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Op-Ed | The True Meaning Of Soda Mountain: The White House Is Giving Away Our Public Lands


Cartoon by Emily Greenhalgh, NOAA

For the sake of argument, let us agree with the Obama Administration that the Earth is warming up. Should we respond by being scared or cautious and, if scared, exactly what should we be frightened of?

Frankly, I am frightened of my president, who goes about justifying huge conversions of our public lands to subsidize wind farms and solar power plants.

Recently announced, a photovoltaic solar project at Soda Mountain, California, is just the latest among dozens to win approval. Has no one in the administration advised the president that two wrongs never made a right?

Now 69 years on this planet, I have yet to see the oceans “rise.” They of course surge during storms and hurricanes, but I remember storms just as big from the 1950s. They are only worsened now because of sprawl. Mother Earth has never lied to us about the tide line, which developers along our seacoasts still ignore.

Of course Super Storm Sandy was super. She had millions of targets from which to choose.

Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears, a host of “experts” now insists that our sea level must be perfect—not too high, and not too low, but comfortably suited for everything we have built.

The problem is: It is indeed our plan and not the Earth’s. Nor has Earth ever given ample warning before deciding to go on a rampage. Hey, humans! I have a 9.0 earthquake coming. Get ready to rock and roll!

Granted, new methods of prediction have helped. Still, as Jay Leno advises, the only sure way of predicting a tornado is to visit the nearest trailer park.

It’s dark humor, but so true. Development has increased the drama. These days, there are simply more structures for storms to reach and destroy.

As for the storms themselves, they are no worse than they were historically. When I was growing up, cities were smaller, fewer in number, and farther in between. When a big hurricane hit, as in 1900 at Galveston, Texas, it left many thousands dead—in Galveston perhaps 12,000. P.S. No one in the country blamed global warming.

The problem is that developers don’t read environmental history—or think critically about it if they do. For them, as for alarmists, every natural disaster becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We demand the country “do something” before Earth exceeds its “tipping point.”

Here the alarmists are entirely speculating. Going back hundreds of millions of years, we know from the geological record that the Earth has warmed repeatedly—and cooled repeatedly. Fifty-six million years ago, palm trees and crocodiles lived above the Arctic Circle. But again, why should anyone be bothered with geology—the grandest history of them all?

“Tipping point” has nothing to do with science. It is rather preferred by politicians, developers, and corporations to scare us into doing something stupid.

Such as parting with our public lands. But zoning 40 million acres for alternative energy? Again, how will that make us smart?

Spread across 4,000 acres of BLM land southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, and in close proximity to the Mojave National Preserve, the Ivanpah solar-thermal power plant is the world’s largest, and but one of dozens of varying technologies proposed or under construction on the public lands. Environmental impacts of this plant include the excessive use of natural gas to keep it operational, as well as bird kills above the mirror fields (heliostats) caused by temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees/Google Earth

Because we are the problem, they administration persists. We started this warfare with Mother Earth by suffocating her with gobs of CO2.

Mother Earth still has news for us—and for the administration. She will keep adjusting even if we can’t. Nor despite our best intentions will she necessarily adjust the way we want.

She simply doesn’t care. Even as we “model” her she refuses to be modeled. It’s a computer model, after all, showing but a pittance of her incalculable behaviors.

A better explanation for all of this modeling is money. A cabal of green energy developers is getting rich. Face it. Few politicians agreed to this “reform” without first being strong-armed by the industry.

When did President Obama go all out for green energy? The record there is deep. His chief adviser has been Jeffrey Immelt, the Chairman and CEO of General Electric. Now there is a top scientist for you.

And you, Senator Sanders. Just call it green. Wave your arms in the air and shout a lot. Tell them you’re not connected to Wall Street. It will be our secret, senator.

Just don’t mention that some people in Vermont are wising up, seeing wind farms as “moronic.” General Electric has billions on the line here, senator. Forget the tourist revenue.

There is your tipping point—money. News flash! Green acne grips the public lands. Not to worry, the lobbyists say. Lady Liberty won’t even notice the pimples because the rest of her face will remain “pristine.” The pimples, that is, the turbines, will require just five percent of her skin.

Those people in Vermont are right. Green acne is moronic. Five percent or even a tenth of one percent, the public lands were never meant to be picked over like a scab. These are life-giving lands—critical lands—demanding our everlasting respect.

The Obama Administration must believe in Clearasil. Unfortunately, these scars will not soon be undone. Destroying the beauty and biology of the American landscape is never an excuse for “action.”

Granted, global warming is not a hoax. But yes, the statement is designed to deceive. We are not supposed to ask: If global warming is for real, for how long has it been for real? The answer, at least for human civilization, is the better part of the past 15,000 years.

The Ivanpah Solar facility located southwest of Las Vegas "stands to destroy valuable desert tortoise habitat near Mojave National Preserve while also impacting the viewshed," the National Parks Conservation Association said in a 2012 report.

Nor are we supposed to see the deception here: 97 percent of scientists agree about global warming. Of course they agree. After all, they would have to agree. Now with us for 15,000 years, global warming is just about as certain as gravity.

That’s not what we mean, the cabal protests. We mean human CO2 emissions only. We get to say what is causing climate change. No wonder American education, especially higher education, has turned into another mess.

Again pardon history for violating everyone’s “safe zone.” For giving us a Northern Hemisphere virtually free of ice sheets and full of freshwater lakes, we owe thanks to the Big Melt. Without it, Western Civilization would not exist.

What will green energy do to reverse the melting? Not a thing. Are we making the melting worse? Again, what is meant by worse? On a warming planet, ice melts. It is neither better nor worse as far as Earth is concerned. It is simply something that she does.

As for what is meant by “we,” eight billion people on the planet is a pretty big we. With all of those people exploiting resources, we do have a tremendous impact.

However, that especially is what universities mean by a "safe zone," where anything controversial is banned. Lest even a single person in the room be offended, the real problem is out of bounds.

Certainly, there is little chance of going back to “us”—that sweet spot in the middle of the twentieth century when the United States stood virtually alone in the developed world. When I was born, there were just 145 million people in the country and everyone could get a job. Now the entire world wants what America has, nor will they let some Paris “emissions treaty” stand in their way.

What most countries don’t have are public lands. It’s up to us to use common sense. We set aside our public lands for a very specific purpose, at once both biological and aesthetic. They were never meant to be industrialized.

We’ve done enough of that already looking for oil, coal, gas, and minerals. Breaking faith with biology—wilderness—we break faith with America the Beautiful period, undoing the wisdom of some of our greatest leaders, especially Theodore Roosevelt and FDR.

As an exceptional history, it remains immovable, and so yes, the green energy cabal is stumped. Getting their way with the White House and Congress first depends on silencing us. Give it up, Dr. Runte, lest we next throw you to the wolves as a denier and card-carrying member of the three percent!

Here again, I grew up with black-listing and commie-baiting. I know censorship when I see it. “I have a list,” warned Senator Joseph McCarthy. “Be careful your government doesn’t put you on it.”

The ancients called it hubris, filling their mythology with the inevitable result. Nor will the gods now be appeased by mere mortals showing no respect for creation.

How big is a wind farm? As initially proposed east of Searchlight, Nevada, between the town and Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 161 turbines (262 feet, 415 feet with blades), 35 miles of service roads, and 16 miles of transmission lines would have been spread across nearly 19,000 acres, equivalent to the city of Las Vegas. Here imposed in yellow over Las Vegas, the footprint of the wind farm is shown. Last October 30, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du, citing a woefully inadequate EIS, vacated a scaled-back version of the project (87 turbines, 9,000 acres) pending a rewrite by BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Mojave Desert Blog

Pummeling the American landscape is hardly less criminal than emitting CO2. As George Perkins Marsh first reminded us (remember that Vermonter, Senator Sanders?), the public lands are America’s antidote to what happened to Greece and Rome.

George Perkins Marsh would know what to tell the White House. No more wind farms and solar power plants on the public lands. If they worked, they would work just as well on private lands paid for by the ratepayers.

Of course, that explains the censorship. Suddenly, few of those plants would work. Without their subsidies, they are bound by physics. Perhaps “the battery” they need is just around the corner. Well, so was fusion 50 years ago. I’m still waiting for fusion, as I suspect the nation will be waiting for that battery years after I am dead.

Simply improving a technology does not make for a revolution. Those are few and far between. There will be nothing revolutionary about wind or solar power until their reliability is 100 percent.

It may happen, and we should hope it does happen. Then no one will need the public lands—or polluting fossil fuels. Investors will be speculating on a proven technology and laughing all the way to the bank.

The point is that until it happens we have no business acting as if it will—or has. Instead we are left crying as our public lands die piecemeal. For what? At this point, still at best for a costly experiment and at worst another scam.

Every time Mother Nature fails to cooperate, wind and solar power call for backup, in other words, fossil fuels. Wind not blowing? Fire up the gas. Sun not shining? Fire up the coal. Actually, keep the fire hot 24/7 because both can die in an instant.

Where, oh, where, is that perfect battery? Lacking it, proponents next talk about “improving” the grid. The wind will always be blowing and the sun always shining somewhere. We simply need enough projects that overlap.

In short, they plan for even worse. More pimples, more power. After promising to treat with Clearasil Ultra, bring on the concrete, asphalt, rebar, culverts, bridges, retaining walls, service roads, transmission lines, and more. Fence it all off for security. Put up floodlights to hold back the night. What? No CO2 emissions in any of it?

As for wildlife, let the arrogance flow. Demand from the government a legal “take.” Failing in that, fudge the numbers in the EIS. Eagles? Following a very “rigorous,” “comprehensive,” “meaningful,” and “responsible” assessment—that after consulting every “stakeholder”—we didn’t see a one. Well, maybe one, but it was flying away from us. We therefore concluded it will not come back.

What the Interior Department calls an environmental impact statement is just about that bad. All are fudged; all are rushed, unless some judge, refusing to be bent by politics, forces the department back to the drawing board.

We may hope that will happen at Soda Mountain. Certainly, green energy has flaunted every principle of stewardship, if by stewardship we mean do no harm.

Us? Harm the environment? If it lives, we first try to move it. If it dies in its new location, so be it. When the public gets suspicious, we know to repeat the mantra. We are being as “green” as we possibly can.

The immovable history remains: Nothing dismissive of life and the American past has any place on our public lands.

History will already venture this. If the Obama Administration persists in making tradeoffs—as if what the public has to trade is expendable—future generations will never allow that a pittance of national monuments “balanced” out the loss.

The urge to start someplace is no excuse for starting badly. Might we then elect for ourselves a president who believes in the public lands? There again, and especially in this election year, I join Mother Earth in not holding my breath.

An environmental historian and frequent contributor to the Traveler, Alfred Runte lives in Seattle, Washington, where he writes about the public lands. His books include National Parks: The American Experience (Taylor Trade) and Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness, which he is revising for a second edition.

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"The problem is that developers don't read environmental history--or think critically about it if they do."

Let's change just one small part of that sentence -- let's make it read "developers and their purchased allies in legislatures."

We could even add "and the American public" to make it even more accurate.

This applies to virtually every kind of human impact upon the environment -- from massive, sprawling housing developments; roads and highways; solar and wind power; open pit mining; mountain top removal for coal extraction; continued use of fossil fuels; water and air pollution; trash -- you name it.  Humans are having more impact upon Earth than ever before simply because there are now more of us than ever before.  (Dr. Runte has recognized that in other postings here.)

There have to be solutions.  We have to search for them and find them and make them work.  Our survival as a species depends upon it.  But until we can also find a way remove MONEY, PROFIT, and GREED as obstacles to any carefully reasoned, cooperative approach to solving the problems we face, there simply won't be much -- or any -- real progress.

The President, no matter who he or she may be, gets the blame for everything when blame really lies with so many others who hide behind a myriad of curtains and secret dealings.  The problem goes far beyond the walls of the Oval Office, or Congress, or even our local town halls.

The problem is all of US -- you and me.  Trouble is, not many of us or our neighbors will really look up from our entertainments until we are gasping for air or out of drinkable water.

But hey, then we can always blame the President.

Problem solved.



At it again with your unsubstantiated accusations. 

MONEY, PROFIT, and GREED as obstacles 

Obstacles?  Those elements of capitalism (except "Greed" which is just envy expressed by the envious) are what has made this country the greatest ever to exist on this earth and has led to solving more problems and generating more progress than any other system.

BTW -want to get developers' attention on the edge of the oceans?  Get rid of government controlled and subsidized flood insurance.

I'm glad this is listed as an op-ed.

Interesting Op-Ed Alfred. I agree that climate change is a natural process, all the geological and archeological evidence point to the fact. What is in dispute is the human impact factor and is it accelerating the process. It is a stretch to think the 7.5 billion of us, human beings with all our associated activities, is not exacerbating the situation. Burning fossil fuels, fracking with the methane and water quality issues, waste disposal both in landfills and in the oceans, deforestation, the list goes on, well it is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of scientists in the field, that we a contributing factor. Many of those that write it off have ties to the fossil feul industry.

I also think you make a good point on the issue of leasing more public land for extractive purposes, mineral mining, grazing, oil and gas, and now renewable energy. It is the price we pay for the growing population and all the and development and services that goes along with it. There is a very interesting article in the March issue of the "Desert Report" a publication of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee. It is a report on the National Lands Conservation System Designations in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. Yes, vulnerable habitats are not permanently protected, but nothing is. It is a frustration of all environmental litigation that lawsuits won often times is just a postponement for the next development proposal. This is further complicated by population growth, we are projected to be at 9 billion by 2050, if not a lot sooner. 

However all that said, and what do I know anyway, it is prudent for us to continue the fight, not just for our own sake but for those that follow, not to mention the plants, animals, birds, bees, etc. we share this planet with. 


A nice post, Ron. Thank you. I continue to imagine what the world would be like with only the 2 billion people it had when we were born. Saying that, I stir up another hornet's nest--Oh, you want everyone to be dead instead of you! No, I just want 5.5 billion people to wait their turn. Even if you believe in Mormon theology, must we have our trial on Earth all at once?

No doubt, the Earth feels our presence enormously, but again, she doesn't care. She has 5 billion more years to run, unless the theologians are right. Every 20 million years or so, she takes an asteroid on the chin and shakes everything off. There again, we insist we can "deflect" the asteroid with a space program that hasn't been back to the moon in 44 years.

It is not worth losing our public lands over. But I agree. All we can do is keep up the fight.

Agreed, Ron.  Earth is so full of humans and we are having such enormous impacts upon our planet that a growing number of geologists believe there should be a new epoch of geologic time -- the Anthropocene. 

Dr. Runte, I agree with much of what you are saying, but question the wisdom of doing nothing in the face of mounting evidence that human activities are causing harm that may be irreversible.  While neither side of the global warming debate can actually PROVE their positions, neither can either DISPROVE the positions of the other.  Isn't failing to do anything tantamount to ignoring the screech of a smoke alarm because there are no flames visible -- yet?

Much of the drive behind using public lands for solar and wind installations is profit driven.  Somebody is gonna make a lot of money.  Much of it will be taxpayer subsidized in one way or another.  Again, it's socialize expense while privatizing profits.  Shouldn't we be actively seeking alternative locations for those installations?  And wouldn't countless American rooftops or back yards be better locations?

On the other hand, I'd rather see acreage devoted to trying to solve our energy and fossil fuel addiction than doing nothing.  Research and development of alternate energy is proceeding very rapidly.  Might it be possible in a relatively few years to find that the huge solar and wind farms are no longer needed?  And if that is the case, they should be removable with little permanent damage.  While there are legitimate environmental concerns for things like desert tortoise and various other living things, surely there must be some kinds of safeguards that could be placed if enough effort goes into planning and construction.  Don't solar or wind installations carry much less permanent impact than mountaintop removal or the emissions their product will produce?

There are other environmental effects of human activities that may be far greater.  I am very disappointed in the current administration's lack effort when it comes to environmental enforcement.  One thing that should be worrying all of us, but that is being ignored (and some government scientists are being targeted) is the rapid decline of one of the most important creatures on Earth at the present time -- honeybees.  Political payoffs are preventing action to deal with the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides.  As you say, smokescreen use by various political parties and profiteers does indeed fog the situation.

It seems to me that we, as a species, are standing at a crossroad.  The path we take from here can and will, as Robert Frost said, make all the difference.

It will take wisdom.  Lots of it.  And right now in American politics, wisdom is as scarce as the world's population of dodo birds or passenger pigeons.


Lee, you hit the nail on the head the moment you said: "Might it be possible in a relatively few years to find that the huge solar and wind farms are no longer needed?  And if that is the case, they should be removable with little permanent damage."

If only that were the case. But it is not. The damage being done is virtually irreversible. After all, it is a desert environment where recovery may take centuries. The tracks of George Patton's tanks are still visible in the Mojave Desert, and he trained there 75 years ago.

For most solar farms, the land is entirely graded--scraped bare of all living things. Wind farms require miles of service roads, culverts, retaining walls, and new corridors for transmission lines. Rooftop solar? Now you're talking. The problem is: The Big Corporations want to sell the power themselves. 

My good friend Garrett Hardin used to say: What would we have thought of the man promising to invent the parachute AFTER jumping off the Empire State Building? In the first place, we would have thought him pretty stupid. He would have had only seconds to deliver on his promise before going splat into the ground.

If all that technology can promise us is to go splat, I think we should wait. Why destroy our public lands to find that all of it was unnecessary? If, as promised, that "breakthrough" is just around the corner, why not wait? You wouldn't burn down your house to get rid of a few mice. Why burn down our country to eke out a few kilowatts of green energy when, again, it isn't yet capable of standing on its own?

There is no tipping point; there never has been. The Earth can and will adjust. The question is whether we will adjust--and whether we dare to adjust without destroying everything else in the process. Speaking of something we could do immediately--and leave not one scar on the land--why haven't we switched from highways to railroads for carrying all intercity frieght? Even on fossil fuels, a railroad is seven times more efficient than rubber on asphalt. A railroad can carry a ton of goods 425 miles on just a single gallon of diesel.

But you see--that would not require a new technology. It would simply take correcting a past mistake. First we would have to admit the mistake. And now you see why destroying the public lands is so much easier.

You should never, I repeat NEVER give in to a lie from a known liar who eschews truth all the time, that we can say for a second, is lie is the truth. Never do that. The truth is not in him.

Hey, about 15 years back Rush Limbaugh installed a doomsday clock based upon Al Gore's statement that in 15 years all would be over. Well, the clock ran out and we are still here. Okay, some of my friends and family are gone, making me a survivor. But they did not die of anything Al Gore claimed was happening.

Did you know that every day bits of ice comets hit the earth's protective atmosphere and gas up but then condense and fall to the earth as new water? Wow! None of the alarmists figured that truth into their computer models. Instead, they tried to tell us that once water was used it was gone. Drink water and it was gone. Wash dishes, it went down the sink and into a dirty pond where it can never be used. Forget the best purification system ever... evaporation. Nope, there IS NO MORE WATER you public school worker bees! But it was a lie. Like all of global warming and sea level rise due to the ice cube melting.

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