WIND TURBINES VS. WILD BURROS: OR CAN WE HAVE BOTH?

By Paul M. Lewis

No matter what, the impact human beings have on the natural environment is seldom entirely benign.   Often it is extremely destructive, as is the case with the proposed construction of the XL pipeline, which the House of Representatives recently passed a bill regarding. As is normally the case with most Republicans, environmental issues have taken a back seat, and a distant one at that, to other concerns. So-called energy independence and job-creation are the ones most often cited, but in reality even a little digging reveals instead ominous and disconcerting signs of covetousness and greed, particularly on the part of already well-heeled owners of energy supply companies.

But what are we to think when we are talking not about the transportation and use of fossil fuels, however it is to be done, but the creation of clean energy? Surely, this is a good thing, and one that Democrats and environmentalists of every stripe can get behind, right? Unfortunately, the answer is: not necessarily

As an example, take a look at the recent proposal that a Spanish company by the name of Iberdrola Renewables has made for a major project in California’s Silurian Valley. To get ourselves situated geographically, picture the familiar shape of California, and focus for a moment on the area near the Nevada border not far from Death Valley, about 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas. This is pristine desert territory par excellence. Death Valley itself is the largest National Park in the United States. And the nearby Silurian Valley is located in a prized location sitting astride the old Spanish Trail, itself managed by the National Parks Service. Although outside the park’s boundaries, the Silurian Valley is a well-known wildlife corridor in the Mojave Desert, to say nothing of a place visited by tourists who want a little solitude and a whole lot of open space.

Iberdrola has asked for a variance here, a legal term that indicates a kind of dispensation from the usual rules, in order to construct up to 133 wind turbines towering as high as 480 feet off the ground, as well as a 200-megawatt facility that would consist of 400 pairs of photovoltaic panels. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area, is considering whether or not to allow this to happen.

Here, then, is the dilemma: on the one hand, clean, renewable energy that replaces polluting, greenhouse gas-causing fossil fuels is a good thing; on the other, cluttering up pristine land that also serves as irreplaceable wildlife habitat, and killing some of that wildlife in the process, or otherwise making it impossible for these creatures to live and reproduce there, is bad. The whole brouhaha might be thought of as a win-win for the no-federal-regulation types, who espouse unfettered free enterprise as the only way to live, and as the panacea for all freedom loving people everywhere. You can almost hear them jeering: these environmentalists can’t even agree among themselves. First they want to do away with fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy, and then they won’t even allow entrepreneurial companies to build the very plants that produce renewable energy, because of what? They’re afraid it’ll harm the damn desert tortoise, or something!

But let’s slow down a bit and look more closely at the dilemma. Just because environmentalists object to a company building in one location in the desert, doesn’t mean that they object to building everywhere. In other words, not all desert parcels are equal. As Jenny Kordick, a renewable energy representative for the Wilderness Society says: “My job as renewable energy representative is to push forward an important part of protecting wilderness: replacing dirty forms of energy with clean, non-polluting options. But poorly located energy projects can scar wild areas and harm sensitive species. To prevent this, the Wilderness Society is working to guide wind and solar development to low-conflict areas and away from special places like Silurian Valley.” The key phrase here is “poorly located energy projects.”

An article on the subject by Julie Cart in last week’s Los Angeles Times (Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014) also points out that the Bureau of Land Management has 22 million acres that it can choose from in California’s deserts. And there are definitely portions of that desert that are far less environmentally fragile and susceptible to damage than the one proposed in the Silurian Valley. Not only is this locale, just off of Hwy 127, on the way to the magnificence of Death Valley National Park, it is in its own right a prime area of unspoiled beauty and ecological importance. It is clear that building such an enormous project in an easily spoiled area is not only bad for the animals who live and travel through there, but also for those humans who seek to experience true wilderness (or as close as we can get in the 21st century). Why not find a location where the impact is less destructive, and the clean-energy deliverables are, if not one hundred percent as good, at least good enough, given all of the drawbacks of the originally proposed site?

Not only would the Iberdrola project build the huge wind turbines and dangerous photovoltaic panels mentioned above (both of which, it is well know, kill birds, sometimes in their thousands), but it would also require construction of 45 miles of new roads and 11 miles of transmission lines through California’s Mojave Desert. Surely, we can do better than cluttering up and despoiling an area long known for its untrammeled vistas

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, human intervention in any landscape is always and everywhere problematic. No matter where, it is dangerous for the creatures who had lived there before, because humans seldom take into consideration any other being on the planet, aside from ourselves and our own needs. The feral desert burros of the Silurian Valley that escaped from miners and explorers who traversed these same desert landscapes a hundred years ago have now fully acclimated to a sometimes unforgiving land. They have prospered and returned to a more natural life for themselves, one that up until now had been blissfully free from further human encroachment.   And now we want back what we once had so freely given away, when we thought the land was of no value to us.

Human beings seem to want everything. I remember an old friend of mine once saying of her then (now ex) husband: “He wants what he wants when he wants it.” But can’t most of us say the same thing about ourselves? We want modern life styles that provide all the energy we require at the flick of a switch; we want our ease and our comfort; and we surely want money, that blessed commodity that brings with it all good things, or so we are convinced.   But above all, we want power. We want control over everything.

It may be time for us to begin realizing that we’ve got to come to a place of compromise. In fact, the more we humans over-populate the world, the more we need to share what is left of that world with other life forms. It’s not even just as a matter of morality (why does everything always belong only to us?), but also simply of sustaining our own lives.

Humans and burros can coexist. So can birds, and even those much maligned desert tortoises. But we’ve got to make allowances for them, and to learn to be more generous in how we live our lives. Believe it or not, not everything is only about us. If we motivate ourselves, in the end we actually can find other places on earth – and here in the California deserts – where it’s possible to safely build turbines and photovoltaic panels. All in the hope that one day we will learn to tread more lightly on the planet that nourishes and sustains us all.

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