A fisherman lies in the foothills of the western Arizona’s Plomosa Mountains, an image scraped into desert soil by prehistoric Native Americans and protected from tourists’ tennis shoes by a Bureau of Land Management fence.
The Bouse Fisherman Intaglio is said to represent Kumastamo, a god who thrust his spear into the ground to make the Colorado River flow.
For centuries, members of Native American tribes along the river have had a spiritual connection to the La Posa Plain, which unravels across the bleak desert toward distant mountains. Dig a hole and you’re likely to find prehistoric artifacts.
“It can be as small as stone flakes to make a stone tool or as big as a village site,” said John Bathke, historic preservation officer for the Quechan Indian Tribe. “There were many tribes that came here to trade, live, sing, worship.”
The undisturbed landscape stretching between mountains, known as a viewshed, is as precious to tribes as the fisherman itself. According to the BLM, seven of 18 viewsheds on or around La Posa Plain are sacred to various tribes.
But unlike the fisherman, sacred viewsheds aren’t protected.
By this time next year, a 653-foot solar tower – an industrial pipe taller than the Washington Monument – will rise from La Posa Plain if the Quartzsite Solar Energy Project earns BLM approval this summer. The top of the tower would be visible from Bouse Fisherman Intaglio and in other sacred viewsheds.
“You’re looking at having this alien structure dropped down in the middle of our traditional spiritual area,” Bathke said.
Solar plants and wind farms are spreading quickly throughout the American Southwest; so far in Arizona, the BLM has identified more than 237,000 acres of public land as optimal for renewable energy developments.
While there are laws that can preserve sites with Native American artifacts, none are devoted to protecting viewsheds. Tribes have little power to halt or stop developments on land they don’t own and are only consulted by the BLM about their connection to a potential project’s land, be it historical or spiritual.
But to Bathke and his tribe, whose reservation lies along the Colorado River near Yuma, that consultation is little more than a formality.
“Many of us – not just Quechans – feel like our concerns aren’t being taken seriously,” Bathke said.
By the time applications for renewable energy developments go through BLM and get to the tribes, they’ve become massive binders – or sets of binders – that include environmental impact statements. Tribes are asked to read through these 500-page studies and respond with comments within 30 days.
“It took two years for them to develop it. How are we supposed to respond in a month?” Bathke said.
After watching the federal government go forward with a series of wind farms and solar plants that various tribes of the Southwest opposed, the Quechans are beginning to fight back, calling for a more meaningful consultation process – one that better acknowledges their religious beliefs.
“We always have to justify our spiritual experience,” Bathke said. “What if someone wanted to put solar panels on the Vatican? Would that be acceptable?”
Bathke’s office is in a trailer atop a hill on the Quechan reservation, close to the police station and other government buildings. The fluorescent-lit room, lined with maps, doesn’t have enough shelf space for all of the binders with proposals to review.
The Quartsize Solar Energy Project on La Posa Plain is one of three major solar developments that the Quechans currently oppose.
For Bathke, the biggest irony is that Native Americans actually support renewable energy initiatives.
“Renewables are in agreement with a lot of traditional Native American values, such as developing a responsible relationship with the earth,” Bathke said. “But ideally we’d like to see projects on disturbed land that doesn’t disrupt traditional viewsheds.”
Most developers look first at land that has already been dug up, built on or used for agriculture. But such land only accounts for a fraction of Arizona’s desert.
“It’s kind of like the land rush of the 1800s,” Bathke said. “If we let one in and then the next, soon this area will just be one big solar panel.”
Like all environmental impact statements, the document for the Quartzite project includes reports of cultural resources found by archaeologists. These resources include anything associated with history or prehistory, from artifacts indicating significant historical events to sacred or religious sites.
The statement also includes a list of viewsheds in the project area and “sensitive viewers” – groups that would be affected by a change in a viewshed.