While you may not know the Silurian Valley by name, you’ve more than likely seen it on a drive to Death Valley National Park or in TV car commercials filmed on a desert dry lake bed.
Nature lovers, Hollywood cameramen and foreign tourists alike prize the valley, a southern gateway to Death Valley that presents sweeping desert vistas and provides a home for wildlife such as kit foxes and burrowing owls. Moreover, Silurian Valley contains remnants of two key 19th century gateways to southern California: the Old Spanish Trail, a mule caravan route leading to Los Angeles; and the Mormon Road, a later wagon trail traveled by the founders of San Bernardino.
But today this desert treasure is threatened by proposed construction of two massive industrial developments – a large wind farm and a solar generating plant. The two projects, together with their associated access roads and transmission are roughly the size of the city of Redlands. They would occupy more than 22,000 acres, or 34 square miles, of valley floor, blighting panoramic views and irreparably damaging a nearly pristine landscape that is fundamental to telling the story of San Bernardino County’s history.
The valley is on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The developer, Iberdrola USA, has to clear the hurdle of their solar application being sited on “variance lands.” Variance is a process where the developer has to prove that this location is appropriate for development, and that it won’t do significant harm.
The company will be hard pressed to prove this, as the project is sited in a globally important location. It will face additional difficulties, as Silurian Valley is not an approved solar zone as designated by the BLM in 2012 through a process that took years and millions of public dollars to establish. The public has been adamant that this project harms BLM’s larger goals including the in-progress Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. The BLM is expected to rule on whether the application can move forward in the next few months.
There are good reasons for the BLM to deny the proposals for both the solar and the wind plant in Silurian Valley. The power plants would:
• Set a damaging precedent that would affect 19 million acres of public lands throughout the Southwest. Allowing a poor project to proceed would lower the bar for what is acceptable through the variance process. Solar zones encompass 151,000 acres in the California desert. Silurian Valley is the wrong place to start bending the rules.
• Pose a hazard to many types of wildlife and fragile desert plant species. Silurian Valley is surrounded by national parks and wilderness areas, and as such provides critical habitat and movement corridors for bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, nesting Golden Eagles, kit foxes and burrowing owls.
• Negatively impact the congressionally designated Old Spanish National Historic Trail and the Mormon Road, the route traveled in 1851 by the founders of San Bernardino.
Citing these and other factors, numerous agencies and groups have formally recommended that BLM not approve the proposed plants. These include the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Old Spanish Trail Association, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Wilderness Society. Many local business owners and property holders also oppose the projects, particularly in Baker and Shoshone, the two communities bookending Silurian Valley.
These groups ask San Bernardino County and the BLM to protect the Silurian Valley. This is a social and economic imperative, as the valley is along the “Great Outback Highway” a roadway connecting Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and Mojave National Preserve. Now is the time to stand up for historic preservation and wildlife conservation and to protect a unique swathe of California’s desert for generations to come.
Jack Prichett is former historical archeologist and president of the Tecopa chapter of the Old Spanish Trail Association. Brian Brown is a fourth-generation Mojave desert resident, local businessman and owner of China Ranch Date Farm near Silurian Valley as well as properties in Baker.
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