'Running From the Apocalypse'
Big Solar is moving into Nevada’s public lands. A local activist is fighting back with poetry
Driving west on Highway 160 between Las Vegas and Pahrump, the valley to the south looks like any other in the Mojave Desert. From the seat of a car, the land blurs by in shades of brown and beige. The eye has a funny way of gauging distance out here. The mountains across the California border seem closer than they are, and between here and there — nothing. Some call it a wasteland. Others call it the void. Up close, however, the desert begins to breathe. Five-hundred-year-old yuccas lean into the wind. Kit foxes chase mice through tufts of creosote.
Time works funny out here too. The land feels ancient, because it is. Most of the valley floor is coated in what geologists call desert pavement, a limestone rock surface dating back 100,000 years. Mammoths and saber-toothed cats once walked across the pebbles, which, for millennia, have been cemented together by networks of fungal mycelium, a type of biological soil crust that has sequestered carbon from the atmosphere for thousands of years.
Today, Pahrump Valley is home to many things, from shrikes to shrews to gopher snakes. Shannon Salter also lives here. A poet, teacher, and activist, Salter has been camping near the Yellow Pine solar site off Highway 160 and Tecopa Road to protest one of Nevada’s newest green energy projects. In 2020, the Bureau of Land Management approved Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources’ request to develop the site into a photovoltaic solar farm, which broke ground in January. The electricity from this plant will eventually run through 300 miles of transmission lines to Santa Cruz County in California, with none of it being retained by Nevada residents or businesses. This has activists like Salter arguing for less obtrusive, more locally based energy solutions.
“American public lands are a very special thing,” Salter says. “I really believe they are crucial to the spirit of democracy. The activist Tim DeChristopher said that tyranny can never be complete as long as there’s wilderness. Anyone can camp and enjoy solitude here for free, and these are the lands we stand to lose with projects like Yellow Pine.”
Like most environmentalists, Salter isn’t totally against solar. Dependence on fossil fuels must be addressed, and solar is part of that equation. She is, however, against utility-scale solar plants like Yellow Pine. Anyone who has driven I-15 between Las Vegas and L.A. has seen the three massive solar towers across from Ivanpah dry lakebed. It’s the largest solar thermal farm in the world, and though that technology has since become outdated, dozens of projects of similar size and scope are currently underway, giving a preview of what the desert landscape could turn into. While figures in government and corporate America laud these arrays as forms of environmental progress, activists like Salter see this as a form of greenwashing.
“They’re trying to sell this as a green solution, but how is tearing up the wilderness eco-friendly? We should be advocating for distributed solar. There’s so much existing infrastructure we could install panels on, from military bases to rooftops to parking lots. Pahrump Valley is the equivalent of an old-growth forest. Some of the plants here are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Biologists already had to relocate 80 desert tortoises out of the Yellow Pine site, and less than a month went by before 26 got eaten by badgers.”
Originally from Orange County, California, Salter has been living in the Las Vegas area since 2009. Several months ago, she filed a leave of absence from her literature Phd program at UNLV to occupy Pahrump Valley full-time. She sleeps in an eight-by-10-foot camper among a pile of John Berger books, working remotely as a writing consultant. She keeps dry goods in totes, perishables in coolers. Her camper features a kitchenette built into the back, where she makes coffee each morning and watches the sun rise. Since moving in, she has become a fixture in the local community, a true lady of the valley. She believes the desert is best experienced at a walking pace, taking time each day to stroll the valley floor.
“A week ago, an army of tarantulas came marching through my camp,” she says. “It’s the tail end of their mating season. They’re very fast, it turns out. Two days ago, I started to see dragonflies. They perch along the creosote. You can’t imagine something so fast and so small holding still like that, but they do. I had one sit next to me for 10 minutes, and it felt like we were sharing something. Sometimes it feels like I’m becoming wild out here myself.”
Salter’s occupation defies desert logic. Today, many people regard landscapes like Pahrump Valley as places to be traveled through, not lingered in. Before the incursion of white settlers, ancestors of present-day Paiute and Shoshone tribes lived in the area, moving among higher and lower elevations according to season and tradition. Some of the region’s first infrastructure came in the form of Indigenous trading routes, which were later used by the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and Americans. In 1829, the Old Spanish Trail began running these routes from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, bringing traders and fur trappers, pilgrims and pioneers. These settlers knew better than to pause too long in a place that receives about five inches of rain per year, where temperatures can swing 50 degrees in the winter months, and where the peak of summer averages 100 degrees or higher.
“It’s tough living out here sometimes,” Salter says. “Everything takes more time than you think it would, from cooking to cleaning to brushing your teeth. Sometimes, I shower under a jug of water. Other times I go into Tecopa and soak in the hot springs. But I don’t feel small in this landscape. I feel enormous. I’ve felt an immense weight fall off me. It’s been a physical sensation. For the first time in a long time, it feels like I’m doing what I want to do, like I’m finally doing what’s right.”
For the past several months, Salter has been calling attention to the environmental impact of utility-scale solar developments by hosting the Jackrabbit Poetry Series near the Yellow Pine site (the next event is scheduled February 5). Salter calls her initiative a poetry in motion, and she’s attracted members of the local literary community, including Nevada’s own Claire Vaye Watkins, as well as people from Pahrump, Tecopa, and Las Vegas. One of them is Kevin Emmerich, who, along with his wife, Laura Cunningham, founded Basin and Range Watch, a nonprofit that works to conserve the deserts of Nevada and California by educating the public on the region’s history, culture, and biodiversity. Emmerich served as a U.S. park ranger for 19 years, and now he uses his biology background to call attention to the ecological impacts of industrial-scale wind and solar projects. A lifelong desert advocate, Emmerich finds Salter’s poetry readings to be a particularly effective way to reach the public.
“Shannon is really nice and funny, and she’s got an enthusiasm that I don’t,” he says. “Her poetry readings have been hugely successful because she gets a lot of people who have never been to that area to come out, and they leave feeling personally connected to it. When I talk in front of people, I get everyone depressed, but Shannon has a pretty cool way of getting the word out.”
Emmerich and Cunningham met Salter in 2017 at a community engagement meeting for the Crescent Peak Wind Turbine Project that would have erected as many as 248 turbines in the middle of the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Forest Area outside Searchlight, Nevada, on the border of the Mojave National Preserve. The project was proposed by Swedish energy company Eolus Vind, and the BLM hosted four community engagement hearings around Southern Nevada. “Shannon showed up on her own and made some really good comments,” Emmerich says. “We could tell that she was really passionate about the issues.” The project was eventually denied in 2018 after pushback from the local community, which cited adverse effects to wildlife such as golden eagles, Gila monsters, and bighorn sheep, as well as potential health complications from the asbestos that naturally occurs in the region’s soil and would have been churned up by utility road construction. Tribal advocates also opposed the project, insisting that the area be turned into a national monument for Avi Kwa Ame, the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain.
Salter eventually joined Basin and Range Watch as a board member, though she has since moved on to create her own organization called Mojave Green, which gives her the autonomy to take a less conventional, more action-based approach.
“We want to see more groups in Southern Nevada that aren’t affiliated with the giant, what we call ‘gang green’ groups that tend to look the other way with a lot of the big solar and wind projects,” Emmerich says. “We need genuine people that really care about this, and unfortunately a lot of the big environmental organizations have an agenda. But Shannon is a real person who lives in the area and loves the desert and wants to keep it the way it is, the way we’ve always had it.”
Yet the push for distributed solar is nuanced. Like Salter, Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University, advocates for distributed solar on rooftops and over parking lots, which he notes is 10 times more prevalent per capita in California than it currently is in Nevada. Rooftop solar can reduce the heat island effect over cities such as Las Vegas, Mulvaney says, but he ultimately sees utility-scale solar as a necessary component to meeting climate goals going forward.
“I know that Basin and Range Watch and Shannon tend to argue against utility-scale in general,” Mulvaney says. “But I don’t have the luxury to argue for an ideal. I am thinking more about where to put these utility-scale solar farms, because that’s the way our grid system is set up right now. We have so much degraded land across California and Nevada. There’s abandoned mines and landfills, there’s abandoned agriculture. There’s no reason to develop public land, but in Nevada, the parent companies for utility-scale solar projects also own the development companies that install them, so you can see why they are taking this route.” (We contacted NextEra Energy Solutions to weigh in on this issue, but the company didn’t respond.)
Much of Mulvaney’s research focuses on “circular economy,” which is a mode of production that seeks to recycle existing materials as long as possible — a stark contrast to the linear “take-make-toss” modes of production that have been in place since the early days of industrialization. Though renewable energy sources such as wind and solar sound green to the average consumer, they still rely on mining and other extractives industries, which can quickly cancel their intended carbon mitigation depending on how they are implemented. Mulvaney worries that we are repeating the mistakes of the last two centuries as we seek to move out of their industrial shadow.
“We just have a bad federal policy where we’ve decided that, because we gave public lands to mining companies and oil and gas companies in 1872, suddenly, the new energies deserve a similar bargain,” he says. “People really root for giant solar farms. But when you look at the impacts on groundwater and endangered species and habitat fragmentation, not to mention these conflicts on the development of public lands, it makes me think that people don’t have any clue what’s going on out in the desert.”
Mulvaney has noticed a bias against public desert lands as wastelands and nonproductive landscapes, so he’s glad that Salter is calling attention to these issues. Yet at the end of the day, even Salter admits that, at least superficially, protesting the Yellow Pine installation is a fruitless act. As this story went to press, shovels were hitting the ground.
But Yellow Pine is just the beginning of planned solar development in Pahrump Valley. The nearby Trout Canyon substation will accommodate up to six solar arrays of similar size and scope, and four additional sites are already proposed for Pahrump Valley alone. With Greenlink, Nevada’s 585-mile-long transmission line being installed between Las Vegas, Yerington, and Ely, and with the BLM opening nine million acres of public land for solar, more valleys like Pahrump are bound to fill up with solar arrays, none of which will be guaranteed to power Nevada itself. As tech companies expand ever outward from the Bay Area, much of Nevada’s solar energy will be plugged into the regional grid and sold to the highest bidder.
In this context, Salter’s Yellow Pine protest is just the beginning of her efforts. The way she sees it, Big Solar is moving in, and none of Nevada’s public deserts are safe from future development.
“One of the biggest things I have learned through all of this is that most people involved are just doing their jobs and trying to provide for their families,” Salter says. “The construction workers aren’t the enemy; neither are the biologists or field workers. The real problem, at the end of the day, is the way we live our lives, how the global industrial order requires constant expansion to survive. We’ve developed an apocalyptic attitude when it comes to the climate crisis, but we shouldn’t be running from the apocalypse; we should be building a heaven on earth. We can have that. We just have to go about it the right way.”