Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The federal Wilderness Act, enacted back in the optimistic year of 1964, defines such areas as federal land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Today, Congress began debate on legislation to expand the stretches of lands designated largely as off limits to construction, forestry, mining, and other human intrusions. But here is a fascinating story of a growing rift in the environmental community over whether some lands –- especially the open deserts of the Southwest, including California’s Mojave –- might be better-suited for large-scale solar development or wind farms. While the traditional environmental line is that conservation, not increased production, should take precedence in the nation’s energy policy, places such as the Mojave also offer some of the best opportunities in the nation for large-scale production of renewable energy. And California has, of course, pledged to increase vastly its renewable energy share, largely in order to decrease its carbon emissions.
I find it nonsensical to make categorical assertions that either one of two worthy land uses –- be it pure wilderness or renewable energy –- should always take precedence in land use policy. But it does seem to me that the ideal of the Wilderness Act was always a bit cockeyed. While we once might have imagined “untrammeled” nature, we now know that few areas of the planet have been untouched by humans, as far back as centuries ago. Humans, like beavers, birds, and tortoises, have made their mark to some extent in most places, including the Mojave. As a veteran hiker in wildernesses from Virginia to California to Alaska, I also know that designated wilderness areas are trammeled by hiking boots and horse hooves and altered by fire rings and foot bridges. So while of course I wouldn’t want my personal favorite areas, such as California’s Joshua Tree Pinto Basin (see my January 2009 photo), filled with solar panels, my inclination is that our age needs land for renewable energy in California perhaps more than it needs more wilderness areas. After all, in 100 years, when we figure out how to beam down fusion-created electricity from the moon, we can always remove the panels (unlike with houses) and let the desert return to its relatively untrammeled state ….
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