Letter From the Desert: Joshua Forest Parkway

The first time I saw them they seemed bright blue. Or perhaps not so much bright blue as bright and blue, that waxy, whitish intermediate between blue and green that the botanists call “glaucous.” It may have been the light. The sun had only just risen, and was playing hide and seek behind the Bradshaw Mountains. That almost certainly affected the color of the leaves. That rising sun had also shone into the eyes of my friend behind the wheel, prompting her to close them in her extreme fatigue, with the expected resulting screech of brake and thud of impact. The fact that said impact had been limited to the left front fender and a flimsy reflector pole, and that all three of us in the car were preposterously uninjured, made the desert sparkle a little bit more than usual.

There is also the fact that this all took place in the summer of 1984, allowing me plenty of time to edit and embellish the color in my memory. Subsequent visits failed to factcheck that memory. I have second-guessed the memories of those visits as well.

I was last here 15 years ago, and facing down a series of life changes that preoccupied me enough that I failed to notice the color of the leaves on these most southeastern of Joshua trees.

Today they looked glaucous.

Joshua trees are the signature plant of the Mojave Desert, in much the same way that saguaros are the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert. If you see the plant in question, you can be pretty sure that you are in that plant’s . corresponding desert. Never mind that these bluish Joshua trees grow among saguaros. Who needs complications like that? Certainly we can't be standing in two places at once. These plants must just be confused. They must have forgotten to consult a field guide.

The odd juxtaposition of inappropriate plant companions shows itself best along Alamo Road a few miles west of here, near a mesquite - filled seasonal watercourse called Bullard Wash. It is a place that deserves to be better known. Aside from the two trees in question,— for what is a saguaro if not a tree? — Bullard Wash is also awash in spring annuals, beavertail and barrel cacti, snakes, desert kit foxes, eagles and cactus wrens, Number 5 tin cans full of bullet holes, creosote and acacia, stranded minivans bearing the skeletons of unlucky families, Palo Verde trees and the dens of desert wood rats, and that’s just what you can see if you never bother to get out of the car.

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A place like Bullard Wash deserves to be protected for its own sake. And so of course the federal government once considered the notion of tearing it all down and replacing it with solar panels. It would’ve been known as the Bullard Wash Solar Energy Zone, par of the 2012 Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Six Western States, aka the Solar PEIS.

Since I knew the place a bit, I was quite worried. This was during a time when one amazing, beautiful and precious desert place after another was being slated for destruction so that utility companies could generate more renewable power. I hated to see it happen, all these potential landscapes sacrificed, and a few other people felt the same way.

I went to DC in 2010 with many of those places in mind. It was a lobbying trip with a group called Solar Done Right, which advocated for putting renewable Energy in places where it actually made sense: on rooftops, over parking lots, and otherwise not on intact and thriving habitat.

(This is commonly accepted as sensible these days. Back then the idea was treated by many green groups about as if we'd advocated dumping used motor oil in the community garden. That is a story for another time.)

During that 2010 trip, I had a chance to meet with Ray Brady, who was running the renewable energy program for the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM was essentially in charge of the Solar PEIS, at least on the land management side of things.. Brady sat with me and my friend Janine Blaeloch in the BLM building and we had a cordial discussion.

"One last thing," 1 said, “before we end here. There is one proposed Solar Energy Zone on the list in the Draft PEIS that needs to be protected from development. It's of immense conservation value. It's really a national monument quality landscape."

"Iron Mountain?" asked Brady.


The Iron Mountain SEZ would have been disastrous, would have killed the largest imaginable stand of desert dry wash woodland, and I was glad he was paying attention to it.

"No," I said, "though that's a good one. I'm talking about Bullard Wash." I mentioned the ecological oddness of Joshua trees and saguaros growing together. I mentioned the likelihood that these Joshua trees were better adapted to heat and drought evolving in such a place, a quality that could prove useful in a warming desert. I mentioned the odd beauty of the place. He listened.

Two years later, when the final draft of the Solar PEIS came out, Bullard Wash was nowhere mentioned as a candidate for energy development. (Neither was Iron Mountain.)

I'm not claiming it was that 2010 meeting that resulted in the 2012 FEIS beng released without a Bullard Wash SEZ. I'm just saying those two events happened, and in that order. A large group of environmental organizations had campaigned to remove Iron Mountain from the document. If anyone campaigned to protect Bullard Wash, I didn’t hear about it. If you did, let me know. I’d like to thank you.

I had best leave it at that for now. This is a bit shorter than your usual Letter From the Desert, but I am writing this in a hotel room in Tucson without a keyboard. More when I don’t have to argue with my iPads voice recognition software, which sometimes Mrs. My Particulate cheese of Frazier. As a result, I hope you’ll forgive what is likely a higher percentage of typos than usual. More soon. Thanks for reading.

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