by Jim Stiles
Sometimes the endless open spaces of the West impress me most when I can’t see them at all.
One night when I was a ranger at the Arches National Park campground, I encountered a woman so terrified she could barely speak. She was from New York City, camping for the first time in her life, and had pitched her tent next to the campground “comfort station.” She felt comforted by the 200 watt security lights.
When our generator failed that evening, the lights in the toilet went out as well and the woman was on the verge of a breakdown. Through stifled sobs, she explained that she had never been in total darkness before.
“Never?” I repeated.
“Never!” she replied.
What a tragedy. I can’t imagine anything more amazing than a night in the desert or out on the high plains or, best of all, up on the flank of some mountain, with nothing but a big dome of starlight and moonshine to show the way.
There are still places out here where you only realize just how empty and untouched parts of the West are after the sun goes down. It’s the absence of lights. I can still name a few places, even in 2015, where I’m stunned by the perfect darkness.
Those light-less vistas are getting rarer every year as more and more development comes to the rural landscape. Not long ago, I was up at Arches at night for the first time in years and was shocked at the changes. I once loved doing night patrols when I was a ranger and practically wallowed in the dark of the desert evenings.
Even on the higher ridges, there was a notable absence of horizon glow. All that has changed—it’s easy to discern the city of Grand Junction, 70 miles east as the crow flies. And now even Moab brightens the night. The 2,000 foot cliffs of Moab’s West Wall practically glow with reflected light from the city.
A few hundred miles north of Moab, satellite images recently picked up an odd glow near the Canadian border in North Dakota. Photo analysts were puzzled at first; the glow suggested a metropolitan area comparable to Denver. But there’s no city within hundreds of miles.
What the night images revealed were gas burn-offs and drill rig lights from thousands and thousands of gas and oil wells that have been developed by the oil and gas industry in the last few years. Environmentalists were shocked and a national movement to shut down fracking makes headlines daily.
But go elsewhere, from the Great Plains to the Intermountain West to the Mojave Desert, and you can’t miss another industrial blight, on a scale comparable to North Dakota, if not bigger. It is taking a dramatic toll on the landscape, and becoming more pervasive by the month.
It’s about to come to Monticello...And worst of all? It proceeds with only minimal opposition from anybody, not even the mainstream environmental community.
Vast acreages of land are being earmarked for the development of wind and solar projects. These aren’t mom & pop proposals to build rooftop panels or small windmills; instead, they are being planned and constructed on a scale that should stagger the sensibilities of anyone with an environmental conscience. It represents the wholesale destruction of vast areas of the West.
The finances behind Big Wind and Big Solar comes from Big Money. Many of the corporations investing millions of dollars in this public land grab for green energy are names we know—
• British Petroleum (BP), who plans a 48,000 acre wind farm in northwest Arizona.
• Nextera, an energy giant based in Florida, builds fossil fuel, nuclear plants, wind and solar farms. They recently destroyed a bald eagle nest in Ontario, Canada to make way for a wind farm.
• Duke Energy builds coal and nuke plants but are testing the green energy market in Wyoming and Texas. They want to build the Searchlight Wind Project in the Mojave Desert.
• Pattern Energy built the Spring Valley Wind Farm next to Great Basin National Park, Nevada and the Ocotillo Wind Express Wind Farm near Anza Borrego State Park, California. They are owned by the Carlyle Group, with ties to coal, oil and military (Iraq oil wars)
• The search engine giant GOOGLE recently announced plans to invest $55 million in a Mojave Desert wind farm.
The driving force–an economic one–behind wind development is the Wind Production Tax Credit. It was due to expire a few years ago, but repeated last minute deals to extend the tax credit keep it alive. Letters supporting the Wind Production Tax Credit have certainly helped. It was signed by The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society. And so, while there is still serious debate that these “green” developments can even begin to make a dent in our insatiable hunger for energy, the subsequent environmental damage cannot be understated. And yet suddenly, environmentalists don’t seem to notice...or care.
The proposed wind turbine development here in Monticello is indeed, as the Record has noted, racing against the clock to get their project completed before the lose their subsidies. This isn’t about trying to “do the right thing” to save the world...this is about free money. And it’s ironic that at a time when some people in San Juan County are pushing to make this town the “next Moab,“ they even remotely think 400-foot gleaming white towers, capped with flashing red FAA warning lights would be some kind of drawing card for the tourists. And if it’s economically feasible, don’t think for a moment, that these 27 turbines are the end of it. If more money can be made, more will be built. And as far as I know, not ONE environmental group in Utah has offered the slightest bit of resistance or protest.
And while environmentalists will note that few jobs locally are ever created by the oil and gas industry, the same is true for these wind turbine farms. The Monticello wind project will do nothing to alleviate the lack of jobs here.
In the end, I struggle to take mainstream environmentalism seriously. Their opposition to environmental damage is frequently based upon a flawed, irrational, erratic, pick-and-choose nod to aesthetics. Consider...They fight tooth and nail to oppose the extraction of oil and gas in North America but stay silent on the issue of consumption, failing to even acknowledge the connection.
They condemn habitat loss from energy exploration but somehow find a way to ignore the greatest destroyer of habitat loss–population growth and the expansion of Urban America. (When a once wild section of desert in southern California was opened to massive recreational use and a mountain lion attacked and killed a bicyclist, there wasn’t a Sierra Clubber in sight to speak in behalf of the cougar---green groups defend wild animals until they start eating their members.)
They claim to support wilderness and then do everything they can to turn it into a money machine via an obscene cash cow–the amenities/tourist economy that demands, by definition, the massive consumption of fossil fuels.
And remember those lights that could be seen from outer space? Those burning gas flares in North Dakota and the illuminated rigs? The same night skies are in jeopardy from “alternative energy” projects as well, and they continue to expand exponentially across the American landscape. As hundreds and thousands of wind turbines are proposed, planned and built across the Great Plains and the Intermountain West to the California Mojave and the Pacific Coast, nobody knows what their effect will be on humans or wildlife. But because the impacts come from “green energy,” few care.
But at night...Already, clearly, the “aesthetics” of these projects are taking their toll, as thousands of red warning lights blink constantly in what was once an undisturbed and pristine night sky.
Despite the contradictions and the hypocrisy, do aesthetics matter? Of course they do. Would we ignore graffiti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is precisely the hypocrisy of the environmental mainstream when it goes ballistic over one form of vandalism while turning a blind eye to their own.