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  • September 2009
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Mojave Desert, Solar Farms, and Water

Mojave Desert along Route 66

Mojave Desert along Route 66

BrightSource Energy, Inc. cancelled its plans to build a solar farm on 600,000 acres of railroad land donated to the Department of the Interior for conservation. BrightSource builds, owns, and operates solar plants.

This is the land by Sen. Dianne Feinstein would like to see transformed into the Mother Road National Monument. If that happens, the land would connect the Mojave National Preserve to the north with the Joshua Tree National Park to the south, and the Colorado River to the east.

It is my long time interest in Route 66 that draws me to alternative energy and the Mojave, and how energy extraction changes landscapes.

For my first book on Route 66, Susan Croce Kelly and I took oral histories from poeple who built gas stations, motels, restaurants, and trading posts along the road after it was established in 1926 and before the passage of the Interstate Highway Act with funded the roads that replaced 66. The book Route 66: The Highway and its People is the basic text on the founding of the road and the creation of roadside tourism.

My second book, Along Route 66, is about the architecture of their buildings. Again, I drew on the oral histories Kelly and I had taken in the 1980s and on additional interviews taken by phone in the 1990s.

Now, I am interested in the landscapes the old road crossed from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, the coal fields and oil fields that lie under the landscape, and how we change the landscape when we extract energy from it.

This idea blossomed when I visited Moraine State Park, near Bloomington, Illinois, where Route 66 crossed the Bloomington Moraine, laid down by the retreating Wisconsinan glacier 15,000 years ago. The Twin Groves Wind Farm occupies soybean and corn fields just north of the park.

Twin Groves Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, LeRoy, Illinois

Twin Groves Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, LeRoy, Illinois

So if I seem preoccupied with things not Route 66, forgive me, but this is a new role the old road can play in my life and work.


Solar Energy in the Mojave Desert,

Dry Wash, Mojave Desert

Dry Wash, Mojave Desert

Interior secretary Ken Salazar describes his agency as the “real department of energy.” He is in charge of the vast expanses of public lands in the western United States, lands that energy producers want to exploit for their natural resources, oil, coal, natural gas, and now wind and solar.

Which brings us to the Mojave Desert, sunny and windy, and much of it owned by U.S.

There is a five year backlog of applications for 158 solar projects on 1.8 million acres of public land, which could power 29 million homes. Half the projects would be built in the Mojave Desert, where some of the land is pristine, and some not.

The White House wants to streamline the application process and create 50,000 green jobs by 2011.

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Pacific Gas and Electric is planning a solar farm near Roy’s Motel, a classic Route 66 business and a classic Route 66 story

Buster Burris was the wrecker king of Route 66 in the Mojave. He arrived in Amboy from Texas in 1938 and went to work for Roy Crowe at his gas and service station, driving Roy’s wrecker. Buster took over the business, and added a cafe in 1945 for feed people who waited for Roy to fix their cars. Three years later he added the little cabins to bed them down while they waited for Roy to fix their cars.

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Roy’s grew into a small city out in the desert, even though drinking water was hauled in by the Sante Fe Railroad and stored on a siding.

Because the highway is there, because the railroad is there, because Roy’s is there, Pacific Gas and Electric claims the land is no longer pristine, and a solar farm near Roy’s will not damage the environment and be far enough away from Route 66 to not spoil the view from the road.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy feel it is way to easy to use public land for energy production and that the planned solar projects will be way too big. Myers calls it the industrialization of the desert. Feinstein wants to establish the Mother Road National Monument on 800,000 acres of the land that would connect the Mojave National Preserve to the north with the Joshua Tree National Park to the south and the Colorado River to the east. And she wants to prevent the construction of solar farms on the land.