more than anything.

KE: Hey, I’ll talk about offroad vehicles. Why not? Something that’s going on around our particular area where we live in Nevada is that there’s a fairly large demand for offroad vehicle races, and they tend to help out the economy because a lot of the racers come in the area and they stay in the hotels and they go to the gas stations. But lately, just in the past year, the Bureau of Land Management has been really permitting a lot of these races on public land. They’re having, on average, one every month. They say they stay on the roads, but it’s really the only place in Nevada left where they allow them to do this. These races will get like 250 people and they’ll let them kind of line up and go on these roads, and they’re going like 60-80 miles an hour. And when they’re turning, they’re widening the roads, and they’re destroying creosote bushes and they’re running over Joshua trees.

And the Bureau of Land Management permits some of the races in the month of October when the desert tortoises are still active in the region. What’s amazing is a lot of the racers, they just keep asking for more of these, and they keep asking for different routes, and there’s really become little public review allowed.

A lot of the local people don’t like it around here because the races cause really bad dust. We sometimes have to go inside when they’re doing it, because we just cough. But they also leave the roads in a shambles afterwards. They’re these back country roads and there are literally humps that you can hardly drive on, and it’s really difficult to repair them. It causes a lot of invasive weeds to move in.

It just creates an environment of almost hostility out there, too. People want to go fast driving through the towns and sometimes don’t even want to slow down when you’re crossing the street.

It has a lot of pretty bad environmental problems. The dust issues don’t go away after the races stop. They take away all that biological soil crust Laura was talking about. They get rid of a lot of plants in the area and whenever the wind blows after that you get dust storms. The off-highway vehicle is really becoming a problem whenever the economy gets better because there becomes a really big demand for that “wasteland” on the desert to drive on. Just south of us, for years they’ve made an area called the “Big Dune,” a national recreation area for off-highway vehicles. And it’s a dune environment on the Amargosa River that probably had a lot of endemic plants that are not there anymore. They recently discovered the first population in Nevada of Mojave fringe-toed lizards on this dune, in an area where the off-roaders don’t go as much, but literally all of it but five acres is open to this activity. So it is very frustrating. It’s something that’s not going to disappear overnight, and a lot of people do need to talk about more.

DJ: Another thing we haven’t mentioned is something that I did love. I lived in northeastern Nevada, in Carlin. And one of the things I did love about the desert is – the off-road vehicles made me think of it – is the quiet. And I remember I had a pocket watch, and I once put it on the ground and walked about ten steps away, and I could still hear it ticking because everything was so quiet. So it seems like, in addition to everything else, and just tearing up the soils, it seems there’s a question of noise disturbance as well.

KE: Well, for off-highway vehicles, yeah, definitely. They’ve done studies of different mammals and reptiles in burrows, and determined that some of the hearing of those animals has actually been damaged after the races. Any time you’re out in the desert and one of those is going on, that’s all you hear. Because, as you say, it’ll fill up a silent valley. There’s just nothing else to hear. We’re talking these intensely gas-powered engines. That’s just one of the many impacts, along with the visual impact from the dust.

DJ: We have like five minutes left, and with two or three minutes left, I want to ask how people can help your organization. But before then, let’s try to do two or three minutes really quickly on water, because one section of your website does have to do with groundwater mining, which seems like one of the world’s worst ideas in a desert.

LC: I guess people don’t realize that even solar photovoltaic panels, these projects need water. And where do they get water? The easiest way on public lands is to sink about five to ten wells. New wells in these basins and start pumping water for various reasons. During construction, which can take two years to construct a 4000 acre solar project, they need to try to control dust because of state or local ordinances by spraying water over the roads, making cement, and then during operation they need to clean all the sand and dust off of the solar panels every once in awhile. And if it’s a concentrating solar thermal project, like the Ivanpah power tower, these require even more groundwater because they are just like a coal-burning power plant or a natural gas power plant. They have a steam turbine that generates the electricity, and so they actually need to have a large quantity of water that goes into that steam cycle. So it’s actually, to us, not that green when you’re pumping the groundwater down.

The projects I mentioned, this giant solar energy zone in the Chuckwalla Valley; some of the agencies actually told the solar developer they needed to monitor the microfill woodland, the trees. The desert ironwoods and mesquites, to see if they were dying over the years. The projects are permitted for 30 years, to operate. And so after 30 years of pumping groundwater, they actually wanted to see if these trees were dying. We asked: “So what if you find the trees are dying?” Well, the answer was, you know, “Oh well. We need the renewable energy.”

That wasn’t good enough for us. Yeah, there are some big impacts to water use for these projects.

KE: There’s a geothermal plant proposed for northern Nevada that happens to be in an area that has pools that have an endemic species of toad up there, the Dixie Valley toad. And this toad only lives in these semi-warm pools and if the geothermal plant is built, it’ll possibly mix cooler water with warmer water in order to get all the water running through the plant. And what that will actually do is possibly inhibit the breeding of the toad, because it’s up in a cold Great Basin area, and the toads will actually breed earlier in the year because of the warmer geothermal water. But altering that really delicate geothermal hydrologic cycle by building a plant right next to this might really impact the population of the toads.

They also use a lot of water through evaporative cooling for the plant. There are quite a number of desert water issues, plus we’re trying to follow some of the bigger issues, like Las Vegas, through years and years has been trying to pump water, to take it from northern Nevada. And they get approval after approval to do that. It’s so long to talk about. We just don’t have time for that. So we do follow a lot of different water issues and they’re very complicated.

LC: How to get involved. What do people do if you love the desert, if you are concerned about biodiversity? I recommend you really get on these federal websites, like the Bureau of Land Management and try to follow some of these development projects and comment. Put your comments on there. There are weeks at a time where the government seeks public comments on this, like “Why do you care about this desert?” You can actually tell them and if they get more and more comments from the public that can actually influence the deciders, the people who approve these projects, which on public land is often the Department of the Interior.

And you can get on our website, and join our mailing list. We’ll give you alerts about how to comment on these things. I think one of the biggest problems is ignorance or benign neglect of the deserts, that people, maybe if they haven’t come to the desert or seen the biodiversity, they just don’t realize what’s being lost. And so the public participation process I think is ever-more important. Some of these projects are right next to the boundaries of some of the national parks and monuments in the desert, so they can affect quite a lot of different land. I think; get involved, get aware, and learn about it is my advice to people.

DJ: So, anything else from either one of you? That’s great.

KE: I would just like to say that what we were really about in the beginning was preserving open space. The appreciation of open space opened a lot of doors to learning about the biodiversity and all of the interesting factors of the natural history of the desert. And I think that’s getting more popular for people as cities get more and more crowded. I think it’s really resonated with people over the years, and so in that respect I think it’s really hopeful that we’ll get a lot more people involved, and helping to follow us and helping to create their own groups and activism to protect a lot of these areas.

DJ: Well I would like to thank both of you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guests today have been Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich. This is Derrick Jensen, for Resistance Radio, on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on January 21st — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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