Sunday, January 1, 2017

Clark County Leaders Look to Encourage More Sprawl

Clark County Commissioners seem intent on approving more urban sprawl in the Las Vegas Valley at a meeting on February 7.  On the meeting's agenda is a plan by Gypsum Resources to build a nearly 5,000-home community on top of Blue Diamond Hill on the edge of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a popular outdoor escape near Las Vegas, Nevada.  The County Commissioners have been advised by their own planning commission not to approve the project because the development would be a significant departure from the county's original master plan that requires the area remain low-density and rural.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area offers excellent hiking, camping, rock climbing, and cycling opportunities amidst stunning scenery for visitors and residents of nearby Las Vegas.
The County is suing a grassroots community group opposed to the Blue Diamond Hill sprawl in an effort to undermine opposition to the plans, suggesting the County Commissioners are on the side of the developer.  If built, the tract homes and businesses would be visible to visitors at Red Rock Canyon, increase light pollution, and add significant traffic congestion to nearby roads that are not designed to accommodate the proposed new population.  The Save Red Rock Canyon coalition enumerates the many other problems with the Blue Diamond Hill plan on their website.
The proposed development - in yellow - would have an "edge effect" on surrounding public lands, eroding the quality of wildlife habitat and encouraging even more sprawl. Image from development plans submitted to Clark County. [click on image to expand]
The County's intent to re-zone the nearly four square miles of land from rural to higher density seems unwise because of the development's location on the edge of the Las Vegas Valley.  Adding thousands of people at the fringe of the Las Vegas Valley would mean thousands of more cars on the roads, with residents driving further to reach jobs closer to the center of the metropolitan area.  The development would also require the allocation of more county resources - such as police, fire, new schools, etc. - than would otherwise be necessary if the population increase occurred closer to the city center where services could be augmented more efficiently and at less cost.

Map: Save Red Rock Canyon Coalition
Sprawl begets sprawl and approval of the Blue Diamond Hill development is likely to result in increased pressure on the Federal government to "dispose" of the adjacent public lands to accommodate even more development.  The construction of 5,000 homes next to public lands will have an edge effect that erodes the quality of the wildlife habitat on those lands.  Less biodiversity, more invasive species and soil erosion are examples of conditions likely to befall habitat immediately adjacent to human development.  Much of the land surrounding the Blue Diamond Hill development is public land, but an erosion of habitat quality on the adjacent public lands may become an excuse by political leaders and land managers to relinquish the public land to developers.

Congress and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have already identified other parcels of public lands around the Las Vegas Valley for such disposal. The Southern Nevada Land Management Act of 1998 directed the BLM to sell public land within a specific boundary around Las Vegas for private development.  The law was amended in 2002 to expand the boundary and add thousands of more acres of public lands to be eligible for future "disposal."  With pressure by some political leaders to transfer millions of acres of public lands to the state for development, it's likely that we will see additional adjustments to the Las Vegas "disposal boundary" that could facilitate further urban sprawl.

So the proposed development at Blue Diamond Hill should not be viewed as an isolated proposal, but as part of a chain reaction that is already in motion.   It is a high-density development at the edge of the Las Vegas Valley that will only serve as an anchor to encourage further sprawl.  Stopping this chain reaction of sprawl will require smarter planning by our local governments and the rejection of this development by the Clark County Commissioners.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Desert Monuments Anchor a Legacy as Future Looks Uncertain

President Obama designated two new desert monuments yesterday - Gold Butte in Nevada, and Bears Ears in Utah - barring unnecessary destruction on 1.65 million acres of public lands and preserving these landscapes of significance for recreation opportunities, cultural heritage, and wildlife.  The President's proclamation adds to several other desert monuments he has designated, including: Mojave Trails, Sand-to-Snow, and Castle Mountains in California, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico, and Basin and Range in Nevada.  (For an excellent resource on things to see and how to get around Gold Butte in Nevada, check out the birdandhike website.)

Petroglyphs in Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada. Photo from Department of Interior.

Conservation designations are a smart move as we find ourselves in the midst of a wildlife extinction crisis driven largely by habitat loss.  Biologist Edward Wilson has even proposed that a far more aggressive conservation effort is needed than the current pace of occasional monument designations.  But the political leadership coming into force next year on the coattails of President-elect Trump are gearing up to undermine the conservation gains we have made, and weaken the institutions that manage these lands for all of us.  

Within hours of Obama's designation of Bears Ears National Monument, Utah's Attorney General announced that he would sue the President over the monument.  Before Gold Butte was designated, Nevada lawmakers rekindled efforts to transfer at least 7.3 million acres of public lands managed by the Federal government to state control, where history has shown would almost certainly lead to increased destruction by extractive industry or other corrupt uses.  Other Republican lawmakers are preparing to mount attacks on the Antiquities Act, the very law that both Republic and Democratic presidents alike have used to protect amazing American wildlands.

After the next four years, we may be facing a new conservation landscape.  In the meantime,there will be plenty of opportunities to speak up and defend our wildlands.  Every voice will matter.

Gold Butte National Monument.  Photo from Friends of Gold Butte.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What Does A Trump Administration Mean for the Desert?

The outlook for desert wildlands is dismal under a Trump Administration, and we will have to be even more vigilant and vocal to stop Washington from undermining the legal and administrative pillars that protect our public lands and wildlife and to keep  bulldozers off of intact habitat.  I have been critical of some of the Obama Administration's choices and policies regarding wildlife and wildlands, but there was always give and take within the bounds of existing laws and a relatively strong role for science in how policies were formulated; that probably will not be the case under Trump.

Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress probably will slow or reverse progress we have made greenhouse gas emissions, and they will severely weaken or eliminate the legal and bureaucratic institutions that protect our wildlands and wildlife.  Science will be ignored in policy formulation and decision making. Budgets for the folks at the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency - the Federal arms that that manage public lands and keep our air and water clean - will be slashed further.
to reduce

Simply the way Trump talks about issues will endanger our national discourse on the environment, being dismissive of significant environmental challenges and deploying outright falsehoods to avoid having to actually consider policy solutions.  For example, during a trip to California Trump ridiculed efforts to balance water usage to protect endangered fish and the health of our waterways.  He even denied that California faced a drought that necessitated smarter water policies to begin with, a page out of George Orwell's 1984. Trump's practice of repeating lies as fact, and deriding scientific conclusions as conspiracies will likely continue, and they'll undermine our efforts to find a more efficient and sustainable way of life.

Leadership Appointments Are Just the Beginning
Trump's cabinet will be no friend of protecting the desert lands and wildlife that we enjoy.  Although Trump told Field & Stream that "[w]e have to be great stewards of this land,"  he is reportedly considering picks for Secretary of Interior that clearly signal distaste for conservation and favor unhindered, fast-track industrial development.   In addition to choosing a Secretary of Interior,  Trump's Administration will appoint 103 other senior executives to manage the day-to-day implementation of his and Congress' vision for our public lands.  Those appointees will have influence over the many components of Interior,  including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Desert tortoise in the western Mojave
These appointments have to follow existing laws like the Endangered Species Act (if it survives the
Republican-controlled Congress), and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.  But they can have significant latitude in how these laws are interpreted and implemented.  They can propose rules and regulations that undo conservation measures, and instead favor streamlined industrial exploitation of the land.  They can slow-roll or deny protections to endangered species.

Out west, our public lands are managed according to land use plans that are reviewed and revised periodically, and Trump's appointees can cast significant influence over the direction of these plans.  Land use plans determine what areas are protected for recreation and wildlife conservation, and which are managed for heavier industrial development.

You can expect a similar degradation in how the Environmental Protection Agency is run.  Trump has tapped Myron Ebell to lead the EPA.  Mr. Ebell denies that climate change is a problem, despite overwhelming scientific consensus that indeed our planet is warming and leading to all sorts of severe weather patterns and disruptive changes to wildlife habitat.  Mr. Ebell - a man who disregards science - will be the lead administrator overseeing how we regulate pollution.

Energy Permits Likely to Increase
Ivanpah Solar

The common assumption is that renewable energy development on public lands will suffer under President Trump, but I would argue the opposite.  Although Trump has derided some utility-scale wind energy development as aesthetically displeasing, his leadership appointments are likely to favor an "all of the above" energy platform that doesn't turn away any corporate interests willing to play the lobbying game in Washington.  The key hurdle to utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands will remain financing, and that is largely driven by the renewable portfolio standards adopted by the states and tax credits set by Congress.  Renewable portfolio standards are (appropriately) on an upward march, and even a Republican Congress has extended tax credits for renewable energy development.  So it's not unrealistic to expect that utility-scale renewable energy projects will continue apace.

Although not common in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, fossil fuel drilling does occur in the Great Basin and Chihuahan deserts.  The Trump Administration probably will lift regulations on natural gas and oil drilling.  More broadly, fossil fuel use will pose an overarching threat to all of our desert wildlands since burning these fuels contributes to extreme weather patterns that upend the ecological balances on landscapes we cherish.

Congressional Action Poses Long Term Risk to Conservation
Trump's Administration will do some damage with the way it manages our public lands, but what Congress does to our public lands and wildlife probably will have deeper and more lasting impacts.  The Republican-controlled Congress is likely to take advantage of having Trump in the White House and pass legislation it could not get through the White House under Obama.  Looking at the past few years of attempted Congressional efforts to undermine conservation as a guide, you can expect Congress to try to restrict or toss out the Antiquities Act.  Presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect some of our most cherished landscapes, including the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park.

Congress is also determined to dispose of public lands by handing them over to the states, and there are bills in Congress right now that would do just that.  One bill would transfer millions of acres of desert wildlands to the state of Nevada, which would inevitably sell the land to private interests or open them up to more industrial development.  Another bill would let states decide what to do with energy resources on public lands, which would turn our open landscapes into an industrial free-for-all.

The Endangered Species Act is also under the gun, and Congress has already repeated tried to roll back protections for animals that need them, such as wolves and sage grouse.  Any animal that gets in the way of an energy project or housing development is likely to be targeted by lobbyists in Washington seeking to smooth the way for corporate interests.  Congress can continue to attack protections for individual species, or may attempt to rewrite the Endangered Species Act altogether in a way that weakens the law.

Other wildlife protection laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) may also come under attack in Congress.  A Republican Congressperson from South Carolina has tried repeatedly to pass legislation that would bar the Department of Justice from enforcing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, giving companies a blank check to build risky and destructive energy projects in key bird habitat.

Congress' role setting the Federal budget will also have sweeping impacts.  It has been a fight just to appropriately fund the National Park Service, with infrastructure maintenance being deferred at some of our most popular parks.  Will we see relief under a Congress that falsely tells voters that national parks and monuments represent "land grabs?" You can also expect Congress to cut funds to the Environmental Protection Agency and its programs that enforce clean air and water rules.

What's Next?
We will have to be more vigilant than ever and speak up for our desert wildlands whenever the White House and Congress consider weakening these pillars of conservation.  We have to vote for officials - from the local level all the way to our Federal representatives - that understand the importance of keeping public lands in public hands, and protecting our natural open spaces for the current and future generations.  When we're not at the ballot box, we should be voting with our wallets.  Making energy efficient homes and businesses a priority so that we are not dependent on dirty and destructive power plants. Buying the goods we need from companies that respect our wildlands, or just not purchasing at all to lead a less materialistic way of life.  Last but not least - vote with your hiking boots.  We should get outside and enjoy our wildlands  - we will need the strength and inspiration for the fight we have ahead of us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Does The Military Really Need More Desert Bombing Ranges?

The Department of Defense's recent request to close off additional public lands in Nevada is simply unreasonable in light of the vast amount of land already available to the military for testing and training purposes.  The military is preparing to ask Congress to expand two of its test and training ranges in Nevada by as much as 1,416 square miles, including portions of popular public lands outside of Las Vegas. 

The military has not explained why the 21,000 square miles of existing test and training ranges throughout the southwestern states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico are not sufficient (this total does not count other training ranges in other states and the Pacific Ocean, or smaller military facilities in the southwestern states). At this early stage in the environmental review process, the military has only explained that expanding the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR) would “improve the range’s capacity to support testing and training.” For the proposed expansion of the Fallon Range Training Complex, the military contends that it needs new lands to accommodate newer technology weapons.  Neither of the proposals consider the use of existing military ranges in the region.

Current Nellis Range A "Straitjacket"?
The Nellis Test and Training Range expansion would include wildlife habitat currently protected by the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and open to the public for 4x4 touring, camping and hiking.  The Air Force told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it needs to close public access to additional portions of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge to install new radars and threat-emitters for training simulations.  The Air Force has already prohibited public access to half of the Refuge, which itself is only a portion of the total Nellis Test and Training Range.  The Air Force claimed that the current training range, totalling 4,608 square miles, is a "straitjacket," an incredulous statement considering that the range is already as large as Los Angeles County!

The military is conducting an environmental analysis and will solicit public comment, before asking Congress to legislatively expand the ranges.  If approved by Congress, the Nevada land withdrawals would be the latest in a series of expansions over the past two decades, surpassing the size of training ranges needed for conflicts and wars over the past century. The total area of training ranges in the southwestern states alone surpasses the 18,000 square miles of land that General Patton used to train troops during World War II.  War has become more automated and precise since World War II, but apparently this still requires a lot more land?

Military Already Prohibits Access to Vast Expanses of the West
Below is a list of the significant test and training ranges in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.  Public access is prohibited or extremely limited across these ranges:

  • China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station (Navy) - 1,718 square miles
  • Fort Irwin National Training Center (Army) - 1,000 square miles
  • Edwards Air Force Base (Air Force) - 481 square miles
  • Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center (Marines) - 1,136 square miles
  • Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range (Navy and Marines)  - 712 square miles
  • Nellis Test and Training Range (Air Force) - 4,608 square miles (not including new request for an additional 471 square miles)
  • Fallon Range Training Complex (Navy) - 316 (not including pending request for an addition 945 square miles)
  • Yuma Proving Ground (Army)  - 1,300 square miles
  • Barry Goldwater Range (Air Force) - 2,968 square miles
  • Utah Test and Training Range (Air Force and Army) - 2,624 square miles 
New Mexico
  • White Sands Missile Range (Army) - 3,200 square miles 
  • McGregor Range (Army) - 947 square miles
Although the Department of Defense makes an effort to protect critical wildlife habitat within its test and training ranges, some impacts are inevitable and strain already besieged wildlife species. Consider the plans by the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center to displace over 1,100 desert tortoises to make way for its recently approved expanded training area in the Johnson Valley of California.

Desert bighorn sheep. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service
If the Air Force is allowed to expand operations in the Desert Wildlife Refuge, they will inevitably harm desert wildlife such as bighorn sheep.  Increased low-level flight activity and possibly even the use of live munitions would scare or endanger wildlife in the area.   The Department of Defense should undertake a serious review of its testing and training ranges to see where it can leverage existing facilities operated by the various military services, instead of each service staking claim to its own corner of America to bomb and strafe our mountains, valleys, and wildlife.

You can find additional documents and the schedule for public comments for the proposed Nellis and Fallon range expansions at the following sites:

Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) Military Land Withdrawal Legislative Environmental Impact Statement Project Website

Fallon Range Training Complex Modernization Website

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What to Watch For in the DRECP Announcement

The Secretary of Interior on Wednesday will finalize the Federal portion of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) after years of effort by Federal, State, and local agencies to identify which lands will be conserved for future generations, and which lands will be zoned for utility-scale renewable energy projects.

Interior released the final environmental analysis for the plan in November 2015.  Wednesday's roll out of a Record of Decision normally would constitute a rubber stamp approval of that analysis and officially put the plan into effect, but there are indications that Interior has tinkered further with the plan.  Here are some things to look for in the announcement, broken down by different stakeholders calls for changes to the plan:

Not Enough Destruction Zones: The renewable energy industry has loudly complained that the 600+ square miles of new industrial zones – known as Development Focus Areas (DFA) – that the DRECP is expected to designate in the California desert is not enough. They want more “flexibility” to build a project wherever they please, which is ironic because that is the same problem that necessitated the DRECP in the first place.  As California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas stated, "large-scale renewable energy, especially on public land, is not the only game in town.”
 It just doesn't seem like industry got the message. 

According to a statement given to the Press-Enterprise, Interior may have made changes to the plan to address industry concerns.  Although we do not yet know what those changes are,  Interior could have loosened some of the siting guidelines that were designed to minimize impacts on wildlife and sensitive habitats.  It is also possible that Interior added more DFA lands, a move that would certainly rankle local residents and desert conservationists.  I think it is less than likely for Interior to add DFAs in the Record of Decision, but if they do they may also add additional conservation designations in other areas.  In order to justify the added DFAs, Interior would have to select lands analyzed in one of its previous alternatives for DFA potential.  I would especially keep an eye on any lands identified in the final environmental analysis as variance lands for potential to switch to DFAs.

Ideally Interior would do nothing to placate industry's over wrought concerns because 1.) 600+ square miles of DFAs is more than enough, 2.) is in addition to the vast swaths of desert already industrialized for large solar and wind projects, 3.) and is in addition to the hundreds of square miles of potential private land locations for renewable energy projects.

Construction crews remove old growth desert habitat for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project in California.

No Destruction Necessary: This is the position of many residents of the region and groups like Basin & Range Watch and the Desert Protective Council.  They point to the fact that the right policies can encourage distributed clean energy generation in our backyards, on our rooftops, and over parking lots, without the need to destroy desert wild lands.  A UCLA study has identified enough rooftop solar potential in Los Angeles County alone to meet the region's clean energy needs.  And this does not count the potential for solar car ports covering existing parking lots or larger solar projects on already-disturbed lands.

Doubling down on policies that incentivize rooftop solar, projects on already-disturbed lands, and distributed storage solutions seem like a no-brainer because they make the grid more resilient, cut the need for expensive transmission lines, and spare our wildlands from destruction.  But Interior has made it clear that they plan to facilitate the construction of utility-scale energy projects on otherwise intact desert wildlands to satisfy political demands and cater to an industry that mirrors the fossil fuel empire's appetite for public lands.

A simple and beautiful solution to climate change.  Generating clean energy closest to the point of use.  On our homes and businesses.
The Plan is (Almost) Perfect:  Other environmental organizations have urged Interior to bolster some conservation measures in the plan, but otherwise are eager for Interior to finalize the plan before the next administration (which may not be as willing to bestow the conservation designations included in the plan depending on the election outcome).   After Interior revealed the final environmental analysis,  environmentalists called on Interior to specify that unallocated lands were off limits to renewable energy development. Without this clarification, 1,253 square miles of unallocated lands - areas not designated as DFAs or conservation areas - could be a back door to utility-scale energy development.

Environmentalists also called on Interior to extend conservation designations to areas identified as important habitat but left unallocated in the final analysis. These lands include the Soda Mountain area near Baker, desert tortoise habitat west of Ludlow, and remote desert pockets near Death Valley. Again, it is less than likely Interior will significantly adjust land designations in the Record of Decision. If they do add conservation designations, you can expect to see a commensurate addition of DFAs.

Next Steps?
We don't know if Jewell will mention plans for Phase II of the DRECP that will focus on identifying private lands for conservation or renewable energy development.

In many ways, the first phase of the DRECP was a simpler task because it focuses on public lands, for which Interior has the administrative capacity to confer land use designations. Phase II will require much more work with multiple counties to ensure that plans reflect each county's vision for development and conservation. That's no easy task as county decision makers face backlash not only for industrializing open space, but also criticism from business if they support conservation measures.

Conservation of private lands will also require money to either buy the lands outright or purchase conservation easements. But some of these lands are critically important and vulnerable to development. The initial DRECP analysis identified thousands of acres of private lands that would need to be protected in San Bernardino County to preserve a key wildlife corridor near Lucerne Valley. And Los Angeles County is home to thousands of acres of unprotected desert grassland and dwindling Joshua tree and juniper habitat near Palmdale.

Joshua tree woodland habitat in the western Mojave has been bulldozed to make way for urban sprawl and renewable energy development, much of it on private land.

And with Interior considering listing the Joshua Tree as an endangered species, just look at the Joshua tree habitat under assault in the western Mojave by urban sprawl and renewable energy development across Kern, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties. Much of it on private land. And herein lies the challenge for Phase II: how do we protect important habitat that currently remains intact on private land, but is often more important to counties as a tax base than a place to preserve biodiversity?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Air Force May Reduce Public Access in Nevada Wildlife Refuge

The Department of the Air Force is proposing to withdrawal an additional 301,507 acres (approximately 471 square miles) of public land to expand the already-massive Nevada Test and Training Range.  The proposed withdraw will likely involve restricting public access and degrading important wildlife habitat, including lands in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge near Las Vegas, and also parcels in the upper Amargosa Valley north of Beatty, Nevada (see map below).   This effort is separate from proposed legislation currently sitting in Congress that would withdrawal even more land from the Refuge.

Morning rain showers obscure the Sheep Range in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.  The Air Force is proposing to withdrawal hundreds of square miles of additional desert wildlands on the Refuge and elsewhere in southern Nevada to reserve for training activities.
The Air Force is in the initial stages of its environmental review process, and will be sharing more details about its plans at public scoping meetings in October.  However, a study conducted for the Air Force and published online earlier this year suggests the Air Force wants greater flexibility to place ground targets in lands in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.  It is not clear why the existing training range is insufficient; it already provides the Air Force with 2.9 million acres of land in Nevada. The use of live munitions in the Air Force's training scenarios would not only impact bighorn sheep habitat, but probably will require that the withdrawn lands exclude public access.

What Will Happen to Alamo Road?

One of the Air Force's proposed expansions would cover significant portions of Alamo Road, a 70-mile dirt road that traverses the refuge starting near the Corn Creek Visitor Center and ending near the town of Alamo and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge up north.  The road offers a rugged, natural escape across beautiful desert wildlands.  If the land is withdrawn, it is possible that public access will be restricted on this road, or prohibited entirely.

Mark Your Calendar and Attend A Public Scoping Meeting

According to the Notice of Intent published in the Federal Register, the Air Force plans to hold five public scoping meetings from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., on the dates and at the locations listed below.
  • Wednesday, October 12, 2016: Beatty Community Center, 100 A Avenue South, Beatty, NV 89003
  • Thursday, October 13, 2016: Tonopah Convention Center, 301 Brougher Avenue, Tonopah, NV 89049 
  • Tuesday, October 18, 2016: Caliente Elementary School, 289 Lincoln Street, Caliente, NV 89008 
  • Wednesday, October 19, 2016: Pahranagat Valley High School, 151 S. Main Street, Alamo, NV 89001 
  • Thursday, October 20, 2016: Aliante Hotel, 7300 Aliante Parkway, North Las Vegas, NV 89084
The agenda for each scoping meeting is as follows:
5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.—Open House and comment submission
6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.—Air Force Presentation
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.—Open House and comment submission resumes

See the below map provided by the Department of Defense depicting the proposed withdrawal lands, and stay tuned for more information.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

County Rejects Environmental Certification of Soda Mountain Solar

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject the environmental analysis of the Soda Mountain Solar project, placing a significant hurdle in the path of a project that would have threatened important wildlife habitat next to the Mojave National Preserve.  Supervisors Lovingood, Gonzales, and Rutherford expressed concern during a lengthy meeting today that the environmental analysis was inadequate and did not address the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's input regarding impacts on desert bighorn sheep.  During closing comments, Supervisor Lovingood pointed out that projects of this scale would be better located on already-disturbed lands in the County, and mentioned specific sites as examples.

Desert bighorn sheep perched on the slopes of Soda Mountain in the Mojave National Preserve.  The Soda Mountain Solar project would have been built nearby, threatening opportunities to restore bighorn sheep habitat connectivity across Interstate-15 and jeopardizing groundwater that may feed critical natural springs.
Regenerate Power,  the company that now owns the Soda Mountain Solar proposal after corporate behemoth Bechtel pulled out of the project, proposed to build the project along Interstate-15 and next to the Mojave National Preserve.  However, the location chosen for the project overlaps with an area being studied by biologists as an opportunity to restore connectivity for desert bighorn sheep.  The Interstate has acted as a genetic barrier to the bighorn sheep since it was constructed, and has begun to isolate sheep populations to the north and south.  Biologists are looking at ways that a wildlife overpass, artificial water sources, and modified culverts under the highway could re-connect sheep populations across the highway.  But the solar project could threaten these opportunities.

During the Supervisor meeting today, the public also expressed concern that the project's groundwater use would impact wildlife.  The Soda Mountain Solar project would require as much as 156.4 million gallons of groundwater during the 30 month construction period.  Once built, the project would require as much as 10.7 million gallons of water each year for panel washing and dust suppression during regular operation and maintenance, according to the final environmental impact statement.  This water use may jeopardize groundwater that also supplies natural springs used by a multitude of desert wildlife, including a rare desert fish and bighorn sheep.

The vote was an impressive reflection of persistent public demand for a smarter, more sustainable deployment of renewable energy.  The vote was also a rejection of the fast-track environmental review process that often accepts unnecessary risks to wildlife and wildlands, catering to industry while ignoring more efficient alternatives, such as solar on already-disturbed lands, on rooftops, and over parking lots.

Nearly 3 square miles of this intact desert habitat may now be spared after the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors rejected the environmental certification of the Soda Mountain Solar project.  Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Road to Recovery for Declining Tortoise Population Increasingly Narrow

The desert tortoise population continues to experience a significant decline, despite 26 years of recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act.  Since 2004 - years into the recovery effort - the overall population has declined by nearly 32%, and the decline is even steeper in certain portions of the tortoise's range.

This startling trend is not evident in the Department of Interior's public posture, which is optimistic on the ability of landscape-level planning to protect habitat linkages and project-level mitigation to offset local population losses.  A closer examination of land management and mitigation practices calls into question Interior's resolve to arrest the decline of the desert tortoise as its habitat becomes increasingly fragmented.

Tortoise Population Spirals Downward
When the desert tortoise was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, initial research and anecdotal evidence suggested human impacts were chiefly responsible for driving down the tortoise population by as much as 90% in the preceding hundred years (Berry, Kristin; Status of the Desert Tortoise in the United States).  The accuracy of the estimate from that 1984 study has been questioned by some, but none doubted that the tortoise had indeed experienced a significant population decline by the early 1980s.

Advanced research looking at the status of the desert tortoise since just 2004, however, has revealed a continued decline despite the efforts of many conservation groups and agencies to stabilize its population. Evaluation of the tortoise's status across its range - which spans parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah - is broken down into five "recovery units."  Only one of five recovery units experienced a population increase. The overall population decline between 2004 and 2014 is estimated at 32%, with localized declines of as much as 67%.
A chart that will be further explained below shows downward population trends. We have been attempting to stabilize and recover the desert tortoise population for 26 years.  In the past ten years alone the species has continued a significant population decline throughout much of its range, with the exception of the northeastern Mojave.  Although, now, the northeastern Mojave faces significant development pressures.
The steepest declined occured in the Eastern Mojave Recovery Unit, where Interior has permitted four utility-scale solar projects in the narrow portion of a key habitat linkage.  Between 2004 and 2014, the tortoise population here dropped by 67%, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report.  That is the estimated decline during just a portion of the 26 years that the desert tortoise has been listed as Federally protected, and millions of dollars spent on its recovery. Other habitat linkages in the Amargosa and Pahrump Valleys iare now threatened by other proposed energy projects.

In the Western Mojave Recovery Unit, the tortoise population as declined by as much as 51% since 2004.  The is where a checkerboard of Federal and private land poses a challenge to unified conservation efforts, and urban sprawl and transportation projects chip away at habitat connectivity. Urban sprawl around the Victor and Lucerne Valleys, the expansion of training areas for the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, and the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area all threaten to significantly fragment habitat and isolate tortoise populations over time.

In the Colorado Desert Recovery Unit, the tortoise has experienced a 36% decline since 2004.  The protection of some of its habitat in the newly designated Mojave Trails National Monument may help maintain some linkages that had previously been targeted by energy development.   The Upper Virgin River Recovery Unit has seen a 27% decline; tortoise habitat around Saint George is in the crosshairs of sprawl and road development.  Only the Northeastern Recovery Unit between Las Vegas and Utah has seen a significant population gain - a 270% increase - but these gains may be in peril as a key linkage may be affected by the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone and energy projects being permitted in the area.

Keeping Habitat Linkages: Incredibly Important, Increasingly Difficult
Other studies of the tortoise's status also caution that it is difficult to extrapolate rangewide health from the current numbers because we should think of the tortoise not as a species that fills the desert uniformly, but slowly occupies and disappears from patches of the desert over time (although the apparent decline throughout the majority of its range is what is most troubling). But the tortoise's ability to maintain this population dance - natural population variation across its entire range - requires habitat connectivity.  Once connectivity to a certain portion of its range is lost, that local population may die off and not be re-populated later because tortoises can no longer naturally reach that patch of habitat.  The more we fragment the tortoise's range, the more difficult it will be for the species to maintain healthy populations without significant human intervention.

A key study published in 2013 by Roy Averill-Murray and other experts identifying remaining habitat linkages also calls out proposed energy development that could jeopardize them.  Some of these linkages are the best remaining alternative because other natural linkages have been foreclosed by previous development, such as off-highway vehicle recreation areas, military training and urban sprawl.

A map included in a study published by Herpetological Conservation and Biology shows the "least cost" tortoise habitat corridors in black, with pending renewable energy development in red and yellow. Some corridors are not

The likelihood of protecting these linkages seem slim, especially because the Department of Interior seems pressured to push the limits of desert tortoise survival, allowing development to overtake or threaten tortoise habitat linkages.  Most recently we saw Interior attempting to identify the minimum width necessary for habitat linkages to remain viable - hardly a conservative approach toward protecting the long-term viability of this species in decline.  The Averill-Murray study aptly sums up why this approach is problematic:
"Limited guidance is available for determining precise linkage widths, but minimum widths for corridor dwellers such as the Mojave Desert Tortoise should be substantially larger than a home range diameter (Beier et al. 2008). Inevitably, however, questions will be asked about what is the minimum width for a particular desert tortoise linkage, what is the relevant home range size from which to estimate that minimum width, and what are the minimum sampling considerations in estimating home ranges (cf. Harless et al. 2010). We agree with Beier et al. (2008) that this is analogous to asking an engineer, “what are the fewest number of rivets that might keep this wing on the airplane?” A more appropriate question for conservation is “what is the narrowest width that is not likely to be regretted after the adjacent area is converted to human use?”" -Conserving Population Linkages for the Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus Agassizii), 2013
The Department of Interior did not get the memo.  It proudly announced in 2014 that it approved permits for First Solar to construct the the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects in the eastern Mojave Desert, despite concerns that the projects would significantly narrow a key tortoise linkage by destroying nearly six and a half square miles of intact habitat.  Interior ignored initial advice from the Fish and Wildlife Service and pressured biologists to justify the narrowest corridor possible.  At the end of the day, First Solar was required to pitch in some money to protect desert tortoise habitat elsewhere, and monitor the status of tortoises that it displaced for the sake of the project.  Long-term, however, the viability of this linkage made narrower by the solar projects is now in question.

The Silver State South and North Solar project pictured above significantly narrowed a key habitat linkage in the Ivanpah Valley.  Two other solar projects nearby further impacted the Ivanpah Valley's tortoise population.

Elsewhere, the BLM's draft Las Vegas Resource Management Plan proposed three new solar energy zones within or on the edges of key tortoise linkages in southern Nevada.  Other wildlands in the Pahrump Valley considered "priority 2" tortoise habitat under the Solar Programmatic EIS are being targeted by utility-scale solar developers and new transmission lines.

Considering the importance of threatened habitat linkages - those we have identified and those that we have not - it seems possible that the tortoise could slowly become extinct from portions of its range that are already highly fragmented, unless humans artificially intervene to stabilize populations and ensure genetic exchange. This seems to be far from the point of the Endangered Species Act - instead of recovering a species we are essentially managing its decline.  To sculpt down and chop up tortoise habitat, and then keep the remaining populations on life support.

Local Mitigation a Short-Term Bandage on a Gaping Wound
Tortoise translocation has seen a lot of press over the past few years.  Reporters tagged along with BrightSource Energy staff as they relocated tortoises displaced by the Ivanpah Solar project, and newspapers highlighted the delayed plans by the US Marine Corps to relocate tortoises from a newly-designated training area in the eastern Johnson Valley.   But despite years and multiple translocation efforts, Interior's management of tortoise translocation seems haphazard, guided by a patchwork of research with uneven implementation and results.

New research helps provide some parameters to guide translocation efforts to reduce tortoise deaths in the months and years following relocation.  A recent study suggest that tortoises relocated to habitat nearby fare better than those relocated long distances, specifically looking at the fate of some tortoises relocated from the Ivanpah Solar project.   When tortoises are removed from their home range, they become more active and spend more time looking for burrows or forage, according to the study.  The study says that eventually they'll settle into a new routine and probably wont be as vulnerable.
Not all tortoises are as lucky as this juvenile (center of photo, just above GPS device placed for reference), spotted coincidentally after bulldozers already began destroying its habitat to make way for the Stateline Solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.  Most juvenile tortoises probably are not spotted during clearance surveys, and are crushed during construction.
Previous research suggests drought at the time of relocation worsen's a tortoise's survival chances, making them more vulnerable to natural predators.   Despite research suggesting some relocation efforts can be implemented successfully, an examination of recent translocations suggests results are uneven, and translocation efforts across Interior seem disjointed.  That said, just getting a hold of translocation results can be difficult; some offices are happy to dig up data while others require FOIA requests.

For example, the Department of Interior in June of 2012 announced that it approved the Moapa Solar project on the tribal trust land of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians.  Since then, bulldozers have cleared over three square miles of intact desert habitat to make way for photovoltaic solar panels - the same technology that companies can also install on rooftops or as shade structures over existing parking lots.  Little public scrutiny was accorded to the environmental review of the Moapa Solar project, shepherded by Interior's Bureau of Indian Affiars.   The project's environemntal impact statement and biological opinion required that tortoises found on the project site be relocated to nearby habitat and for the data to be reported to the Department of Interior.

Initial efforts to obtain the information on the status of tortoises displaced by the Moapa Solar project were rejected, and Interior indicated that the information belonged to the solar developer.  This same type of data is routinely made available for other projects approved by the Department of Interior.  Eventually the information was released by the company and it was not good news.  According to information submitted by First Solar to the Fish and Wildlife Service, at least 22 desert tortoises of a total of 66 translocated tortoises had died as of 2015 after being displaced by the massive project.  Another nine could not be found.  That's a significant failure rate, even though the translocation should have benefitted from knowledge gained during other translocations.

Another problem with these numbers is that they do not provide the full picture of impacts on the tortoises.  Approximately 90 additional tortoises were passively excluded because biologists determined that at least a portion of their territory existed outside the project boundary.  But those tortoises are still losing some of their habitat and are likely exposed to additional stresses as a result of the project.  The data made available by First Solar does not discuss the fate of these excluded tortoises.

Who Is Tracking All of the Tortoises?
Not all projects result in a mortality rate as bad as the Moapa Solar project.  But it's not clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service is enforcing standards in how translocations are monitored and evaluated.  In response to correspondence with multiple offices across Interior, I have found that data on translocation efforts can come from private contractors, the Bureau of Land Management Field Offices, Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the Fish and Wildlife Service.   The data for each project almost always is provided in a different format.   There is a central website for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Desert Tortoise Recovery Office, but I was never pointed to a central office that might track translocation efforts across Interior's many jurisdictions.

For the Ivanpah Solar project translocation, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to compare results to a control population of tortoises to determine if the translocated tortoises are susceptible to a higher degree of mortality than those elsewehere in the same area.  When I asked Fish and Wildlife Service if the current results revealed a statistically significant different, they had not yet done the analysis.  But at least they had the data.  The Moapa Solar project translocation monitoring data made available by First Solar did not include information on a control group with which it could be compared.  So there is no way for the public to know which translocation efforts are succeeding or failing, or by how much.

Another difference I found was that Fish and Wildlife Service established a "take threshold" for translocated tortoises -  a maximum allowable number of tortoises that might perish after relocation - for the purpose of some energy projects in the Ivanpah Valley.  If mortality of translocated animals exceeded the threshold, they would have to re-initiate consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if anything different needed to be done to ensure that translocation was more successful.  Based on correspondence with Interior, it does not sound like a take threshhold was established for the animals translocated to make way for the Moapa Solar project.  It's not clear why Interior would establish a threshhold for some projects but not others.
A tortoise prepares to cross a two-lane road in the Mojave Desert.  A form a habitat fragmentation, but not as serious as some of the wider highways, urban sprawl, and massive energy projects.
Most of the public's attention may be focused on occassional news stories about specific projects or translocation efforts, a public relations battle that Interior fights with sometimes upbeat reviews of its own mitigation and translocation efforts. But the public's - and most likely Interior's - grasp of translocation effectiveness seems elusive.

Regardless of the effectiveness of translocation on a project-specific level, the overall tortoise population remains in trouble.  It seems that land managers are actively and passively making decisions that sculpt down the tortoise's range, ignoring a drumbeat of research on the importance of key habitat linkages and accepting the risk that the tortoise may struggle to inhabit or go extinct from portions of its range over the long-term.