Flying to the Solar Zone: Thoughts & Shots From Above

Shooting through the window of a Cessna | Chris Clarke photo

On Thursday, December 8th, I boarded a small plane with a few other journalists to fly over the California Desert. Piloted by Bruce Gordon of the conservation flight group EcoFlight, with our guide David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association riding shotgun, we took off from the Palm Springs airport and headed eastward, flying over the proposed Riverside East Solar Energy Zone (SEZ).

The flight, arranged by the Wilderness Society, was intended to demonstrate that the SEZ was an appropriate place for industrial solar development on our public lands. I'm grateful to the Wilderness Society for the opportunity to take the tour, but I'm afraid I came away having reached pretty much the opposite conclusion.

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Not that that's much of a surprise. As long-time readers may recall, I've been working to oppose giant industrial solar projects in the desert for some years. Though I do try to keep my mind open at all times, I stepped onto the six-seater Cessna reasonably certain that I wouldn't be converted. The Wilderness Society describes much of the land in the SEZ as suitable for development because it has been disturbed, and I fully expected to see evidence of that disturbance from the air. World War II-era tank treads remain visible in Google Earth images, after all: the desert does not heal readily from injury, and we have been injuring it for a century and a half.

We might be able to see the abandoned airstrips and fallow farms from way up there, I thought, but how much of the land's biotic integrity will we be able to see from that altitude? The vibrance of the desert landscape so readily apparent from a cruising altitude of five feet might not be so obvious from five thousand. As devastated as the land looked from a mile up, I thought, it might still be vital and thriving on the ground where it matters.

Was I ever wrong. The land's vitality is plain from altitude, if you know what to look for.

The flight was organized, in part, in order to generate attention to the BLM's mammoth Supplement to the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS). Public hearings were held last week on the PEIS in El Centro and Palm Desert, with more to come in other parts of the West.

Thw Wilderness Society, along with the NPCA and a few other mainstream green groups, lobbied heavily to omit a previously proposed SEZ from consideration: the Iron Mountain SEZ, north of the Riverside East SEZ in the broad Ward Valley. Iron Mountain, the groups held, was too ecologically valuable to sacrifice to renewable energy development. Riverside East, closer to the interstate highway and theoretically more disturbed, was deemed less important. The groups didn't oppose it, though they did manage to get it whittled down by about 20%, from 203,000 acres or so to just under 160,000.

As it turns out, the vicinity of the Riverside East SEZ does include some land where the disturbance is readly apparent from up high. Most of that disturbance is in the vicinity of Desert Center in Chuckwalla Valley, especially if you include orchards in your definition of disturbed land. The gargantuan Eagle Mountain mine is there, and dominates the landscape for miles:

Eagle Mountain Mine | Chris Clarke photo

… and among the widely scattered jojoba and citrus farms, the new First Solar Desert Sunlight Solar Project is taking shape, right now consisting of giant rectangles of bulldozed former desert:

Desert Sunlight Solar “Farm” | Chris Clarke photo

For a sense of what used to be in those rectangles, here's a shot I took on the site three months ago:

The Chuckwalla Valley that was | Chris Clarke photo

Despite the heavy impact here in the north end of the Chuckwalla Valley between the mine and the new solar plant, this area has been excluded from the SEZ due to its remaining ecological importance -- and due to its proximity to Joshua Tree National Park. Turns out you really can't assume an area's suitable sacrifice zone by charting its disturbance from the air.

But the rest of the proposed Riverside East SEZ is very different from the north end of the Chuckwalla Valley. In the rest of the SEZ, the only widespread and systemic disturbance visible from the air consisted of the the Blythe Solar project shown here with the McCoy Mountains (a wilderness area) as a backdrop,

Blythe Solar Project, which may never be finished | Chris Clarke photo

and the Genesis Solar Project near Ford Dry Lake (our flight didn't offer an unobstructed view of that project as we flew directly over it, but the next flight gave the Palm Springs Desert Sun's Marilyn Chung a chance to take this shot).

The rest of the SEZ, as far as I could tell, was every bit as intact and undisturbed as the former proposed Iron Mountain SEZ to its north. Here's a view from just south of the Big Maria Mountains in the Riverside East SEZ:

Chris Clarke photo

and another view of the same range a little farther west:

Chris Clarke photo

Neither image shows disturbed lands, aside from the alfalfa fields in the distance along the river -- which are not included in the SEZ. What the images do show, in the foreground of the Big Maria Mountains, is a live, evolving, alluvial desert landscape, with desert pavement and washes full of the small-leaved leguminous trees the ecologists refer to as "microphyll woodland," visible as lines of dark dots lining the lowest washes.

The BLM has tagged this area just south of the Big Marias as a section of the SEZ where some attention must be paid to minimizing visual impact of any development. West of the Big Maria Mountains, the Little Marias are also included in the SEZ, and the flatlands around them bear no such "visual resource management" caution. This is because, as you can plainly see, this landscape is completely different from that of the Big Marias:

Chris Clarke photo

Oh, wait. No. No, it's not. It's pretty much the same as the spots nearby. If anything, there are more washes with thriving woodland, and even better examples of desert pavement. A faint line crosses the image from about the lower right corner to the middle left edge: that's a rutted dirt road that leads toward the Palen-McCoy Wilderness.

About that desert pavement, by the way? I should have waited to write the piece I wrote on desert pavement last week, because flying over the Riverside East SEZ I got some of the best large-scale photos of the stuff I've ever seen, for instance:

Desert pavement | Chris Clarke photo

That last image was taken within the SEZ near the Genesis Solar project. As I said last week, disturbing this ancient and delicate soil can mean releasing tons of particulate matter and other pollutants into the desert air.

On our way back to Palm Springs we flew across the southern edge of what would have been the Iron Mountain SEZ, which looked pretty much indistinguishable from everything around it -- whether Riverside East SEZ, or Palen-McCoy Wilderness, or Joshua Tree National Park. Here's a shot of Sand Draw draining into Danby (Dry) Lake:

Sand Draw flows to Danby Lake | Chris Clarke photo

More washes with woodland, a beautiful braided seasonal watercourse leading to a salt flat, a slight scar where State Route 62 crosses from left to right. There's blow-sand habitat much of the way from the foreground to the lake -- see photographer Michael Gordon's website for some ground-level images of the area -- and that's crucial for fringe-toed lizards, sidewinders, and other beleaguered critters. But that habitat extends well into the Riverside East SEZ as well, so it's not something that sets Iron Mountain apart from much of Riverside East.

Overall, my impression of the Riverside East SEZ from the air was that the landscape is alive. Except where the bulldozers have already been scraping the desert away to build solar plants, the Riverside East SEZ is a thriving, vital landscape inseparable from the larger California Desert. There's nothing you can see from the air to distinguish it from adjacent designated wildernesses, National Parks, or places like Iron Mountain that the Interior Department has agreed are never to be developed for solar.

As we flew back, our guide David Lamfrom (who is, in the interests of full disclosure, a good friend) put it all into perspective. "This land is not going to repair the damage we do in fifty years, or a hundred," he said. "Whatever damage we cause to the desert in building solar is essentially going to be permanent, which means we really have to decide carefully where to put these projects. We don't get do-overs here."

As it happens, I did spot one area of the desert, as we lost altitude on our way to the airport, that did seem suitable for solar development. It's already been done-over. I grabbed a quick photo of it:

Cathedral City, California | Chris Clarke photo

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.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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