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Bulldozers, Solar Panels, and Radioactive Tumbleweeds: California's Deserts Under Siege

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Route 62 east of Twentynine Palms
Route 62 east of Twentynine Palms | Photo: MudflapDC, some rights reserved​

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

Earlier this month I drove eastward from Joshua Tree along Route 62 toward the Colorado River. The road there flirts with the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park, then meanders across valley floor and alluvial fan, swerving and swooping in long, lazy curves. The valleys are dotted with creosote bush, the most common shrub in the California deserts, but there are other things growing there as well; big galleta grass, the endangered crucifixion thorn, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, desert kit foxes, milkweed and asters and four-o’-clocks, sidewinders and Mojave green rattlesnakes.

But the crowning glory of this stretch of road might be its old-growth ephedra. A slow-growing evergreen shrub that’s not particularly hard to find elsewhere in the California deserts, the ephedras along the east half of Route 62 have grown to stunning sizes. Some of them are 25 feet across, or 30. They are well in excess of 1,000 years old. Some of them may exceed 2,000 years. They stand at the tops of mounds they themselves have made, holding the desert soil in place against the endless winds.

You won’t find these ephedras mentioned in any guidebooks, though perhaps hundreds of people drive within a few feet of them on a given weekend day. This part of the desert doesn’t get much press. A few years ago, when the federal government proposed a solar energy development zone that would have reached the highway from the north, desert activists rallied and beat it back. A few have considered advancing nearby landscapes for wilderness designation.

But this chain of valleys is largely ignored, even by people who love the deserts. And so it is to the California desert what the California desert is to the rest of the state: a place that few love, fewer understand, and most are content to ignore altogether.

There are three main deserts in southeastern California. The Colorado Desert, California’s portion of the broader Sonoran Desert, lies at low elevations in the southeasternmost part of the state. The Mojave, to the north, is the continent’s smallest and driest desert, covering about 25,000 square miles in California, Nevada, Arizona and a sliver of Utah. Farther north, the Great Basin Desert, the one true cold desert in California, covers a sliver of eastern California from around Owens Valley north to Mono Lake and Bodie. The vast majority of the Great Basin desert lies outside the state.

The boundaries between these three deserts are a matter of opinion. There are broad transition zones in places like the ephedra forests on the eastern stretch of Route 62,  with one foot in the Mojave and another in the Colorado Desert. Here’s a rough rule of thumb: When you get too far south for Joshua trees to grow, you’ve gone from the Mojave into the Colorado Desert. When you get too far north for creosote bush and the valley floors start filling with sagebrush and shadscale, you’ve forsaken the Mojave for the Great Basin. Close enough for government work.

Screwbean mesquite pods
Screwbean mesquite, one of several species of leguminous desert trees with edible seeds | Photo: Warrior Squirrel, some rights reserved

People often call the northeastern corner of the state a desert, with its sagebrush steppe and herds of pronghorn skirting the edges of ephemeral dry lakes. Some geographers will argue. Let’s sidestep that argument and leave the pronghorn country out. That leaves around 45,000 square miles of southeastern desert for us to consider, 28 percent of the state.

For millennia, the deserts were home to a diverse range of Native peoples and Native cultures, who found sophisticated ways to make their livings in what might seem a sparse, harsh landscape. Though the first few European settlers coming through the deserts — or at least the first few literate settlers — often described desert Native peoples dismissive and derogatory tones, as crude and destitute people scratching out miserable existences from an unforgiving landscape, nothing could be further from the truth.

Desert peoples endured privation, to be sure, but they thrived as much as they endured. Unlike Native peoples living closer to the coast of California, some desert Native peoples grew food crops in a manner the settlers would recognize as agriculture, raising maize and squashes and beans planted methodically in irrigated fields along rivers or near springs.

The desert itself provided its own bounty. The leguminous trees lining desert washes, mesquites and palo verdes and ironwoods, grew crops of nutritious seeds that could be pounded into flour. At oases in the Colorado Desert and the southern edge of the Mojave, fan palms provided edible fruit. Native people like the Cahuila would sometimes burn the skirt of dead palm fronds around each tree to reduce populations of mites and improve tree health. Pine nuts from single-needle piñons and juniper berries provided food at higher elevations, and herbs, bulbs, and grass seeds provided important food in runoff-fed meadows, freshwater wetlands, and near seeps and springs.

The desert’s Native peoples also made use of the animals with which they shared the desert, ranging in size from desert bighorn sheep to the larvae of Pandora moths. The Kucadikadi, a group of Northern Paiute from Mono Lake, harvested the pupae of the lake’s alkali flies, a treasured source of protein and fat that could be stored for long periods, and which were traded extensively.

Desert tortoises provided a source of food as well, well into the 20th Century for some Native peoples. Chemehuevi elder Philip Smith told me a few years ago that he and his family ate tortoises when he was younger. “Then the government told us the turtles were getting rarer,” he said. “So we stopped eating them.”

In short, though resources are sometimes harder to come by in the desert than in other parts of North America, desert Native people were able to make their livings reliably enough. Their success at living with the land allowed a significant amount of cultural diversity in the desert, with at least 18 major cultural groups living from the Antelope Valley to Mono Lake to the Colorado River.

Where Native people see the desert as a living landscape that sustains them, the first settlers to cross the deserts in search of fortune saw them solely as obstacles, as trials akin to the Old Testament desert the Hebrews wandered for 40 years. In many cases, rushing through the desert with large herds of livestock and draft animals to haul belongings, the settlers made the desert even less hospitable. Their cattle, horses, and mules would denude spring after spring of vegetation that might have sustainably fed a few animals at a time. The effect on the landscape was dramatic, and the effect on the domestic animals even more so. Along some historic routes, like the Old Spanish Trail linking Los Angeles and Santa Fe, travelers need not have feared losing their way during the height of the settler migration: they needed only travel from one pile of livestock bones to the next.

In a way, that negative settlers’ experience of the desert proved fortuitous: had the lands between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada been fertile and well-watered, settlers would have set to plowing them with a vengeance. Instead, through two and a half centuries of European colonization, the desert landscapes have remained largely intact — at least compared to places like California’s Central Valley or the coastal valleys, not to mention the Great Plains or eastern forests.

Instead, though there are certainly ways in which settler culture has dramatically damaged the desert, the North American Deserts are the largest intact ecosystems on the continent, aside from the Arctic tundra. A very high percentage of the California desert is essentially as it was in 1800, shaped by the forces of nature and the guidance of Native people. That 28 percent of the state contains 38 percent of the state’s native plant species, and similar proportions of other kinds of biological diversity, much of it not known to Western science.

Lush plant diversity in the Mojave Desert
Lush plant diversity in the Mojave Desert | Photo: Chris Clarke

The downside of that disregard for the desert is that the desert has long been a dumping ground for anything we deem too dangerous or unpleasant to have near our coastal cities. The canonical 1950s image of atmospheric atomic testing in the Nevada Mojave is probably the most viscerally affecting example, but astonishingly, it isn’t the worst damage we’ve done to the desert. (Though that testing lives on in a legacy of radioactive tumbleweeds that suck strontium 90 and cesium 137 from the soil, die, break off at the root, and then spread that contamination across the desert.)

The worst harm we’ve done to the desert? That’s probably urbanization, the sprawl that surrounds cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, and — in California — Lancaster-Palmdale, Victorville, and the constellation of sprawl that is the Coachella Valley. Agriculture is another big hit to the deserts: the Imperial Valley has lost an unfathomable amount of biological diversity to the plow. Many square miles of the Antelope Valley and West Mojave bear circular scars a half mile in diameter from failed alfalfa-growing ventures, as well as alfalfa farms that have not yet failed, fed by unsustainably pumped groundwater.

Dumps have been another big issue. The perennial quest for remote desert canyons in which coastal cities might stow their garbage seems to have slowed a bit, as urban dwellers and their government representatives recognize the value of recycling, composting, and not generating so much garbage in the first place.

Shot Fizeau, Nevada Test Site, September 1957 | Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Some things are harder to recycle, as for instance the nuclear waste still accumulating at the nation’s remaining nuclear power plants. The federal nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a few miles from Death Valley National Park, is likely to see new life under a Trump administration, as energy companies gain even more access to the Oval Office than they enjoyed under Obama.

The nuclear waste issue offers a glimpse into what the desert’s Native people can accomplish when they are aroused to political protest. During the 1990s, the company U.S. Ecology attempted to establish a nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley, west of Needles and very close to the present-day Mojave National Preserve. At the Ward Valley dump, nuclear waste would have been dumped in unlined trenches dug in soils that may well drain, over millennia, into the Colorado River upstream from the intakes that supply the Metropolitan Water District’s customers with drinking water.

A sign points the way to the Ward Valley encampment.  | Photo: Center for Land Use Interpretationsome rights reserved

As I detailed in a two-part series in 2013, a coalition of Native people — including Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cahuilla, Quechan, and many other peoples — and their non-Native allies occupied the site of the proposed dump for several years, galvanizing opposition to the dump among environmentalists. The occupation also put the Clinton administration in a position where they’d need to evict the Native people from land they held as sacred in order to approve the project. That Native encampment killed the Ward Valley project.

A host of other bad practices have damaged the desert and the cultural values of the desert that Native people hold dear, from off-road vehicle use (especially the historic Barstow-to-Vegas race, held annually from 1967-1990) to overgrazing to mining.

Genesis Solar
The Genesis Solar project | Image: California Energy Commission

But the threat to the desert that has Native people and non-Native habitat protection activists most worried these days is utility-scale renewable energy development in the desert. Combine the urgency many feel (justifiably) over combating climate change, the reluctance by utility companies to change their business models relying on centralized power generation, and the massive amounts of land needed to generate one or two hundred megawatts of solar power, or the gargantuan scale of next-generation wind turbines, and it’s easy to see why in just a few short years, the federal government has approved solar projects on more than 68 square miles of California desert land, with more slated for wind, and perhaps more for transmission lines than both solar and wind combined.

At the root of all this destruction is that same aversion to the desert that bedeviled 19th Century settlers hurrying across the Mojave or Great Basin in search of riches. Seeing the desert as hostile and inimical to life means you’re more likely to think trading it away for some short-term gain is a good idea.

It’s not as easy to write off the desert as useless if you see it as a thriving, diverse landscape that can actually nurture human life. You can expect the Native people of the desert to make that argument more and more as threats to the desert increase.

Banner: petroglyphs in a canyon in Nevada. Photo: Chris Clarke 


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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