Letter to the editor: don’t destroy the beauty

IFFebruary 25, 2014

To the Inyo County Planning Department

and the Inyo County Board of Supervisors:

I am neither a biologist, economist, nor archaeologist, so I shall not speak in technical detail about the many reasons that Inyo County should not approve any type of large-scale solar or wind power developments, especially in the Owens Valley.  But I am a great lover of the arts and of the natural world, and I firmly believe that a group of people who live with little understanding of their history, their land, and their culture can only proceed in folly.  It is very clear to me that the Inyo County Planning Department’s Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA) is a demonstration of how to do exactly this.

For those of you who have never been outside of this room—which may be a greater number than I’d imagine as evidenced by the very existence of this plan—let me tell you a little bit about the county you govern and call your home, specifically the slice of it just beyond these doors.

The Owens Valley is startlingly beautiful, tucked as it is between the intricately colorful White/Inyo mountains on the east and the breathtaking “Range of Light,” the Sierra Nevada, on the west.  The green thread of the Owens River winds sinuously along the valley floor just east of small towns like Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop.  This startling beauty of the valley is the lifeblood of these towns, supporting through tourism their fragile economies.

After the City of Los Angeles extracted water from the Owens Valley, taking with it an economy based on agriculture, some of the leaders of our county realized the people would have to find other ways to support themselves.  Men like George Savage of the Inyo Independent, the famous “Desert Padre” Father Crowley, Ralph Merritt, and Robert Brown recognized that the wealth of the Eastern Sierra lay in its beauty.  In the 1930s, in the heart of the Great Depression, they formed the Inyo-Mono Associates—a group which still exists today—for the purpose of encouraging tourism and boosting the economy.

It worked.  As a result of their advertising efforts and our continued efforts today, people from all parts of the world flock to the Owens Valley year-round in order to experience the pristine land we have everyday in our backyard.  These visitors recognize what we apparently do not:  that which makes our county great is its untouched, open space.

But don’t take my word for it—after all, I was born here and grew up with a love of the Owens Valley deep in my veins, so my bias for this land shows through in everything I do.  Luckily, many others have documented their reasons for spending time in our remote region of California.

John Muir is a man who needs no introduction.  In the first-ever detailed descriptions of the Owens Valley, Muir writes from Independence in 1875,


The massive sun-beaten Sierra rose before us out of the gray sagebrush levels like one vast wall 9,000 feet high adorned along the top with a multitude of peaks that seem to have been nicked  out of all kinds of fanciful forms for the sake of beauty… We arrived here on one of the best of                                 those lovely purple afternoons for which the dry desert regions lying to the east of the Sierra are remarkable…


He ends the account of his trek down Mt. Whitney and through the Owens Valley to Mono Lake with encouragement for California tourism that would have made Inyo-Mono Associates proud:  “Californians are little aware of the grandeur of their own land, as is manifested by their leaving it for foreign excursions whenever they become able—leaving the wonders of our unrivaled plains and mountains wholly unrecognized.”  All of the wonders of the world, Muir continues, can be found right here.  I wonder if Muir might be unsurprised to find that Californians—specifically those who dwell in the Owens Valley—are still apparently “little aware of the grandeur of their own land,” which they’d like to see sacrificed to industrial development.


Other writers too, of course, have sought and found inspiration in the Owens Valley.  Those of us who live in Independence regularly pass by Mary Austin’s little brown house at the corner of Market and Webster Streets.  Austin was someone who gained an intimate knowledge of the Owens and Panamint Valleys, and many other parts of Inyo County.  Of the county’s desert regions that humans so often mistakenly describe as empty, including those thousands of square miles designated for development in REGPA, she writes in 1903,

Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil…  Go as far as you  dare in the heart of a lonely land, you cannot go so far that life and death are not before you.  Painted lizards slip in and out of rock crevices, and pant on the white hot sands.  Birds, humming-birds even, nest in the cactus scrub; woodpeckers befriend the demonic yuccas; out of the stark, treeless waste rings the music of the night-singing mocking-bird.  If it be summer and the sun well down, there will be a burrowing owl to call.   Strange, furry, tricksy things dart across the open places, or sit motionless in the conning towers of the creosote…  The fairy-footed, ground-inhabiting, furtive, small folk of the rainless regions…they are too many and too swift; how many you would not believe                             without seeing the footprint tracings in the sand.  They are nearly all night workers,  finding the days too hot and white.


And of the Owens Valley, a home she did not choose, Austin writes,


If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much  after having lived there.  None other than this long brown land lays such hold on the affections.  The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus   charm.  They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away                 without quite realizing that you have not done it.

Let’s imagine for a moment, as much as it pains me, an Owens Valley blanketed on one side with fields of solar panels, access roads, transmission lines, buildings and fences and lights—not to mention piles of dead migratory birds, tricked and confused by the shiny, hot surfaces of the solar panels as they make their way south to the Owens Lake delta, the fifth largest migration stop in the State of California.  How could such an image, imposed violently upon a once open space, lay hold of anyone’s affections, except perhaps the CEOs of desert-ravaging companies like BrightSource?  No writer would find her voice in such a blighted place.  Those who “always mean to go away” would finally do it.  Those who never meant to go away might do so as well, sick at heart.  Property values in towns like Independence and Lone Pine would sink lower and lower, while tourists shied away from an area that once beckoned them with its rainbow hills.

In 1950, another artist drawn to the rainbow hills of the Owens Valley and Inyo County, published a new, special edition of Mary Austin’s book The Land of Little Rain.  This was Ansel Adams, arguably still today the most well-known of all photographers.  This new edition was illustrated with his selected photographs of the Owens Valley and parts of Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada.  The introduction was by Austin’s friend Carl Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and critic, where he writes of Austin’s time in the Owens Valley,


The desert put its mark on her, in the profound calm of her temper, in the neglect of things not  fundamental to mankind, in her oracular habit of communication.  Her desert knowledge ripened to a wisdom that formed and colored all her later experience.  She had a standard by which to  measure the world.


When I page now through this text, looking carefully at Ansel Adams’s photographs of the Owens Valley, I’m am sickened to see just how many of them feature the lands designated as dispensable and “low” scenic priority by REGPA.  This landscape which inspired the photographer Ansel Adams and helped build his luminous career, this landscape which shaped the writer Mary Austin’s life and forged for her “a standard by which to measure the world” is the very same landscape that you would like to see bludgeoned by industrialization.  The cover jacket to the illustrated edition of The Land of Little Rain introduces the book with the words, “The American west lives in the singing prose of Mary Austin.”  Let us hope that someday it does not live only in her singing prose.  Don’t let her writings of the Owens Valley and Inyo County’s wildlands become nothing more than a prophetic elegy written a century in advance—an empty remnant describing a place destroyed at the hands of people entrusted to protect it.

Ansel Adams’s photographs of the Owens Valley brought to others the inspiration of this beautiful landscape.  In his book Wallace Stegner and the American West, Philip Fradkin notes that Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angle of Repose, had hanging prominently on the wall in his home “Ansel Adams’s photograph of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada as seen from Lone Pine…  To Wally the photograph of dawn breaking over the Owens Valley signified ‘renewal, rebirth, reassurance’ and enriched him, as did the choral movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”  One is forced to wonder if Stegner would have found reassurance in a photo of dawn breaking over solar panels and industrial paraphernalia, and if such an image would have brought to mind the glorious and celebratory Ode to Joy.  One suspects not.

Lone Pine, the setting for many of Adams’s photographs, under REGPA would be transformed into a peninsula poking out into a sea of industrial-sized energy development.  But Adams was not the only artist to find inspiration in Lone Pine’s landscape.  The painter Maynard Dixon, yet another famed artist of the American West, sought out the Owens Valley as a place to collect his thoughts.  Donald J. Hagerty writes about him in The Life of Maynard Dixon:


Searching for personal and artistic renewal, Dixon decided to explore desert landscapes around  California’s Owens Valley in September of 1919…  He rode the…narrow gauge railroad to the terminus at Keeler near Lone Pine in Inyo County.  At Lone Pine he stayed with old friends,   ‘Dad’ Skinner, an early Inyo County pioneer…  Looking for solitude, Dixon wandered in and out of the little towns strung along the base of the Sierra Nevada—Big Pine, Independence, and       Lone Pine—explored the vast playa around Owens Lake, and rode through the endless   sagebrush into the Inyo Mountains fronting the western edge of Death Valley.  To the Paiute  Indians, this was the ‘dwelling place of the great spirit.’  He could think things out in this empty  desert…  His inner integrity…led him to decide that his art must include an understanding drawn   directly from nature and the American cultural experience.

Here again we find an artist whose life work was given direction by his direct experience of the Owens Valley’s landscape—which he sought very purposefully. He married the photographer Dorothea Lange in 1920 and they had two sons.  Dixon, “anxious to head back to the desert,”  returned again to the Owens Valley on an important trip in 1929, this time with his family.  They stayed again “…with the Skinner family at Lone Pine.  Dixon sketched and painted the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, explored the Panamint Mountains, wandered around the sun-warped buildings of Darwin and Coso, and visited Shoshone and Paiute Indian camps.”  The paintings and sketches that came of this trip are some of the best of his career.  Dixon, taken by the deep shadows and colors of the Inyo Mountains, painted with great precision the towering 10,000 and 11,000-foot peaks just east of Lone Pine—a portion of the Owens Valley, of course, deemed of “low” scenic value by the Inyo County Planning Department.

Maynard Dixon was not the only artist in his family to have a life-altering epiphany in the Owens Valley.  Dixon’s wife, Dorothea Lange, at the time was a portrait photographer.  Hagerty writes that Lange…had a positive revelation from nature.  One day she was perched on a large rock when a fierce thunderstorm broke, and in the midst of the turbulence, she realized that she should concentrate on photographing people not just in formal portraits, but all kinds of people in the context of their lives.  She felt this as one of the great spiritual experiences in her life.

Lange went on to become the most well-known and most skilled photographer of the Great Depression, traveling around the country for the Farm Security Administration.  Her famous portrait, “Migrant Mother” is a perfect actualization of her desire to photograph “all kinds of people in the context of their lives”—a desire which came into focus in conjunction with a sudden Owens Valley thunderstorm.

Interestingly, both Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams returned to the Owens Valley during World War II to document and provide support for the Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. government at Manzanar War Relocation Center, between Independence and Lone Pine.  As you are well aware, Manzanar is today a National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service.  The site seeks to educate the citizens of this nation, as well as the citizens of the world, about the tremendous mistake made by our government when it placed in concentration camps 120,313 people, two-thirds of them American citizens.  These camps were purposefully selected in extremely remote areas where one would have no hope for escape, yet at the same time be provided with enough water and arable land for farming operations.  The Owens Valley met this description perfectly.  Former incarcerees remember very clearly the desert floor and the mountains that served as constant reminders of imprisonment.  Yet simultaneously the beauty of the Owens Valley, the Sierra Nevada, and the Inyos provided some amount of comfort and hope.  Japanese Americans remember seeing stars for the first time at Manzanar, astounded by the bright skies revealed by the solitude and remoteness of the Owens Valley.

Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams took photographs at Manzanar they hoped would demonstrate to the American people that this group we had evicted from their homes and locked behind barbed wire were just like you or me.  The photographic records they kept of the camp demonstrate their determination to record this injustice so that we might learn from our history and be better by it.  These photographic records also show, in great detail, the vast open space surrounding the confines of Manzanar—a space at once threatening and consoling.

REGPA defines forty-two square miles between Independence and Lone Pine as recommended for industrial-scale energy projects.  The majority of these forty-two square miles would be clearly always visible from Manzanar.  As a result of this, that very important solitude and emptiness would be mangled and lost.  Visitors would have to study Lange’s and Adam’s photographs, hoping in vain to discover what that kind of desert and mountain solitude described by the Japanese Americans might feel like, since you would have it eradicated from the Owens Valley, just as it has been eradicated from almost all of the once wild state of California.

The artists and writers detailed above, who have been profoundly shaped by the Owens Valley and its environs, are but a miniscule smattering of all the artists, writers, musicians, composers, et cetera, I might have chosen to discuss.  Others include Albert Bierstadt, Leland Curtis, Conrad Buff, Alson Skinner Clark, Alfred R. Mitchell, Edgar Payne, Frederick Doyle Penney, Edward Weston, Evelyn Eaton, Iren Marik, Frederick Grofe, Edward Abbey, Galen Rowell and scores more.

Isn’t this list incredible?  Perhaps you’re surprised by how important the Owens Valley has been to so many people, who have then gone on to write about it, or paint or photograph it, bringing not only great renown to themselves but to the beauty of the Owens Valley.

Please consider what damage you will be doing to the future by denying future generations the chance to experience and be changed by the wide-open, undeveloped spaces of this valley—generations not just of artists, writers, and musicians, but everyone:  travelers, adventurers, rock climbers, hunters, fisherman, history buffs, and others who seek this wild, untamed, and unparalleled intersection of mountains and desert for solace, or refuge, or inspiration.

And please do not forget the damage you will do to those of us who call the Owens Valley our home.

On that note, let’s consider also those who may someday like to call the Owens Valley their home.  For a moment, let’s focus on our contemporary world and take a quick look at everyone’s favorite source of information:  social media.  Just today I posted a photo of the Owens Valley on the mobile sharing app, Instagram.  I do this regularly, and I’m always amazed by the number of people from all corners of the globe who love the Owens Valley.  One Instagram user commented today, “Without a doubt, the Eastern Sierras are, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the US.  Definitely hope to settle down there one day!”  Another wrote, “Owens Valley is one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever witnessed.”  An Instagram user who lives in England and honeymooned in the Owens Valley said, “hope 2 return to Owens Valley one day, it’s such a beautiful place.”  Another from North Carolina wrote as a caption to his own photo of the Owens Valley just outside Independence, “I would die a happy man if I could call this place my home… I can’t imagine waking up to this beauty every single day!”

I’m sure you get my point.  People are so moved by the beauty of this valley that they literally want to live here.  One can’t express love for a place much more strongly than that.  For others, the landscape of the Owens Valley has changed the trajectory of their lives.  This landscape has inspired artists to create some of the most beautiful works of art in the history of the United States.  Their experiences in the Owens Valley encapsulate the defining cultural history of this country, changed and shaped forever by expansion into the fabled American West.

So, I must ask of the Planning Department, who created this horrific document, and of the Board of Supervisors, who could not have been unaware of this plan’s progress and in whose hands lies this plan’s future:

You all live here in Inyo County.  Some of you have spent your adult lives here.  Some of you were born here.  Has your proximity to the world-renowned beauty of the Owens Valley and Inyo County rendered you blind?  Are you just too close to see how lucky you are?

Our very own newspaperman W. A. Chalfant, founder of the Chalfant Press, said of Inyo County, “Nature has written here, in bold strokes, studies more fascinating than the little affairs of humanity.”  Your decision to create and support a plan like REGPA demonstrates that you are getting far too caught up in these little affairs of humanity—these promises of temporary political comfort or temporary wealth—and you have forgotten to take into account what “Nature has written here”—a lasting comfort, a permanent wealth.

Permanent, that is, unless you move to destroy it. Don’t.

For if you do, you will live out the rest of your life always aware of a heavy, gnawing guilt lodged in your conscience and in your heart for having irrevocably destroyed one of the most beautiful lands on this earth.


Rose Masters





11 Responses to Letter to the editor: don’t destroy the beauty

  1. Mongo The Idiot February 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Well done Rose
    A tremendous effort and investment of time,
    Thank you…
    I would like to add…
    Stephen Willard,
    A.C. Pillsbury,
    Edward Curtis,
    John Fremont,
    and countless other Trappers, Immigrants, and important AMERICANS that came through this truly amazing place.

  2. Steve February 27, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    Thank you for your letter. It made me change my mind. I was thinking it would not be so bad to have solar built in the Owens Valley. The jobs it would create and helping to save the world we all live in.

    But you were very good at showing the cost. And reminding me why I live here.

    On my drive home today your letter will be on my mind.

    • Rose Masters February 28, 2014 at 12:24 am #


      I am very moved by your note. Thank you for reading my letter and being open to a change of mind and heart.

      All my best wishes —

  3. Ken Warner February 27, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    Past glory and works of art in many different media don’t necessarily apply as meaningful perspective today — in 2014. Most of the people you cite were here nearly a hundred years ago. The Owens Valley has changed largely because of all the tourists that have been invited here to enjoy the beauty. Each one taking a little piece of the beauty away with him.

    Have you looked at the satellite images of the Owens Valley with Google Maps? It’s not pristine anymore.

    Manzanar was one of 10 relocation camps that was in operation for about 4 years nearly 70 years ago. About 10,000 internees were there. Native Americans, ranchers and miners called Manzanar home long before the camp was established yet no one seems concerned about them. Manzanar, as a historic site can be preserved without entrapping the entire Owens Valley.

    The population of the World has more than doubled since then. The needs of that population have changed. Evaluating the need for renewable energy of all kinds needs to be done though the lens of today’s needs. Not through the memories of the past.

    There may be very good environmental reasons why no renewable energy generation should be located in the Owens Valley. The EIR process should reveal those reasons. The people of the Owens Valley owe it to themselves to find out. Tourism is may not always provide the economic cushion it provides today. Look at Mammoth Lakes and June Lake.and the ripple effect on the neighboring communities. All struggling to survive.

    There needs to be careful, objective thought applied to the decisions that will affect the future — your future. The past — however beautiful that past may have been — has little bearing on the needs of today and tomorrow. Be careful of your emotions and make objective decisions.

    • Russ Monroe February 27, 2014 at 11:31 pm #

      I could not disagree more Ken. Ignoring history is the quickest way to repeat the failures of the past. Participating in the process serves much more function than griping about it after the fact.
      I have over forty years experience, participating in, observing and reporting on, local government and in my opinion the document voted forward yesterday is the single worst waste of paper and payroll I have ever read.
      as was pointed out by several speakers, the data was insufficient, the recommendations had no justification formulated from the data. The “public input” included was deceptively compiled to the point that the people who had contributed it did not recognize it as theirs.
      The planning was incomplete, as the commissioners themselves pointed out.
      Mr. Hart himself said the proposed projects would not bring in any significant revenue to the county.
      Paul Payne called for workshops and more education, he went so far as to label solar energy as “dirty green” then voted for it anyway.
      The proposed maps not only drew universal disdain from the public, but two of the speakers were representatives from the federal government.
      The representative from the military, Navy and Air Force, explained in simple terms, the absolute objections that the military has to any large scale wind generating equipment being placed in the area and their objections to most solar generating systems as well.
      After that the Department of Agriculture representative called out most of the proposed maps as proposals that are not comparable with National Park Service rules and regulations.
      So, to review, a document that has already been litigated once, that will not bring in more revenue to a county already running in the red, that two branches of the federal government will oppose and that will significantly impact, if not destroy, two major tax bases that the county relies on, IE; tourism and the entertainment industry, was approved.
      The legal argument with the feds alone will possibly be enough to bankrupt the county not to mention make lawyers rich for a decade or two. All for a set of proposals that are very similar to installations already failing all around the world.
      So Ken, are you planning to foot the bill to “find out” how this will play out?
      If not, perhaps we should put one hell of a lot more thought into this before throwing untold millions of dollars that we do not have at putting together EIRs which are not the counties responsibility to fund in the first place, and fighting the feds, who we will loose to.
      Your right Ken, being led by emotion here would be dangerous. Voting to move forward under these conditions is both foolish and economically disastrous. Kinda like trying to shoot ones own foot off, by placing the gun in ones mouth….. a bad idea all around.

    • Rose Masters February 28, 2014 at 12:22 am #

      With all due respect, Mr. Warner —

      When speaking in defense of someone or something one LOVES and believes in, one should never set aside emotion.

      Imagine, for example, Winston Churchill speaking dispassionately about the need to conquer Hitler’s regime and win World War II.

      Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. speaking dispassionately about civil rights.

  4. GWW February 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Well written and thoughtful letter, but gotta Love the way enviros decry that the mountain and desert solitude has all but been eradicated from the once wild California. Everywhere you turn there is beautiful pristine wilderness and the wilderness is continuosly growing due to the guilt mongering of urbanites by Enviro orgs, yet they would have you believe it’s almost all gone!!!!! More silly science!

    Deliberate distractions and misdirection should never win debates, yet in this new age of tolerance we can’t expose the doublespeak without risk of vicious character asassination as we’ve seen in other letters on this topic?

    • kwak February 27, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      the guy who signed away the water from the Owens Valley ‘for the greatest good for the greatest number,’ Teddy Roosevelt, also signed the first Antiquities Act in 1906 to protect all those ‘old things’ you’d like to dismiss as irrelevant to our modern culture. The idea of the antiquities act, and all the subsequent acts (signed into law by luminaries like Richard Nixon) was to protect important resources of the past from the exuberant whims of the future. Roosevelt (and his ilk) wisely predicted that the people of the future might be gulled into sacrificing the treasures of the past for a mess of pottage. Let’s hope CEQA has a similar long and conservative view of long-term values over short-term (illusory) gain.

    • duck February 27, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Thank you, GWW, for revealing yourself as a partisan hack who is not worth taking seriously. It’s funny how you tried to occupy the high ground with your early posts, then descended quickly into the meaningless rhetoric and exclamation marks of the Thoughtless Parrots.

  5. Daris February 27, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Thank you Rose. The water may be gone but I beleive we still have the most beautiful valley in the world. I thank God for the views we see all about us every day. Supervisors please do not destroy the valley that so many of us love.

  6. Michael Prather February 27, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    Thank you Rose for the thoughtful letter. It speaks for all of us and our land.


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