“If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm.”
~ Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain
I would like to rename, for a few minutes, my childhood home, the Owens Valley. Let’s call it Deepest Valley National Park, just for fun. Like the Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, all Americans know it and even if they’ve never been there, they love it. Deepest Valley National Park lies in the cradle between two massive chains of mountains – the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the White-Inyo Mountains. The tallest peaks of both ranges are well over 14,000 feet and the eastern front forms a continuous wall of massive granite that stands, without a break, 7,000 to 10,800 feet above the valley. “Here 600-million-year-old folded and faulted rocks and the 210-million-year-old granite that shouldered them aside are on dramatic display,” writes Genny Smith in her guidebook to Deepest Valley National Park. Smith adds that “Earth’s crust has moved and continues to move – a few inches here, a few feet there, up down and sideways – to lift the mountains and to drop the valley floor between them, producing this deepest valley on the American continents.”
Continuing this scenario, imagine that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns features Deepest Valley National Park prominently in his series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” In your mind’s eye picture the park’s visitor centers telling the sweeping story of the region; it’s epic in scope. Cowboys, Indians, hardscrabble miners, rough-and-tumble cattlemen, Civil War soldiers, Basque sheepherders, city officials from hundreds of miles away buying up land, American citizens imprisoned during World War II – the film Chinatown doesn’t even begin to cover it. Millions of visitors from Great Britain, Japan, Germany and all 50 states are represented in the visitor surveys.
So now that we’ve established this national park, let’s examine a potential development that would essentially pave over some of it. An energy developer wants to build a 200-megawatt solar facility that would cover about 1,200 acres with some one million photovoltaic panels (if my math is accurate) on undeveloped land. Power from the facility would travel via an existing transmission line (which is a benefit of the project, as that infrastructure is already in place and would not require additional construction and environmental damage) to the power grid. Given Americans’ pride in their national parks, even a diseased and dying tree can hardly get cut down without public outcry. This fight over the solar facility could become a war.
But Deepest Valley National Park does not exist. So the struggle between local residents and the city of Los Angeles will appear parochial and unimportant to anyone outside the region. I assure you we all need to care. The Owens Valley contains the heritage of all Americans – our prehistoric past, including Columbia mammoths, dire wolves, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers; the history of Western expansion and conflict between European settlers, native mammals like the California grizzly and American Indians; our present of recreation and tourism, including hiking, skiing, camping and fishing; and our future as a society that increasingly recognizes that without nature, our mental and physical health goes out the window, along with the rest of the planet. This is not an issue of concern just to Californians, but to all peoples.
Though some of the Owens Valley is publicly owned by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, most of it does not enjoy the highest level of public land protection in the United States. Much of this land, fellow Americans, is not ours. But the valley does enjoy plentiful protection most of the time. More than 300,000 acres of the Owens Valley is owned by the City of Los Angeles and as a result, the valley’s open space and rural character has been more or less preserved, rendering it one of the most beautiful valleys on Earth (above, United States Forest Service map of the Owens Valley. Los Angeles owns the area in yellow. Photo by the author). Former California State Parks ranger Dave Carle, who worked at Mono Lake, heard the opinion, expressed again and again, that “today’s sparsely populated Eastern Sierra was actually preserved by the water imperialism of Los Angeles; saved from the overdevelopment rampant elsewhere in the state.” Carle writes in Water and the California Dream that if Los Angeles had not diverted the Owens River, the town of Bishop might be a lot more urbanized, perhaps similar in population to Carson City, Nevada.
While I believe that the Department of Water and Power’s project to help meet California’s renewable energy goals is laudable, the siting is not. According to The Nature Conservancy (full disclosure, they are my employer) there are places that are well-suited for this kind of development. And we have the scientific data to show the way forward. Within the Mojave Desert’s 32 million acres, the Conservancy says there are roughly 1.8 million acres that are both already ecologically degraded and have the site requirements necessary for viable solar energy production. But Los Angeles doesn’t own them, which I imagine is a prime reason the city won’t be exploring that option anytime soon.
Reading the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Environmental Impact Statement appendices on the plant and animal species, as well as the cultural and geological resources that would be affected, it’s unclear to me just how severe the impacts of a solar energy development would be to a burrowing owl, for example, which was not found during the assessment period. The alkaline slicks seem inhospitable to most life. Livestock graze here already. Conflicting points of view abound as to whether the solar panels would be very visible from nearby Manzanar National Historic Site. Former Park Superintendent Les Inafuku said to a KCET reporter in January that “Most of our visitors are urbanites. To have have an industrial site across the highway, would just make this area seem more like what they have down in L.A. or San Diego. The opportunity for visitors to learn here at Manzanar is greatly enhanced by maintaining the undeveloped nature of this greater area.” The Owens Valley Committee’s rendering of how the solar ranch might appear is below.
No matter how much I review the literature, I can’t convince my heart. I plead with Los Angeles: There has to be a better place for this kind of development. Not on land that is presently undeveloped. Not on land with 163 archaeological sites, 140 of which are from the prehistoric period. Not on land that contains 68 prehistoric sites that are recommended eligible for inclusion to the California Register of Historical Resources. Not on land that is home to sensitive wildlife species like the pallid bat, Townsend’s big-eared bat, the spotted bat, the Loggerhead Shrike and the American badger. Not on land where the little-appreciated salt-tolerant shrubs Nevada oryctes and the coyote gillia persist despite the lack of consistent rain. Not on land across from a former war relocation center where 10,000 Japanese Americans falsely accused and incarcerated lived in harsh, isolated conditions.
What I would like you to do, my Owensrivergirl readers, is take action. Write to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, the Mayor of Los Angeles and the LA DWP (contact information below) with words like this: “It’s not in my backyard – but I still want it protected. The Owens Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. Find an already-degraded site instead.”
Thank You readers.
“For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.” ~ Mary Austin
Contact Information, City of Los Angeles:
Contact Information, Inyo County Board of Supervisors:
Inyo County Board of Supervisors
Independence, CA 93526