Senator Diane Feinstein’s proposal to create two new national monuments in the Mojave Desert comes at a time when that landscape is much on my mind. For many years, my wife and I would get in the car the day after Christmas and drive from our San Francisco home south across the Central Valley and over Tehachapi Pass into the desert on our way to visit family in Tucson.
By leaving before dawn, we were able to time the trip so we were crossing the most scenic part of the Eastern Mojave in the hours before sunset. We haven’t made that journey in years, but every December I get to thinking how much I miss it, especially crossing the desert’s uncompromising and dramatic landscape in the slanted light of late afternoon.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s I made several trips to the Mojave in pursuit of story ideas for a series on rural California that I was writing for a San Francisco newspaper. That was when Senator Feinstein–a longtime supporter of desert conservation–was working to create the current Mojave National Preserve in the East Mojave, and one of my first stories was about a rancher who was resisting that effort but eventually sold his land to TPL for protection. (This was a half-dozen years before I would join TPL’s staff.)
Some of the press about the current bill–like this article in the New York Times –centers on the tension between conservation and clean energy development. Solar energy entrepreneurs have been eyeing the Mojave because of its abundant sunshine and “empty” spaces. (Emptiness being precisely the appeal of the place for many desert lovers.)
The debate over the monument encapsulates a rising tension between two goals held by environmental groups: preservation of wild lands and ambitious efforts to combat global warming.
Not only is the desert land some of the sunniest in the country, and thus suitable for large-scale power production, it is also some of the most scenic territory in the West. The Mojave lands have sweeping vistas of an ancient landscape that is home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, fringe-toed lizards and other rare animals and plants.
Across the West, we are going to be presented with hard decisions on how to balance the much-needed development of clean energy with the equally important preservation of wild landscapes. Senator Feinstein has jump-started the conversation as it pertains to the Mojave by suggesting that we set aside a couple of the most scenic and habitat-rich locations for conservation.