Five New Year's Resolutions For The Desert

New Year's Day 2010 at Red Rock Canyon | Chris Clarke photo

It's that time of year when we're choked to the gills with lists of resolutions for the New Year, pinning our hopes to attain generally impractical goals to the more or less arbitrary beginning of the year.

And who am I to buck a trend? Here are some resolutions you can adopt that will help protect California's deserts. What distinguishes this list of resolutions from most others is that these are all either easy, or fun, or both.

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1) Change your lightbulbs.

California's deserts are ground zero in the U.S. for industrial solar energy development. Few dispute the need to stop burning coal to light our unsued closets and billboards: it's just sensible. But most new large desert solar plants are being built on the assumption that per capita energy use will continue to climb. In the rush to develop new sources of renewable energy, a major factor is almost always left out of the discussion: Americans waste an astonishing amount of energy. People in some European countries use half or a third the energy we do while enjoying similar, or better, standards of living.

Some 30 percent of annual U.S. energy consumption goes for lighting, and yet an astonishing number of us still use inefficient, century-old technology to illuminate our living spaces. The old-style incandescent bulb is going the way of the dinosaur, but there are a whole heck of a lot of the things still in circulation, often left burning in places that need light only sporadically. A compact fluorescent bulb can provide the same amount of light for somewhere around a quarter the electricity. If you're concerned about the small amounts of mercury in compact fluorescents -- as well you might be -- the even more efficient LED bulb has dropped dramatically in price of late. At some point in 2012 you can expect to see an LED bulb as bright as a 60-watt incandescent bulb drop down below the $10 level -- about where compact fluorescents were a decade or so ago.

Even if you stick with incandescents for now, changing your outdoor lighting can make a huge difference. A significant amount of energy is wasted when we use outdoor fixtures that allow light to shine toward the sky. Slap a reflective hood on that thing, cut the wattage by about half, and you're doing your part to save energy while helping the stars shine a little brighter.

2) Don't throw so much stuff away.

You've probably guessed the reason for this resolution: the desert is the preferred location for Southern California landfills. Activists defeated one giant proposed landfill next to Joshua Tree National Park this year, but L.A.'s trash now goes instead to the Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County, a project bitterly opposed by environmental activists. As we reported last year, another large landfill is being proposed for the margins of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Sensibly, the less trash we throw away the less will eventually end up in the desert. Angelenos are already pretty good at this compared to the average American: 65% of LA residents participate in curbside recycling programs. But there's a lot more to trash reduction than recycling. As the old adage has it: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce the amount of trash you generate by products with less packaging or that are more durable than their alternatives. You might even consider not buying that particular thing at all, thus eliminating its associated waste completely and saving you some cash. Reuse by repairing minor breaks and flaws, with superglue or darning needles or -- for some real reuser cachet, duct tape. Or let someone else reuse your stuff by donating still-intact objects to thrift stores or giving it to someone you know who needs it.

It may seem like a small thing to rescue a thing here and there from the landfill, but when you multiply your salvage habits by four million fellow Angelenos, and millions more elsewhere in Southern California, the reduction in the waste stream really adds up. Or subtracts up. You know what I mean.

Dead gas pumps in Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park | Chris Clarke photo

3) Walk or bike or ride the Metro.

Or however you can get around without using your car so much, and be sure to keep it well tuned and adequately smogged for when you do use it. Pollution from the L.A. Basin and Inland Empire has had devastating effects on the vegetation of Joshua Tree National Park, and similar effects can be seen in other places in the desert. It may seem a bit odd to think of Critical Mass as a desert protection group, but making Los Angeles a more bike- and pedestrian- and transit-friendly city will do immeasurable good to the desert a little ways downwind.

4) When you do use your car, use it to visit some of the great places the desert has to offer.

One of the justifications offered by the California Governor's office when it threatened to shut down half of the desert's state parks was lack of visitation. That's hard to imagine for places like Red Rock Canyon and the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, but other places don't get nearly as many visits, and thus far less attention. Getting to know those parks means that they'll have more advocates outside the desert, which is a good thing.

It's not just state parks out there, though. There are three "crown jewel" National Park Service properties in the California Desert, with a few more across the state line in Nevada and Arizona, all well worth the time to visit. (As you read this, in fact, I'll be on my way to Saguaro National Park near Tucson.) And outside the parks, on Bureau of Land Management land and elsewhere, a hundred thousand isolated places await you, each with their own assemblages of plants and animals, many of them unlike any other place in the desert. Travel safely and judiciously, but travel.

5) Get involved.

The desert needs you. Major environmental groups often have a giant, four-state-wide blind spot where their concern for the desert ought to be: working to save them is just not as fundable as saving polar bears, or black sand beaches, or towering redwood forests. This despite the fact that in terms of sheer biodiversity -- the number of species and subspecies per acre -- a lot of places in the east Mojave (for instance) have the old-growth redwood forest beat.

Despite a lack of attention by the big green groups, there are a number of groups out there working to save their own little piece of desert, or a particular species of animal or plant, or to defend the desert against a particular looming threat.

None of those groups can do what they do without public support. I can't link you to those groups directly here, because I can't give you the impression that KCET has chosen to endorse those individual groups. But they're easy to find online, and most of them would welcome not only your donations but your involvement as well.

Here's to a great new year in the desert!

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. He lives in Palm Springs.

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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