Interview with Kelly Herbinson: Desert Tortoise Researcher
K: Can you describe what you do as a biologist?
Kelly: My day to day has changed a lot. I started twelve years ago as a consultant doing tortoise work. I would get hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to do surveys. Part of what is good to do if you have an endangered species is count them every year. So, part of what we would do go survey for tortoises every year to get that count. Or the government would fund some sort of disease research to figure out where these pockets of disease are. We would radio track tortoises to see what kind of movement patterns they had. I had one job working for USGS where I just sat and watched a single tortoise from sunrise to sunset for weeks at a time and wrote down what it did all day. It was a behavioral study on what tortoises do. It was the greatest job. I was in the field, doing surveys and learning about them. It was research. Once in a while there would be a gas company that needed repair, so I would work with the gas company. I would go out with their crew and make sure they were not harming the tortoise when they were repairing the gas line. I worked on a railroad expansion once where I had to go out with the construction crew and make sure they weren't hurting tortoises when they were expanding.
When the solar thing came down the pipeline, all of a sudden everything changed. All of the work that exists now is solar related. Initially that means doing surveys on the site to see how many tortoises there are. So we will all walk in these big lines searching for tortoises and count how many we will find. Then use that in a formula to figure out how big the abundance is. Depending on that number the solar company will decide to do it or not. Then they work though this big process with the BLM to get permitted. Then we have to clear the area of all the tortoises. Move them and translocate them out of the area. Then the company will do construction and we have to monitor the construction. We have to walk in front of the bulldozer and make sure we didn't miss any tortoises.
Some how the government has lost funding for that research we used to have to do. It doesn't really get funded too much anymore. The abundance sampling still happens but it is really minimal. It is kind of a weird time. There is not as much research and there is all of the solar. On the other hand, the solar companies are having to fund these big monitoring projects where we are doing research on the animals that are being moved. So we are still doing the disease testing, monitoring their movements, we put radio transmitters on them and track them. We compare the animals that we have moved versus a control group to see if translocated animals move more and if they are more prone to disease if they move more. That is now the bid site for research: Looking at the effects of translocation on the tortoise. So, a lot of what I do is that kind of research.
K: Have you seen anything specific happening with the translocation?
Kelly: The only thing we know that has really been published is—this is pretty obvious—animals that are translocated spend more time above ground initially than animals that haven't. Typically tortoises spend 90% of their time underground. There are a few reasons why: For thermoregulation. They are reptiles so they don't get too hot or too cold. Also to avoid predators, like coyotes and ravens. So if animals get moved and they don't have their cover sites and they are all freaked out because they are in this new place and they don't go underground, what we are trying to figure out is: 1. Are they more prone to predation because they are above ground? 2. Are they more prone to getting this disease because they are not able to thermoregulate themselves or are exposed to more stuff? All of that is being tested right now. It is all pretty new.
K: I would be really curious to hear about what is happening with the tortoise and how it is being affected by the military and large scale solar.
Kelly: Let me give you some background first. The tortoise was listed as threatened about 1990. Partly because of a woman named Kristin Barry who works for USGS started doing long term study plots all over the desert studying the tortoise. In some of her plots, she started finding the numbers of tortoise were declining by about 90%. Huge massive die offs all of a sudden. She was finding areas with a lot of disease. The tortoises are suffering from a respiratory illness. We are not quite sure where it came from and it seems it just started in the 1980s. It is called mycoplasma. It is sort of like a hybrid between a bacteria and a virus. That disease has swept through the population and in certain areas has killed off entire populations. It is not super prevalent out here in this part of the Mojave Desert. It is really prevalent in captive animals and pets. We actually think it came from people bringing animals into their homes and exposing them to the bacteria. It probably came from humans or dogs or something like that.
K: When pet tortoises get released?
Kelly: People often lose them. It is so funny: You talk to people out here and almost everyone is like, "Oh, I have a tortoise." It is this really common thing because they are so long lived. In captivity you can keep a tortoise alive for 100 years. In the wild, 60-70 years is probably typical but no one really knows. In fact, I had a pet tortoise when I was young. I grew up on the coast and there was a tortoise walking down the street one day in the suburbs in Orange County. We took it in and called Fish and Wildlife. They said, "Whatever you do, don't let it back in the wild. Just keep it as a pet." So we kept it. Our tortoise got out because they burrow. It just went under the fence and we could never find it again. So that happens up here: people have them, they keep them, they get sick, then they burrow under and get into the wild population, and then it is all over. So that is one of the big issues, but there is a million things threatening the tortoise. Another issue is ravens, which are native to this area, but subsidized by humans: they like trash and water—and they are real smart—and they love to eat baby tortoises. We will find raven nests with a 100 dead tortoise shells in them. They are just eating tortoises like snacks. Raven numbers are astronomically high compared to what they are naturally. Off-roading is a big issue in certain areas. People run tortoises over and that kind of thing.
But I would say the number one threat—and I would say this is true for every endangered species—is habitat loss. People come out to the desert and are like, "There is so much space! It is just all open." But so much of it has been built. Towns come in and there are these buffers and all of a sudden the habitat has been destroyed. And then there are these offroading areas were the habitat has been essentially destroyed. And now what is happening: About in 2006, the State of California ruled a third of its electricity should come from renewable resources. I believe they originally said by 2014, and it keeps getting pushed back, now it is 2020. So, all of a sudden there was this big land grab for places to put solar and wind development. The desert, which used to be inhospitable to humans because there is no water and it is so hot, has suddenly become attractive for that same reason. The solar radiation levels are really high; that is why it is a desert. So, it is really attractive for solar companies. Some ridiculous amount of desert is proposed for solar right now—almost the majority of it—in some way or another.
I should mention, about 1/4 of the Mojave Desert is military bases. Which is interesting because in a way they kind of function as preserves. They are used for a lot of things, but most of them are just empty and no one can access them. So, they are kind of good and kind of bad. The private land is, I don't know exactly what percentage, maybe 10% of the Mojave. Most of the land out here is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which is our public lands, that we can do anything on—literally anything—you can graze cattle, you can mine, you can camp for free, and you can lease it to put solar panels on it. Most of the BLM land out here has been looked at for solar or wind. They need certain things: they need flat areas that are close to transmission lines, they need water. So a lot of these solar plants have broken ground and been installed and it is all starting to happen. Unfortunately, the only way to stop a project like that from happening is if you can prove that it will cause the extinction of the tortoise. Essentially the tortoise is the only thing stopping anything from happening. If there wasn't a tortoise, these projects would just go.
The endangered species act is interesting because we have the tortoise listed, it is really putting a wrench in these guys games. Even though it is costing these guys heaps of money, it is like a drop in the bucket for them. They will spend tens of millions of dollars on tortoise mitigation, but they are standing to make billions so it doesn't matter.
We are in this weird time where it is like, "Oh god. How much of the desert is really going to get developed?" No one is really sure, but luckily because none of these single projects. You can't prove because a single project is going to cause the extinction of the tortoise species, so it won't stop the project. But somebody said, "We'll you shouldn't be looking at every individual project and its effect on the tortoise, we should be looking at the collective projects. Making sure that the cumulative impact of all of these solar projects aren't causing the extinction of the species. So the BLM put a halt to permitting projects and now the DRECP (Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan) is still being hashed out. What they are going to do is decide on some area of the desert that they will ok to fast track solar on. (Approximately 22.5 million acres of federal and non-federal California desert land are in the DRECP Plan Area.)
K: How do you feel about this shift between analyzing the effects individually verses collectively?
Kelly: I think it is a great idea conceptually. It's not fair to say that this individual project is not doing anything, this project is not doing anything, and this project is not doing anything—but what about all of them together? When I first heard about it, I was like, "That's great. How smart of them. What a great idea. I can't believe it." But it is complex. There is a lot of politics involved. They are still deciding on this pretty massive area to fast track solar on—I think they are picking out 2 million acres. They are like, "We are going to avoid tortoise critical habitat. We are going to avoid this town's viewshed." Everyone has something to say about where they think it should go, but it is going to be a massive area that they are going to basically fast track renewable energy on. It is great that they are thinking about it as one big piece instead of individual projects, but it is still messed up. It is going to be a massive development.
K: What is wrong with massive developments?
Kelly: That is a really fun, philosophical question. Why is it bad to develop the desert for renewable energy? I actually just wrote a big essay about that exactly. I personally believe that the wilderness has an inherent right to exist. So there is a couple things going on. That is my opinion. Other people don't share that opinion. I think it is important we are creating renewable energy, but what is happening is because of capitalism, they are not actually creating energy in the most efficient way possible—they are doing it the cheapest way possible. It is frustrating to watch them be like, "Okay. We can lease this land from BLM for pretty cheap and just bulldoze it and put in these panels and that is cheaper than thinking about a way that we can create this energy in already developed areas."
They don't want to fund rooftop solar because then they are empowering individual homeowners or businesses. Everyone is always like, "Why don't they just do it on rooftops?" It is a complicated question. I have worked for a lot of these solar companies and I am always asking them, "Can't you do it somewhere else? Can't we both be happy here? You can save $50 million dollars by not bulldozing the desert and just do something good that is more efficient for the planet for once." We all know capitalism does not go hand-in-hand with preserving the environment. That is the history of America. It has always been like that. Every time we are trying to produce and create and consume things, it is never cooperative with how the environment works.
The third of the power that has to come from renewables is utility scale electricity—so that is different than people putting power on their rooftops and being able to do it themselves. This is like: large scale, we have to produce so much power, for some reason you have to put it all in one area. I think the problem is the technology is just not there yet. I think it probably will be in a couple decades. but we are pushing it a little too early and what is happening is we are like, "Well, it is cheap and easy to just do it out here in the desert." and then like 50 years we will be like, "Oh my god, I can't believe we did that. We just completely annihilated the desert permanently. Now we have figured this thing out where we don't have to do that. We can just build it over freeways or over parking lots or over the aqueduct. Oh there is this issue with the aqueduct in California where all of the water is evaporating out of it. Why don't we put solar panels over it—and that would solve those problems!" I don't get it. Why don't they do that?
If they develop millions of acres of the desert I don't know what will happen ecologically. It might not do anything. But chances are it will cause a pretty significant decline in the tortoise even if it is not in critical habitat. And that is another question: So what? So what if the tortoise goes extinct? Frankly, if the tortoise went extinct it probably wouldn't cause a huge ecological succession. They are not like top carnivores or anything. To me, it is just sad. Every species of animal has the right to exist. It shouldn't be ok with the human species to just destroy other species to consume more electricity. That's my opinion, other people don't share it. (Laughter)
K: Who do you find doesn't share your opinion?
Kelly: That is a good question. Certainly, even a lot of people who live out here. I think the desert faces a bit of a reputation problem. A lot of people call it a wasteland. Just the word "desert" has certain connotations to it. They think nothing lives out here and everything is just dead and what is the point of it. I certainly have talked to many, many people—including people that have lived here—that are like, "This place should be all solar panels. What a great thing that would be if we could just supply all the power for the state of California." It is this interesting thing where I am like, "Huh. I disagree. I think it is pretty important." The southwest is a unique area in North America and it is worth preserving. But, then look at the East Coast. Most of it is developed. There are not big continuous pieces of land anymore. And what's the big deal? Everything is fine, right? It all works. (Laughter) But, hey there were a lot of species that we didn't know ever existed that are gone now. It is my perspective that that is sad and, I don't know, I am having a hard time finding the right words.
K: It sucks.
Kelly: It just sucks.
K: One other way I have been thinking about it is if we don't annihilate the desert with solar and wind, then climate change is going to happen in a mass scale and these species are going to die anyway. What is your response to that?
Kelly: I think that's bullshit. This is the interesting thing: We keep thinking, "We need to create green energy. We need to create more energy." Why don't we put all of our research and development into thinking about how to consume less energy? Why don't we do that? Why don't we take all of these things we use that are taking energy and figure out ways to make them more efficient—that would help fix the problem. I wish we could focus all of our energy that way instead of thinking about more ways to create it. Because, why should we be able to just use as much as we want?
We have this big issue where no one has figured out how to reinvent the battery. We have essentially the same technology with storing energy. You can't really do it, you can't really store energy. We know there is so much energy around us all the time from the sun, from the wind, and there are all of these ways we could harness it—but we can't store it. The only way these solar plants can figure out how to do it is to shove it directly into the transmission lines and get it into the system. But, if we had a better way of storing it that is better than the current battery technology, we would be way better off. It is easier to produce something you can sell, than it is to try to create things that don't need to consume as much, because of the way that America works and the world works—certainly in capitalist countries of which we are one. That is how business works. You create something that produces something to sell.
And things have gotten more efficient. It is kind of incredible. I just bought new appliances for my house and compared to what they were even 20 years ago, they are so incredible in terms of energy consumption. But it is not really home use that uses most of the energy. It is major corporations and factories and that kind of thing.
K: What do you think about ethical consumerism?
Kelly: What do you mean?
K: Like, I vote with my dollar when I buy some eco-friendly green thing.
Kelly: I think that is a great idea but, honestly, I think we are in a situation where things are going to get real bad, real fast. Just by choosing good products, it will take a really long time to get anything to change. In our generation things are going get really bad. It is already getting bad, it is just you don't see it so easily. Climate change is already happening and it is causing all of these issues and getting exponentially worse every year. I am a biologist and I have to drive a big four wheel pickup truck to work out in the field. These trucks don't exist in any kind of efficient form. I would pay a lot of money if someone built some kind of efficient truck, but it doesn't exist. Even though we are making slightly more efficient things and people are using less plastic, it is great but it is not enough—it is not even close to enough.
K: What do you think needs to happen?
Kelly: Well, a lot of things. Education is a big issue. Every time I talk to someone about what is happening in the desert, and I am like, "Hey, look at this species of ant. It's incredible. It does all these really cool things." And they are like, "Wow!" I tell people about their life cycles and people come up to me afterwards and say, "I will never kill another ant again after you explained that to me." That is what it is: if people get what is happening out here. This is an incredible, complex ecosystem, that is doing all of these amazing things. This desert is fixing carbon and nitrogen and is a really important part of the air and soil cycle and is actually really important for us to survive. People don't realize that. We actually rely on the ecosystem to function properly for us to survive. It is easy to get disconnected from that. In my ideal world, if everybody knew, if everyone understood how ecology worked and understood more than trees produce oxygen—which is good that a lot of people understand that—and had more understanding that bees are pretty important and these types of things. I have faith that people would try harder, be more thoughtful.
Our country is so fascinating right now because somehow the environment became a political platform. So people that subscribe to a certain political party, you just get what their environmental platform is. It is so fascinating…Oooh! Wow! (Looking up)
K: Is it an eagle?
Kelly: No, it is a red-tail hawk being chased by two ravens. The red-tail ate the raven babies I bet, or the ravens ate the red-tail's babies.
Hawk: (Soaring and filling the sky with its call)
Kelly: I hope it was the red-tail eating the raven babies! (Laughter) See! See! It is so important.
K: Wow. The red-tail has been flying for about an 1/8th of a mile and hasn't even flapped its wings.
Hawk: (Flies around mountain and out of site)
Kelly: Despite all of this I am a very optimistic person. I have faith that people inherently want to do the right thing. I think most people want to do what is best. Even these solar companies. I have worked with them and talked with them and they genuinely want to do what is best. They are like, "What can we do to try and make this work? What do you need and maybe we can work something out?" They have been surprisingly great. The interesting thing is that the solar companies think they are doing a good thing for the planet. They think, "We are producing green energy. What is your problem? Why are you guys complaining?" And it is like, "Well, you are producing green energy but you are doing it in this wildly inefficient way." These solar plants take a ton of water, a ton of natural gas, a ton of oil to create with a ton of construction workers and all the construction with a ton of materials that were shipped here from China. If you really boil it down it, it is not all that great for the environment. For the footprint, they are not creating that much power. But they want to and I think they think they are. I don't think most people are like, "I don't give a shit about the desert. I think it should be destroyed just to be destroyed." I think people connect to places. It is hard enough to connect the people that live here to this place, let alone people that live anywhere else. Just like I don't know anything about Vermont and I don't feel connected to that landscape because I don't know it.
K: You were saying earlier that we depend on this ecosystem of the desert to survive. What would happen if the majority of the desert was covered in solar panels?
Kelly: I don't know exactly.
K: What are certain things that the plants, fauna and ecosystem do to make it so we can live here currently? Like if the plants were gone all of the soil would probably erode and there would be really big problems with flash flooding, sandstorms and things like that.
Kelly: Certainly. One of my favorite desert organisms is biological soil crusts. Have you heard of these? They are really important. We don't know very much about them at all. There are biological soil crusts blanketing the sand right here in front of us, you just don't see them built up.
K: I have seen them in Moab, Utah. Sometimes you will see a black spot on the sand.
Kelly: It is cyanobacteria, lichen, and moss. Those are the main things and I think there might be some other things sometimes. Basically the soil is crusted in this stuff and it is really cool. There is moss that lives in the desert! If it rains it turns bright green and spits out these huge filaments. That is how is survives: it waits for the rain, then it does everything in a couple of seconds, and then dries back up again and turns black. It is possible without that stuff none of this would work—none of the ecology would work—because the soil crust is fixing nitrogen, it is doing this huge nutrient cycle, it is involved in the carbon cycle, it is there to uptake all the nutrients in the soil for all of the plants to survive. If it wasn't there doing that and if it wasn't stabilizing the soil, then the plants wouldn't survive. If the plants wouldn't survive, then you wouldn't have oxygen. I don't know how it works, if you just got rid of all of the plants out here, if there would still be enough oxygen. There probably would be. I don't know how that works—but it just seems scary to try it!
But then, look at Europe. Most of Europe is developed. And its fine, right? I always think about that. Most of these huge old places were developed so long ago and there is very little big pieces of open space left and it is fine. Of course it is super green there.
But this place just functions so differently. I don't know what would happen if the majority of the desert was covered in solar panels. People always ask me, "Why is it important? Why is the tortoise important?" I don't even want to have to answer that question. It is just really irresponsible to us to think that we should be able to destroy it. So that we can power our computer more, or whatever. It just seems irresponsible to me. Why should we have the right to destroy life so that we can have more stuff? I don't think that is right. Let's just assume that none of this matters. That if it all went away nothing would change. I don't think we should fight for it because it is serving humans. I think we should fight for it because it deserves to be here, because it was here long before we were.
There is that debate of valuing nature for the intrinsic values or the commodity of it. There has been this big thing about ecosystem services, a a kind of movement by some ecologist to quantify how much money the ecology was saving us by quantifying the ecosystem services. At first I was like, "That is so great! Look people: nature is actually procuring important services for us that we take for granted is for free. The bees are worth like 80 billion dollars because they are pollinating our food. The wash is worth so much money because it is delivering water to our aqueduct." But on the flip side, I kind of think it is a terrible way to look at it because Then all you are doing is quantifying how nature is serving humans, which I think can lead to some tricky ways to think about nature. I sort of prefer to think about it as being worthless to us in terms of a commodity and that we shouldn't have the right to destroy something.
K: What about the military and its effect on the ecosystem? You are in the process of quitting working for the Marine base out here, right? Isn't it the largest Marine base in the US?
Kelly: I know it is the largest Marine base in North America—or it is going to be once its expansion finishes. The 29 Palms Marine Corps Base is about to expand about 150,000 acres. (It is 596,000 square acres right now, which is equivalent to 932 square miles. 150,000 acres is 234 square miles.) It is expanding into an area that is an interesting environmental conundrum. It is called Johnson Valley. There is some really good tortoise habitat there. None of it is critical habitat. When you list a species you designate critical habitat. You can pretty much not develop in critical habitat anymore. So all of the solar cannot go into critical habitat. Same with the Marine Corps base, it cannot expand into critical habitat, or at least they didn't and I have a feeling they couldn't have. Anyways, there is some really good pockets of of tortoises in there, really high density, but it is a really popular Off-Highway Vehicle area. It is popular with people with their motorcycles, ATVs and dune buggies to go wild out there. To camp and there are races. It has kind of been a rough place for the tortoise anyways. So when we heard about the expansion a lot of people were like, "Well maybe that is good because it is going to force out the off-roading. And if the military doesn't use most of it then it is actually going to do more good than harm." That was sort of the camp I was in.
In fact, the Off-Highway Vehicle people have a pretty strong pull with the military. They were very upset about it and they actually managed to negotiate with the military to give them access to a third of the expansion area for ten months out of the year. Now it seems what the military is actually going to do in the expansion area is going to be quite a bit more impactful than I think we were all hoping for. Even though a good chunk of it won't be used very much and it will essentially be preserving pockets of tortoise, a much larger chunk will be used very rarely but it will be used in a way that will cause a pretty negative impact on the tortoise.
K: What kind of things will it be used for?
Kelly: Just military training.
K: Which means what exactly?
Kelly: To be honest, I don't even know. To sympathize with the military: they have to practice. This is the base where every marine who goes to Afghanistan has to train at this base first. So this is where these kids have a chance to learn how to do what they are going to do in the Middle East. They are practicing traversing large areas, encountering different objectives, some of it is on the ground, some of it is in the air. I frankly don't know too much more detail.
K: Do they drop bombs and shoot missiles?
K: Do you have an idea about how dropping a bomb or a missile effects the tortoise and the other species that live in that area?
Kelly: I am sure someone has research that but I haven't. Obviously if an animal is impacted by something it will die.
K: But just the sound and the scariness and…I am also wondering what is happening not just in the military base, but in other places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and where there are drone strikes and things like that. What the effect is on the ecosystems there.
Kelly: I bet people have studied it. I will have to look it up, it is interesting. Even just the highway. I always think about this: How devastated we would all be when they put in this highway. It is essentially cutting this ecosystem in half. It is a huge geographic barrier tortoises can't cross. The ones that are here are here, and the ones that are there are there. And it's loud and there are a lot of vibrations. We don't even really think about that anymore. But if it was happening now, I would be flipping out about it.
K: What about all the roads and transmission lines and different infrastructure that has to support the solar fields—
Kelly: Oh, there's is a quail! I just saw my first quail babies the other day. They are so cute. (Laughter) On the projects that I have worked on the roads that get put in are just little dirt roads. Aside from opening up the possibility of a tortoise getting run over, they are not really doing a whole lot. Usually they will use existing roads that have already been cut. A lot of the projects will have to mitigate by tortoise fencing certain roads. That is not a huge issue to me. Most of the plants will locate themselves at an existing transmission line so they don't have to create a transmission line or they will just have to tie into one. If they built one where they had to build a huge substation that would probably be nuts.
K: What about with wind power?
Kelly: I have never worked on wind project and I don't know much about it, to be honest. I was just at a big wildlife symposium and I learned those wind turbines kill an astronomical numbers of birds and raptors. I had no idea. There is the Migratory Bird Act. I don't get why we can even build them if we know that it will kill migratory birds. All migratory birds are protected.
K: What is it like to be working for the solar companies?
Kelly: I studied ecology and specifically desert ecology because I care about it and I love it. I am very invested in the tortoise and the ecology of this place. I had this career studying them and then all of a sudden all of the work that exists is working for the solar companies and working for the military. These jobs that are doing all these things that I don't agree with. It is hard because they need really experienced people to do the research. But sometimes I feel like I am facilitating these projects happening. I have certainly quit a couple times, but this is what I know and this is what I do. I also feel like by doing it I am doing the best job that can be done to make sure these translocations happen in the way that is the best for the tortoise and is minimizing the impact on the tortoise. But it is really hard. I cry at work a lot. I am constantly fighting with the agencies and fighting with the companies. Trying to get these things go be as minimally impacting the tortoise as possible. It is hard. There are certainly times where I am like, "I am done. I am going to go become a waitress cause I can't do this anymore." It is certainly a conundrum. I left to do the military thing to get away from solar, but I also feel like it is sad to not be there in a way and feel like I am helping to make things better. I don't know. It is a complicated situation.
K: I feel similar as an artist because I work for a lot of institutions that are funded by the fossil fuel industry and I also fly a lot to do different things.
Kelly: I am also on the board to the Mojave Desert Land Trust and I donate a lot of money and time to them to try and attack it from this other angle and that feels really good. I am trying to get this research initiative funded to try and completely separate myself. I want to set up long term ecology study plots that are half research and half education. So, I can make them open to kids to come out and help me collect data and get the community involved. But I don't know if it will happen.
Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan
29 Palms Marine Base
Major Solar Plants in the USA
Ivanpah Solar Plant, Nipon, CA
Mojave Desert Land Trust