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The Mojave Desert is Under Assault

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Satellite view of Eagle Mountain, which is surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park | Image via Google MapsEvery time we drive a car, flick a switch, turn a faucet, go shopping, or grab a bite to eat, we are consuming nature. There is nothing shocking about this claim, but it is unsettling actually to see the consequences of our economic actions on the ground; to make the link between what we use and what we use up. To appreciate this ineluctable connection, head into the Mojave Desert, where we are beginning to extract the resources to drive Southern California's 21st-century economy, an industrialization of the desert that is predicated on making our lives easier but that will also destroy this wild, beautiful, and arid land.

The Mojave's intense levels of sunlight are being harnessed on mega-solar farms that are starting to sprawl across vast stretches of this flat, dusty landscape. The region's geothermal potential -- thanks to the deep rifts that the Garlock, San Andreas, and other faults have created -- will continue to be tapped. Its veins of rare-earth minerals will be scooped out to build must-have hybrids and fabricate much-coveted iPads.

The massive infrastructure needed to capture these sources of power and wealth, and the transmission and transportation corridors that will be required to distribute them to consumers across Southern California (and beyond), will speed up the degradation of this once-pristine landmass that encompasses much of southeastern California and southern Nevada. Our hunger for all things material, and the comfort we believe they will provide, carries a very heavy and unacknowledged price.

There is another cost that this stretch of high desert may be forced to bear: when we arrive home from the mall with a haul, and then proceed to trash the sales receipts, packaging, and plastic bags, this accumulated refuse has to go somewhere. Until recently, it has been jammed into canyons like those in the Chino or La Puente hills. These landfills are now nearly full, and more than 20 years ago Los Angeles County targeted Eagle Mountain in the Mojave between Indio and Blythe as its preferred new dump.

Situated in a parrot's-beak of land that juts into the southeastern corner of Joshua Tree National Park, the town of Eagle Mountain is thus surrounded on three sides by protected wilderness. This curious setting and odd incursion has a decidedly political explanation. In 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Joshua Tree National Monument (it gained park status as a result of the Desert Protection Act of 1994), Eagle Mountain was an integral part of it. Shortly after World War II, however, mining corporations successfully lobbied Congress, who pressured the Department of Interior, to cut out 265,000 mineral-rich acres from the national monument.

One of the deal's key proponents and prime beneficiaries was steelmaker Henry Kaiser, who in 1948 bought the Eagle Mountain environs from the Southern Pacific Railroad, linked the mine to the regional railroad grid by building a 51-mile spur line, and commenced digging iron out of the earth for processing at his Fontana foundry. When the mine played out by the early 1980s, left behind was the ghostly remains of his model company town and a traumatized terrain: the abandoned open-pit mine left a massive wound, 4.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.

The huge, scored chasm shortly thereafter caught the attention of LA County planners, who believed it would nicely answer the burning question of what to do with the metropolis' swelling volume of trash. Negotiations with Kaiser Ventures, LLD and Riverside County proceeded quickly; federal regulatory agencies either sanctioned the project or their opposition was but "duly noted"; and proponents rolled up support by dangling the tantalizing prospects of job-creation (upwards of 1300 would be employed) and economic growth (an estimated $3 billion would be pumped into regional coffers). The project seemed too good to be true.

It was. Eagle Mountain's close proximity to Joshua Tree National Park quickly raised a host of red flags for local environmental activists and park defenders. Pointing out the obvious -- that landfills are notoriously hazardous -- they worried about the deleterious impact that an endless stream of garbage-packed trains and trucks would have on air quality and groundwater supplies. Diesel-fueled compactors, as they crushed 20,000 tons of trash daily, would further befoul the class-1 airshed and send aloft ballooning material to litter the park. The noise, stench, fumes, and high-intensity lighting as well would significantly erode park visitors' wilderness experience and inevitably undercut the capacity of indigenous (and often endangered) flora and fauna to flourish. An ecological disaster in the making, the Eagle Mountain landfill, declared Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), was "like putting a sewer next to the Sistine Chapel."

Protecting the sacred from the profane has become the life's work of Donna and Larry Charpied, a pair of tenacious residents of the small community of Desert Center. They had moved to the Mojave in the 1980s, soon learned of the landfill project, and have been battling it ever since, a cautionary tale that is wonderfully evoked in a short documentary one of my students, Mary Moore, produced in 2009 (embedded below). Self-taught in the Byzantine-like intricacies of county, state, and federal law, and increasingly savvy about the interlocking relationships between private powerbrokers and governmental regulators, the indefatigable duo has filed lawsuit after lawsuit to expose the unexamined environmental consequences of the Eagle Mountain project. They also challenged a critical land-swap between Kaiser Ventures and the U. S. Bureau of Land Management that was deemed essential to the project's realization. Alone, and in collaboration with the NPCA, the Riverside-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, and the Desert Protection Society, the Charpieds have won each and every case.

Their most recent victory came in the summer of 2010, when the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn a lower court's rejection of the land swap. Although Kaiser Ventures is going forward with an appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court its chances of success have dimmed when just last week the U. S. Department of the Interior decided not to support this last-gasp legal maneuver.

Yet even as Donna Charpied breathed a sigh of relief to local media -- "Thank God it's over" -- another controversy already has surfaced. In early February, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission started taking public comment on a proposed hydroelectric plant that would turn the Kaiser pit into a two-level reservoir. By pumping millions of gallons of water out of a local aquifer and flushing them through a complex underground storage system, the facility would generate 1,300 megawatts of electricity, lighting up Southern California.

There is, apparently, no end to our appetite for the Mojave's resources; they are ensnared in the web of our all-consuming desires.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

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