Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Ken Salazar Gives Joshua Tree National Park Worst Birthday Gift Ever

Joshua Tree National Park's Coxcomb Mountains, soon to be adorned with a giant solar installation | Chris Clarke photo

What's the worst birthday present you've ever gotten? An ill-fitting sweater that looked like a Cosby Show castoff? Singing plastic fish on a plaque? A life-size cardboard portrait of Mr T.?

No matter how bad it was, there's little chance your worst birthday present ever was anywhere near as inappropriate and disappointing as the one Joshua Tree National Park got this week. Because of all days an Interior Secretary could choose to green-light a controversial, 4,000-acre industrial solar "farm" that would be surrounded on three sides by the park, yesterday -- Joshua Tree's 75th Birthday -- is the day Ken Salazar picked.

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(Again, a disclaimer: as I've mentioned earlier on here at KCET, I don't pretend to be an objective journalist when it comes to industrial solar projects on intact desert lands. Take this as more Op-Ed than article, and if you disagree, you're welcome to take issue with me in comments.)

First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, approved by the Bureau of Land Management on August 10, would cover just under 4,000 acres of intact desert in the Chuckwalla Valley with thin-film solar panels, on a site tucked in between the main body of Joshua Tree National Park and the Coxcomb Mountains to the east. The project isn't the first to threaten this little valley. for about twenty years residents have been fighting a proposed landfill, in which Los Angeles' trash would be dumped in the old Kaiser mine at Eagle Mountain. That proposal -- which would have been the largest landfill in the world -- earned Joshua Tree the dubious honor of listing on the National Parks Conservation Association's "most endangered parks" list on at least one occasion.

Desert Sunlight hasn't attracted nearly the opposition that the landfill did, in part due to the thin green veneer the project wears, but the project will disturb intact habitat for a large number of desert animals. The professional biologists at Basin and Range Watch list a dozen sensitive bird species in the area, along with four protected bats, badgers, the "Yuma" subspecies of mountain lion and desert bighorn sheep, as well as the usual dwindling tortoise population.

This Chuckwalla Valley bobcat may soon have to contend with more obstacles than a simple aqueduct fence. | Creative Commons Photo by Florian Boyd

What's worse, due to the topography of the site, in which a number of mountains ranges converge on the narrow Pinto Wells pass at the north end of the Chuckwalla Valley, putting 4,000 acres of pavement and fence here will almost certainly interfere with wildlife migration, essentially putting a cork in the migratory bottleneck for many species. Given the likelihood that desert species will need to move generally north in response to increasing temperatures. Desert Sunlight could consign wildlife to succumb to the very climate change it is purported to address.

The worst part of all of this? There's no reason for this "Solar Farm" to go in that spot. Desert Sunlight will generate its (at a maximum) 550 megawatts of electricity using thin-film photovoltaic cells, which would generate the very same electricity if exposed to the sun on rooftops, parking lot shade structures and other surfaces in the built environment. Why not build trellises over broiling shopping center parking lots in the Coachella and Imperial valleys with the money that will be spent on Desert Sunlight? Not only would we generate the same power, but we'd boost the local economy -- both by providing good jobs and making it more likely that people would shop in the middle of the day -- as well as saving the gasoline now used to air-condition parked cars to the point where their steering wheels don't create third-degree burns when you touch them. And all that without the desert-destroying transmission lines remote projects like Desert Sunlight would require.

What I find most disheartening about this week's announcement is the apparent disdain Ken Salazar seems to have for an entire agency under his control. Working on the desert solar issue over the past few years I've had occasion to talk to a number of Interior Department employees who were privately horrified at the course the Department had taken. Among them were National Park Service staff from any number of National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas in solar country. None of them were particularly outspoken to begin with, but last year most of them stopped saying anything at all, even off the record. Word had come down from the Secretary's office: these projects are going to be built whether the National Parks like it or not. Salazar knew he wasn't going to be in office forever, and a gigantic proliferation of industrial solar on our public lands would be his way of making his mark on the landscape. The timing of the Desert Sunlight ROD is a gratuitous slap in the face by way of emphasis.

I have to wonder what Joshua Tree's "mother," Minerva Hamilton Hoyt would make of Salazar's announcement coming on the 75th anniversary of her grand achievement. If the National Park's boundary had been drawn the way she wanted it, Desert Sunlight's present site would likely have been inside the park. It still should be. A less mediocre Interior Secretary would have recognized Hoyt's accomplishment as a much more meaningful "mark on the landscape."

A previous version of this article wrongly stated that the proposed Eagle Mountain landfill would have been sited inside the Kaiser mine pit. It would in fact have filled neaby desert canyons. The author regrets the error.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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