For most people, the small town of Desert Center, located off the I-10 corridor in a remote stretch of the Chuckwalla Valley in Riverside County, is just a lifeless speck on the map, a place close to the southeastern limits of Joshua Tree National Park. .
It’s the perfect location, some might think, for the 2,600-acre Oberon Solar Project, which was approved this month by the Bureau of Land Management.
But they couldn’t have been more wrong. And here’s why.
It’s not a wasteland. This region of the California desert wilderness is a rich and abundant land of story-rich scenery and life, a land of critical environmental and cultural importance that we cannot afford to sacrifice.
Here, in this critical transition wilderness corridor connecting the western Colorado-Sonoran and Mojave deserts, ancient desert ironwood forests up to 1,200 years old grow in abundance.
Endangered California desert tortoises thrive here. Sacred sites of indigenous desert peoples abound here and include multiple trails that connect vital water sources, village sites, petroglyph panels and lithic scatters around ancient lake beds.
Now much of that is in danger of being erased forever.
That our federal government is licensing corporations that could make money exploiting and destroying our public wilderness in this way is a disgrace and is the antithesis of environmental sustainability. Siting large-scale renewable energy projects in California’s desert wilderness is not only unnecessary – rooftop solar is a viable alternative – but deeply unethical.
The approval of the Oberon Solar Project is particularly heartbreaking for environmentalists advocating for the protection of the desert from huge renewable energy projects here and in other wild deserts in California and Nevada.
Since the approval was made directly by US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the standard 45-day public comment process following such approvals was eliminated.
This, at a time when the California Public Utilities Commission is considering a plan that would make it too expensive for many Californians to adopt solar power, which in turn increases our state’s dependence on solar energy sources. energy companies such as PG&E, which has a recent and horrific record of negligence inflicting extreme damage from wildfires and loss of life.
And this, during the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic, when ugly projects such as Oberon can easily jump on the pandemic profit bandwagon to gain approval while an audience is kept out of the approval process and comments.
I can imagine the red-tailed hawks and great birds of prey circling above Oberon during its construction, amazed at the loss of their microphyllous desert forests: Ironwood, Palo Verde and Mesquite.
Some, diving for what they think is water but is actually a lake of superheated solar panels, will be instantly incinerated. I feel the agony of desert tortoises torn from ancestral burrows and safe desert trails into the only world they have ever known. And I cry, knowing that my grandchildren could very well become adults in a desert that looks more like a dump than the sacred landscape that I had the privilege of knowing.
We can do better than that. We must do better than that. Our survival depends on this simple principle: you don’t save the planet by destroying the planet, especially our remaining wild lands.
Ruth Nolan of Palm Desert is a professor of English at the College of the Desert and the California Indian Nations College. She is a former wildland firefighter with the California Desert District of the Bureau of Land Management.