Residents near Joshua Tree National Park celebrated last year’s demise of a controversial electrical transmission project that they said would have marred the scenic vistas and sensitive plant and animal species of their desert outpost.
Now homeowners in the Mojave Desert community of Pipes Canyon, northwest of Yucca Valley, are gearing up for a showdown, this time over a proposed wind farm on top of ancient volcanic mesas.
They say the development would ruin the unique and scenic flat-top mesas that rise from a boulder-strewn valley. It would damage plants and the habitat of endangered animals, and destroy Native American cultural sites that include nearly a thousand petroglyphs, they say.
Last month, a renewable energy development company installed two steel masts – each nearly 200 feet tall – and guy-wire supports, one on Black Lava Butte and one on Flat Top Mesa, public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The towers will be used to measure air patterns and determine the feasibility of erecting turbines to generate electricity.
Company officials said they have performed exhaustive surveys and found no evidence that sensitive resources would be damaged.
But the testing towers come as an affront to Cherry Good and her husband, Jon Nolte, who hike the 4,000-foot butte at dawn each day with their two dogs. The couple lives on 43 acres at the western flank of Black Lava Butte, in a solar-powered, straw-bale house they built themselves.
“There are better ways to go green than destroying the wilderness, and if we allow this project to go ahead, it sets a precedent for many other areas of wilderness to be destroyed,” Good said.
She founded Save Our Desert, a residents’ group dedicated to fighting the project.
In addition to harming habitat, cultural resources and irreplaceable scenery, a wind farm would hurt property values and increase traffic and fire risk, Good said. She is angry that residents weren’t notified or consulted on the project before the masts went up, and she questions safety after two loads of materials were accidentally dropped from a helicopter near the area where she walks.
Officials at BLM, which permits renewable energy development on public lands, said the project is in the testing phase only. An environmental review and public comment were not required because the company said placement of the masts by helicopter would not cause significant disturbance to the land, BLM spokesman Steven Razo said.
rock art evidence
The developer, Desert Mesa Power LLC, a subsidiary of Portland, Ore.-based Element Power, was issued a three-year right-of-way on Sept. 15, 2010, for 4,030 acres on the plateaus, which are west of Highway 247. The company leases the land for $1 per acre, per year.
“If they decide they want to go forward with the project, our environmental process begins and all the cultural issues and others will be addressed, and the public will have an opportunity to provide their concerns and input,” Razo said.
In 2008, the company did its own environmental assessment, which has not been approved by the BLM. The assessment said there was no evidence of prehistoric Native American archeological sites, based on contact with eight area tribes, the San Bernardino County Museum and walking surveys of 52 acres that would be affected by the masts.
That finding is contradicted by an amateur archaeologist.
Project manager Jaclyn Kossmann denied there is an increased fire risk and cited a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Energy showing that wind farms did not affect the value of nearby homes. The company is dedicated to being a responsible steward of the environment and would minimize or mitigate impacts from development, she said.
“As we continue to evaluate the potential of the land for wind energy development, we will perform further field studies throughout the site to determine the existing environmental and cultural conditions,” Kossmann said.
Jeff Dickman, who has been studying rock art on Black Lava Butte since 1982, says the mesa contains at least 800 petroglyphs of various sizes. The pictures are made up of lines, grids, circles and simple symbols, either pecked into the dark rock using a hammerstone or scratched into the surface, he said.
“I’ve heard it said that when you peck onto the stone, you’re literally communicating with the other world,” Dickman said.
Now a trail planner for Orange County, Dickman happened upon the buttes while cataloging pictographs in a nearby wash. He said he has not submitted archaeological site forms on the butte to the museum because of the time involved. In the 1970s, he categorized an early man site for the San Bernardino County Museum and has worked as an archeological site surveyor.
Dickman photographs the images then uses a computer program to enhance them.
Surveyors could easily miss the images, since many are buried under a foot of sediment and wind-blown soil and others have broken off and moved down the slopes, he said.
Dickman also found grinding stones where the Indians may have pounded yucca, seeds or bone. He has not found evidence of human remains, pottery shards or chipped stone.
The oldest petroglyphs, from 2,000 years ago or more, are gone; and the most recent, up to about 1820, are decaying, he said.
Dickman suspects the art was made for ceremonial purposes. The parallel lines may portray the Milky Way in the night sky and the grids could relate to mythical figures that represent ancestors, he said.
“The mesa is so rich that it probably should be designated a prehistoric archeological district,” he said.
Duncan Bell, a field botanist with the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, said the mesas’ plant life is unexplored and undocumented.
Still unclear is how energy would be transmitted to the electrical grid if a wind farm were built. The company would have to submit a plan for how its power would tie in to the grid, Razo said.
For critics, the project brings back memories of Green Path North, a proposal by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to string high-voltage lines across 80 miles of unspoiled desert and forest in San Bernardino County.
Opponents posted anti-Green Path billboards along freeways, sponsored an email and postcard campaign to the Los Angeles mayor and spoke against the project at community meetings.
Utility officials said public outcry was partly behind the decision to abandon the plan.
Save Our Desert is a residents group opposed to renewable energy development on two buttes near Pipes Canyon, northwest of Joshua Tree National Park.
Public meeting at 2 p.m., Aug. 6.
Pappy & Harriet’s, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown.
For more information: www.saveourdesert.com.
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