28.4.14 — Part 3 — The desert tortoise, large-scale solar, and future plans for the Mojave Desert


We Use the Term “Renewable” Loosely

By Kelly Herbinson

            At noon we eat lunch from paper sacks and tell stories, kicking dust from our boots as they hang off the edge of a tailgate.  We look like one of those old photos of construction workers sitting on a steel beam in a New York skyscraper.  It’s as though nothing has changed since then except now some of us are there to walk around and make sure no sensitive species get killed during construction.  The laborers and linemen and equipment operators are from Missouri and Georgia and Wisconsin.  They talk about the big mossy shade trees back home and flick their hands in disappointment at the low-lying desert shrubs that look scraggly and browned from drought, fanning out around us for miles.  I feel embarrassed and protective of the shrubs, like they’re my awkward-aged children.

“They get much more green in the spring,” I say. 

            You know what I like most?  If you bulldoze a creosote bush, I mean completely annihilate it, cover it in dirt and pack it down, if a single branch remains above ground, the shrub will survive.  The leaves on the jutting branch will turn green after a rain and they will dance around in the wind like it’s no big deal, like the rest of it’s body isn’t dead and decomposing beneath the surface.  Creosote shrubs have this incredible way of reproducing that involves sprouting clones of themselves from their roots.  After many generations the clones form giant creosote rings, ancient shrubby crowns topping the landscape.  Some creosote clone rings can be thousands of years old.  The King Clone, the largest and oldest known creosote ring in the Mojave, is over 60 feet in diameter and is thought to be more than 11,000 years old.  It is likely the oldest living organism in the Mojave.  Maybe when you’re that old you just refuse to go very easily?  Or maybe when something is that old the universe just can’t bear to see it obliterated in a microsecond by a bulldozer.

            I don’t do this type of work very often.  My job used to be mostly research-based and funded by federal agency research money.  The desert tortoise was listed as threatened by the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1980 after major declines were recorded.  In the 1990’s some populations of tortoises declined by as much as 90%.  It’s difficult to get an official count of tortoises across their entire range, but researchers are currently working to figure out if numbers have stabilized or not since the decline in the 1990s.  There’s no simple answer as to why this decline was (and may still be) happening, but it appears to be a combination of habitat loss, disease and the encroachment of humans into desert communities which causes increases in things like off-road vehicles, feral dogs and ravens, which all kill tortoises in startling numbers.  There was a band of forty or so of us desert tortoise biologists who would travel all over, walking the California deserts calculating desert tortoise abundance in to see how the species’ numbers were doing in specific areas.  We would give them health assessments to determine if they were suffering from a disease that appeared to be killing them in droves.  We’d conduct behavioral and foraging studies; we’d affix radio transmitters to their shells and track them over time to learn where they go and what they do.  We were helping federal agencies and researchers figure out why the tortoises were dying off so fast and what we could do to turn those trends around.  Then, in 2006, the state of California passed a bill mandating that 33% of the state’s utility-scale energy come from renewable resources by 2020.  That’s when everything changed. 

            Over one quarter of the California desert was earmarked for solar and wind energy development. Federal agencies reduced funding for certain types of desert tortoise research and my job as a desert tortoise consultant shifted from working as a researcher to working as a facilitator of energy development.   In the last few years, hundreds of people have been trained to survey for desert tortoise for solar and wind development.  Now we sweep the desert en masse moving the animals out of harm’s way and outside of project footprints. The federal agencies scramble to come up with plans for development that would manage to facilitate the growth of renewable energy, but not impact the recovery of local sensitive species, the desert tortoise being the highest profile of the bunch.  And right now, we, the consultants, federal and state agencies and solar companies, are scrambling to build these facilities and somehow minimize the impact to this terribly misunderstood place.  The desert. 

            Unfortunately just the word, “desert,” connotes an absence.  But that’s not the case at all.  It just appears that way if you don’t look closely. Having grown up on the coast of southern California, I occasionally drove through the desert, usually on the way to Las Vegas.  I never thought much about it, and certainly never sought it out.  I had the beach and the mountains, after all.  The desert was not even on my list of potential destinations.  When I landed my first desert tortoise job out of college I was summoned to Barstow, California, where I sat on the curb in front of an old broken down motel and cried at the overwhelming feeling of desolation.  Barstow is an appropriate storefront for the desolate reputation of the Mojave Desert.  A town built on Route 66, it boomed in the 1950’s and busted soon after.  Now it’s rundown motels still flickering their neon signs, arrows pointing towards dirt lots.  An old train depot is filled with fluorescent-lit tchotchke shops enticing passers-through to buy Las Vegas themed key chains, mini slot machines baubles and cheaply made t-shirts.  A nearly undetectable community of locals run antique shops or attend the cosmetology school downtown. 

            I showed up for my first day of desert work at the site of a massive natural gas pipeline installation.  My job was to walk around looking for tortoises and their burrows. When I encountered my first wild tortoise sitting on the mound of her burrow blinking back at me, I realized that there are still dinosaurs roaming the Earth.  I’d never really thought about it before then, but tortoises have been around for millions of years and they’re still here with their armored shells and scaled legs and marked deliberation.  Adult tortoises are about a foot long and they spend most of their time underground in half-moon shaped burrows.  They come out in the spring and fall to mate and to eat plants growing after winter and summer rains.  They’re much more aggressive then I thought they’d be, the males have a startlingly high testosterone level and they spend a lot of their time looking for other tortoises.  If they find a female, they’ll bob their heads and bite and ram them with their shells for a while before mounting and mating with them.  If they find another male they’ll challenge them to a fight using protruding parts of their shell under their chins called gulars, which they use to get enough leverage to flip the other tortoise over.  They’ll fight brutally until one runs away or is overturned.  And, yes, they do actually run.  This whole process helps the community of tortoises establish a complex social hierarchy.   Tortoises have been in what is currently called the United States for millions of years, persevering through all kinds of planetary woes.  But unfortunately the ability of the tortoise to thrive in what some ecologists are deeming the Anthropocene –an informal geologic era defined by the impact of human activity on global ecosystems-, will be its most challenging feat.

            Although I’m endlessly worried about the future of the desert tortoise, they’re demise is not my biggest concern.  At least the tortoise is protected.  There are people whose job it is to walk around and account for every individual tortoise during construction.  There are pre-construction surveys to calculate the density of tortoises in the area, and then the tortoises that are displaced are radio-tracked after construction to make sure they survive the aftermath (or don’t survive, for that matter.)  Despite the fact that we know relatively little about the desert tortoise, at least they’re being looked after.            What really frightens me – what really keeps me up at night – is the potential impact of development in the Mojave to all of the things we don’t know about.  Things like the plant and insect species that are still yet to be discovered and described, or things that we know exist but don’t know enough about (or aren’t charismatic and “sexy” enough) to warrant any kind of legal concern.  That’s perhaps the crux of the issue with current environmental law.  The Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the Migratory Bird Act are the main pieces of legislation that dictate what is protected at a federal level.  The problem is that most desert species are relatively unstudied.  If we do not have concrete scientific evidence that a species is sensitive or declining, it is not protected.  Although lots of scientists focus their efforts on desert species or ecosystems the amount of research that would need to be done to properly document the state of every desert species is impossible with the small amount of funding available for such endeavors. 

            One particularly magical amalgam of understudied organisms doesn’t sound so magical.  They’re called biological soil crusts.  Biological soil crusts are clusters of tiny living organisms that form on the surface of just about every square foot of desert soil.   They’re pretty important ecologically and they (like most sensitive species including the tortoise) take forever to grow.  Soil crusts are mostly composed of cyanobacteria, and sometimes lichens, fungus and moss.  When they’re older you can see them.  They look like crusty black clusters sometimes forming little pinnacles on the ground.  In some areas green moss grows on the soil crusts.  It looks black and moldy when it’s dry, which is most of the time, but when it rains it instantly transforms into a lush, bright green moss unfurling tiny filaments that reach toward the sun.  You wouldn’t ever notice it unless you were looking closely at the ground during a rain.  What we do know is that those soil crusts perform many important functions. They absorb nitrogen in the air and convert it to something usable by the soil. They prevent soil erosion and help plants absorb the nutrients they need to survive.  They’re basically a building block for life in the desert—the life upon which other desert life is built.  No one knows what would happen, or, what will happen, when they are destroyed.  Right now, as I write this, tens of thousands of acres of desert are being or have been destroyed, including the soil crusts that reside upon them. 

            A few weeks ago I walked around a bulldozed swath of desert looking for a tortoise I had moved away from the area, making sure it hadn’t decided to try to find its old home.  I didn’t find the tortoise, but I did find several colonies of ants.  Even after their mounds had been bladed over and packed down, even after several trucks had passed through loading and unloading troops of construction workers, even after a storm passed through causing the soil to swell, wash away and harden, a single ant poked out of the ground.  She walked in frenetic circles and then was followed by her sisters, thick red arteries of ants emerging from deep underground. They swirled around the bare ground waving their antennae maniacally trying to get bearings on their new surroundings.  We couldn’t see it, but they were moving one grain of sand at a time all day and all night for days trying to make it to the surface, cleaning out the wreckage of their den.  That’s why their colonies can go thirty feet under ground—so that when the rains come they can just close their doors and hunker down and wait until the storm passes before digging their way back out. I wonder if they think the bulldozers are just big hurricanes.  Giant storms passing over their homes. 

            The desert keeps its animals underground; it holds them like secrets.  They are equal parts vulnerable and invincible.  The ants and the creosote have evolved ways to persevere through devastation, but most of the vertebrates, the tortoise and the kit fox, the coyotes and the kangaroo rats, the lizards and snakes, can’t withstand the impact of such a wide scale disturbance.  Unlike the creosote or the ant colonies, if you run over a tortoise, it just dies.  I don’t know what will happen when this is over and the desert has been reduced to islands of land connected loosely by wildlife corridors.  The world won’t end.  The majority of the planet won’t even notice.  But it seems a shame and a bit reckless that we are destroying one of the last frontiers of wilderness in the United States before we even know all of its secrets.

            It’s important to think about these issues from both the perspective of the soil crusts and the ants all the way up to the Earth on a global scale.  I, like most folks, am supportive of the pursuit for renewable energy.  I’m inspired to see so many people working and dreaming up ways to live sustainably.  So far, however, I don’t think we’ve quite found the answer for utility-scale energy.  Mine is just one perspective, the way it looks from the ground, from a biologist’s point of view.  There are many more pieces of the puzzle that I don’t know enough about to speak to.  Things like the intricacies of solar power, which types are more productive, whether or not rooftop solar is a viable option for utility-scale energy and the details of how environmental legislation may or may not be able to guide this onslaught of development.  I do know that when you boil it all down it reduces to a complicated values question.  Which is more valuable to you?  The preservation of the Mojave Desert?  Or the “renewable” production of 1/3 of California’s energy? 

            There’s really only one way out of having to make that decision, although it may be too late.  It would be to focus more on designing innovative means of streamlining and conserving electricity, seek ways to become more efficient and use less power, rather than focusing on ways to produce and consume more.   It’s a tact we as a planet have not tried in earnest yet, but it may be the only truly sustainable path forward.