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Juniper Flats: To Save It Is to Love It

The following article appears in the December 2014 edition of Desert Report, published by the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee. The author, Robert Earle Howells (Bob Howells), is a board member of the Alliance for Desert Preservation and a contributor to National Geographic Books. Click here to read the full edition of Desert Report, which also contains an excellent article about the DRECP called “The Future of the California Desert.”‘

I have to admit that I didn’t even know Juniper Flats had a name until we almost lost it to a utility-scale wind farm. If I wanted to describe the area to someone, I simply said, “the north-facing foothills of the San Bernardinos between Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley, where the High Desert meets the mountains.”

Although this landscape has been close to my heart for a very long time—I was born in Victorville, and spend most of my weekends in Lucerne Valley—it took the specter of that grotesquely offensive wind farm to get me better acquainted with what we have, and what we almost didn’t have. Happily, the would-be developer of the North Peak Wind Project has withdrawn its application to slap up 71 giant wind turbines on the high ridgelines of Juniper Flats.

But they didn’t just change their mind. They heard from High Desert residents. More than 17,000 of them signed a petition opposing the project, thanks to the tireless, boots-on-the-ground efforts of the Alliance for Desert Preservation, of which I’m an active member. We told them how preciously we value our High Desert landscape, its wildlife, its vegetation, and its beauty. And we told them that we didn’t want that landscape sullied by an industrial project that would have sliced up Juniper Flats with roads as wide as 44 feet, and blighted our skyline with wind turbines brightly blinking with nighttime aviation lights.

On another happy note, much of Juniper Flats has been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in the preferred alternative of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). That’s good. But now we need to give it the BLM’s highest level of protection. We need it to be declared National Conservation Land and added to the National Landscape Conservation System, so that no other developer get North Peakish notions about desecrating this beautiful stretch of land.

A  Dazzling  Landscape

The full extent of Juniper Flats comprises 101,272 acres, administered by the BLM and stretching about 21 miles east-west, from the Big Bear–bound switchbacks of the Cushenbury Grade to the Mojave River. The southern boundary abuts the San Bernardino National Forest, while the northern boundary drops down to the desert floor at the base of the mountains.

The far view of Juniper Flats is one of jagged peaks rising above a series of rugged canyons. Regal boulder formations tower above the upper reaches of those canyons. When sunrise gives the hills a pink glow, or when the sun sets behind the western finger of the range, Juniper Flats suddenly softens. Glorious.

Dig into the details, and it becomes all the more dazzling.

As I learned in the course of helping to spare it, Juniper Flats is home to no less than 45 endangered and threatened species, and species of special concern. The Cushenbury herd of bighorn sheep migrates through en route from the San Bernardinos to the Granite Mountains, as do badgers and mountain lions. Golden eagles nest near its tallest ridges. Bald eagles soar over en route to winter abodes at Big Bear and Arrowhead. Critically threatened southwestern willow flycatcher, least Bell’s vireo, and yellow-bellied cuckoo call it home. Myriad other bird species migrate through, often at night, and I shudder to think of their would-be encounter with wind turbines.

The area is critical for Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise. And let’s not take for granted the usual cast of desert characters—mule deer, coyote, his nemesis roadrunner, and his favorite meal, the jackrabbit.

The flora are equally astounding. The flanks of barren canyons spring to life with poppies in early April, when vast quantities of bursage and brittlebush get equally showy, as do ephemerals that I never get around to identifying, but always hold in awe. Less obvious are certain plants in Juniper Flats that grow nowhere else in the world. I wouldn’t know Cushenbury milkvetch unless it came up and introduced itself, but I’m happy to know that it’s among several carbonate-endemic plant species that thrive nowhere in the world but here, in the same high-grade-limestone soil that makes the northern flanks of the San Bernardinos so attractive to the cement and chemical industries.

Juniper Flats is all about transitions, from creosote flats to Joshua tree and juniper hills to high-country piñon and oak woodlands. That variety results is some curiously clustered combinations. Up in the higher reaches I’ve seen some of the densest stands of Joshua trees I’ve encountered anywhere in the Mojave standing right up against a grove of piñons, showing that the two can get along quite nicely

The presence of water in the desert is always capricious and often fleeting, but Juniper Flats is blessed with perennial seeps and springs that look like a magic wand has touched certain canyons. Suddenly sage and cholla and brittlebush give way to a realm of cottonwoods and rabbitbrush and grasses that would look at home surrounding the average marsh. Arrastre Canyon is a great example, as is a neighbor the locals call Elderberry Canyon.

The natural abundance of Juniper Flats has long attracted humans, primarily the Serrano Indians. A Serrano named Santos Manuel led a 32-day campaign against local militia forces in the San Bernardino Mountains in 1866. That tribe is now known by the name of its then-leader: the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The band deeply values sites in the area that are unmarked and little known to the general public—but are another reason why National Conservation Land status is so important for Juniper Flats.

I mentioned those boulder formations that rise above the canyons. I’m always surprised that more rock climbers haven’t staked them out and claimed first ascents and naming rights. Picture Deadman’s Point (Bear Valley Road at Highway 18), then put it up on a tall ridgeline far from whizzing traffic. I know one of the formations as Castle Rock. Others have no names that I know of, but they harbor tempting routes on high-friction granite, as well as chimneys and passageways that make for fun exploring for climbers and landlubbers alike—if they’re willing to trundle up to the ridgelines.

 The  Big  View

Not that trundling up there is easy, even though it lies within a few miles of Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley. Access to Juniper Flats is moderately tricky. Its primary “highway” is Coxey Road, also known as Coxey Truck Trail, accessed from the west via Bowen Ranch Road in Apple Valley. Historic Coxey Road was built in the 1860s to transport ore from Holcomb Valley near Big Bear Lake to the Victor Valley. It requires a sturdy high-clearance vehicle, as does Grapevine Canyon Road, accessed from the north in Lucerne Valley.

Both roads get you up into the highest reaches of Juniper Flats before they head over the crest into the San Bernardino National Forest. The views from the ridgelines are thrilling. A northern panorama takes in the Southern Sierra, the Granite Mountains, Ord Mountain, the Rodman Mountains, Rabbit Dry Lake, Lucerne Dry Lake, and the scattered abodes and ranches of Lucerne Valley.

The BLM knows that Juniper Flats is special—after all, it singled out much of its acreage for proposed ACEC status under the DRECP preferred alternative, and it has praised Juniper Flats as an “extremely diverse and dense region for cultural resources …[with] numerous sites that meet criteria for the National Register of Historic Places …[and which are] of great importance for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.” But the BLM must make difficult choices, because it is also under a directive to open up its land holdings to large-scale renewable energy development.

We who love the California desert can make the BLM’s choice much easier by showing support for the protection of this small but awe-inspiring slice of public land. As Congress proclaimed in passing the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, our desert is “fragile, easily scarred, and slow to heal.” Let’s not permit unnecessary scars upon our treasured Mojave. Let’s preserve Juniper Flats.

Click here to sign the Alliance for Desert Preservation’s online petition to save Juniper Flats.