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Near Blythe, historian sees solar plants as threat to desert carvings

Alfredo Figueroa has made it his mission to guard huge carvings known as geoglyphs. His biggest concern was damage from off-roaders. Now he worries that solar energy plants could do even more harm.

April 24, 2010|By David Kelly, Los Angeles Times

After a rough ride through narrow desert washes, Alfredo Figueroa came to a clearing and ordered the vehicles to halt.

The giants were waiting.

Figueroa strode briskly across the plain.

Before him, clear lines in the stony sand formed a 200-foot-long image of the flute-playing Native American god Kokopelli. Beside him was Cicimitl, an Aztec spirit said to guide souls to the afterlife.

"No one has a clue that this stuff is out here," Figueroa said, picking his way around a massive foot.

The self-taught historian has made it his mission to guard these huge carvings in the earth known as geoglyphs. On this day, he brought in Aztec dancers to do a ritual cleansing of the site.

"Alfredo told me he needed our help," said Pastel, a shirtless, gray-haired dancer with rattles on his feet. "We are calling up and down in all directions, inviting the spirits to come."

Just a few miles and a world away from downtown Blythe's cheap motels and fast-food joints, they lighted a bowl of dried sage, beat the drums and began to summon the spirits under a pitiless sun.

Until recently, Figueroa's biggest concern was damage from off-roaders. Now he worries that solar energy plants could do even more harm.

Three major installations are planned in the vicinity of Blythe. The largest, a joint project of Solar Millennium and Chevron Energy Solutions, would spread mirrors over 7,030 acres of public land. Figueroa believes mirrors could be installed on top of Kokopelli and Cicimitl, or the geoglyphs could be fenced off, out of reach.

"That's completely false. The Kokopelli image is south of our proposed project, maybe a mile or two away," said Rachel McMahon, director of governmental affairs for Berkeley-based Solar Millennium. "The image is adjacent to our transmission line, but they don't interfere with each other."

Others have raised broader objections to proposed solar plants in the desert — as threats to habitats and as visual blight.

As champion of the geoglyphs, Figueroa is largely on his own — battling big business and the state over enigmatic etchings in the middle of nowhere.

"We are the guardians of these historic sites," he says fiercely. "We will fight tooth and nail to protect this."

Some geoglyphs, such as the nearby Blythe Intaglios, are well-known and already protected. Those large figures were made by scraping away the top layer of black rock, revealing lighter-colored, powdery soil beneath. One story says they represent giants who once dwelled on Earth and were warned not to fall down. When they did fall, they could not get up and ended up marooned on the desert floor.

Other geoglyphs, including Kokopelli and Cicimitl, are known only to intrepid desert rats and those who view them as central to their history.

"They are important to us and should be to all Americans …," said Charles Wood, chairman of the Chemihuevi tribe based on the California side of Lake Havasu. "They go back to the migration stories which to us are history, not myth."

The figures are easier to see from the air than from the ground. The Blythe Intaglios were discovered only in 1931 when they were spotted by a pilot.

Archaeologists have long debated the origins and age of the geoglyphs. Those near the Colorado River are thought to be perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 years old, while some deeper in the desert may be closer to 12,000.

McMahon, of Solar Millenium, contends that, based on aerial photography, historical maps and satellite imagery, Kokopelli was made no earlier than 1994.

"That doesn't mean it's not significant to some populations," she said. "It is not my intention to judge the intaglio. The point is our site doesn't interfere with it."

The Bureau of Land Management, which will decide whether to give solar projects access to public land, has been assessing the geoglyphs and working with the California Native American Heritage Commission to determine their sacred value.

"If a tribe has told us they consider those sites sacred, we will factor that into our decision…" said BLM archaeologist Rolla Queen. "We do what we can to avoid, minimize and reduce harm."

Independent archeologist Jeffrey Adams, who is documenting geoglyphs in the West for the BLM, said he's already catalogued 312, including Kokopelli.

"These geoglyphs are typically expressions of space and native spirituality," he said. "They tell stories and connect things."

For Figueroa, the story they tell is nothing short of epic.

Blythe may be a searing desert outpost, but this is his Garden of Eden, his place of creation, and these desert figures are its major characters. He is convinced they are 10,000 years old, made by ancient people who later migrated to Mexico.

Figueroa, who is of Yaqui, Pima and Chemehuevi heritage, goes further. He says the region around Blythe is Aztlan, the celebrated birthplace of the Aztecs.

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