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Under the Desert Sun: Journey through the California Desert

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by Krista Schlyer, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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I wake this morning to the smell of rain. A desert long-denied, in the throes of an historic drought, was breathing its creosote-scented sigh of relief. In the eastern United States, where I live, rain doesn’t provoke an olfactory response. It is just wet, sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet. But in the desert it’s rare and memorable, and always accompanied by desert plants’ rendition of the Ode to Joy. Once you smell desert rain you never forget it. And for me it is more than enough motivation to face a 4 am wake-up call and a battering cold morning wind.

I drive to a ridgeline that overlooks a vast valley formed by the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the Tehachapi and El Paso mountains. I’m here for one reason–tortoises.

Desert tortoise with desert dandelion.
Desert tortoise with desert dandelion.

My photography project is broader than that, much, much broader. Over about 18 days I’m trying to capture the beauty of the California desert, and the impact that energy development–wind, solar and geothermal–are having on the region. The project is an assignment from Defenders of Wildlife, and it was scheduled now because there is an important planning process in the works that will decide the fate of the fragile desert and its creatures.

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But today I’m focusing on one particular creature–the desert tortoise. If there is a poster-child for the potential and already realized devastation energy development could bring to the wild desert, the tortoise is it. These hardy, desert-adapted creatures have suffered a 40-year decline due to human development of various sorts. They have lost 90 percent of their population despite being a protected species for most of that time.

The location I’m visiting today, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, provides a stronghold for tortoises. There are far more in this preserve than in the surrounding areas, even those designated critical habitat by the Bureau of Land Management. Because the tortoise preserve is so well protected–even has a fence surrounding it to thwart off-road vehicles–it has maintained a surprising diversity of desert plants, more than 230 species, many of them the yummy forbs at the base of a tortoise food pyramid.

Despite the essential nature of this preserve for tortoises, it is proposed as a location for large-scale solar production, which would scrape the land of vegetation and displace or kill the tortoises here. But it’s not a done-deal. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is a tool for deciding future land use in the immense California desert. And a plan is desperately needed–without it development will proceed ad-hoc, which has not served the wild desert well in the past decade.  And conservation of important landscapes is part of the process.

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But the plan as it stands does not yet adequately protect wildlife and wild lands, and tortoise survival hangs in the balance.  For decades these creatures have been forced onto smaller and smaller pieces of viable habitat and faced new threats from human introduced predators and disease. And now they face the chaos of climate change, which is shifting the seasonal arrival of their foods and exacerbating drought. Climate change is also bringing a market for energy development to their home. We call it green energy, but like oil and gas and coal, when done on an industrial scale it has the power to devastate the land. Solar scrapes the land bare, solar and wind and geothermal bring powerlines, new roads and invasive plants, and can drain scarce water resources. But an added complication with renewables is that it’s so easy to justify the sacrifice of wild lands and wildlife habitats when climate change is hanging over our heads.

Under this pressure we forget the costs and we fail to see the alternatives right in front of us: energy efficiency and conservation; industrial scale energy development on already degraded lands, and small-scale energy production in urban areas, on rooftops, roads and parking lots.

The energy systems of the future–a very near future, already happening to a large extent in Germany–will be distributed power, micro-grids, roof-top solar, and cutting-edge efficiency. The question is, will we realize this before we needlessly sacrifice the desert and all its vulnerable creatures?

Jackrabbit in the Sonoran Desert.
Jackrabbit in the Sonoran Desert.
Tarantula
Tarantula
Coyote
Coyote

A lot of that depends on whether we can learn to love and understand the desert. Its hard angles, harsh moods and shy creatures. This photo journey has taught me a few things. And it all goes back to the sun.

The sun has a special relationship with the desert. It showers attention on this land in intense, killing heat, a kind of fiery stare only the heartiest of wild creatures can endure. But it also rewards the desert with some of the most soul-breaking beauty that a mind can manage, a beauty so profound it hurts your heart to witness it, like its going to explode your chest with the generosity of life.

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One night in the Silurian Valley I felt that sweet pain as I watched clouds in the broad valley amphitheater fade from white, to yellow, to pale blue-gray, and just as I was packing up my cameras for the night, two lightening bolts of blindingly bright salmon-pink shot like comets across the sky. The land itself turned rosy in the reflected glow of the radiant clouds.

I’ve heard it often heard the dismissive phrase, It’s just a desert, barren, lifeless. Nothing could be further from the truth, a truth shouted from the Avawatz Mountain peaks that tower above the Silurian Valley; declared indisputably in the thundering of bighorn hooves against rock, and whispered in the branches of creosote, and beneath the ground in the burrows of desert squirrels, lizards and tortoises.

Bighorn sheep.

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The Silurian Valley provides critical linkages between Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, it serves as a passageway for wild species like bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats as they navigate available islands of protected habitat. Never has this been more important than now, as a historic drought brings home the reality of climate change. Animals will have to be able to move if they are going to survive the changes we’ve set in motion, and we have to make sure they have protected lands and protected migration corridors to be able to do that.

The Silurian Valley, like the tortoise preserve, is proposed as possible location for future solar and wind energy development. If this comes to pass it will alter wild desert forever and the loss would be incalculable, as articulated by one desert resident I’ve met in the past week: “When you break the ground in the desert, it’s permanently broken.”

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The issue at hand is not whether we pursue renewable energy, but where we get it. Do we get our energy from rooftops and degraded lands–or from the last remaining wilderness and critical wildlife habitat.

For creatures like the imperiled desert tortoise, survival on this planet swings on a renewable energy pendulum. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is the instrument that will decide the fate of the desert and its creatures, from bighorn, to tortoise, to wilderness-starved human being.

We have this one chance to set ourselves on an ethical renewable energy course. Once the decision is made, there’s no going back.

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Krista Schlyer is a photographer and writer and longtime collaborator of Defenders of Wildlife. She is the author of Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, and winner of the 2014 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography from the Sierra Club. Follow Krista’s California Desert tour on Twitter @kristaschlyer and on Instagram at krista_schlyer.

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