Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yellow Pine Project Threatens Wildlands in Nevada

NextEra Energy is proposing to build a 250 megawatt solar project in Nevada's Pahrump Valley that would destroy 4.6 square miles of intact desert habitat on public land.  The project would further push the distance that residents of the Las Vegas area will travel to experience desert wildlands not scarred by industrial-scale energy projects.  The Ivanpah, El Dorado, and Moapa areas to the south and north of Las Vegas have lost approximately 21 square miles of desert habitat to industrial-scale solar development in the past few years.

Approximate area under consideration by NextEra for the Yellow Pine Solar project in the Pahrump Valley.  The total application area covers over 9,000 acres, and the final project would destroy approximately 3,000 acres of the parcel.

Some of the lands being considered for the project host desert tortoises already relocated once from a Clark County sanctuary, meaning the animals that survived the initial translocation will again be jeopardized, according to Basin &Range Watch.  Even before the tortoise translocation, the lands had been identified during Fish and Wildlife Service as a priority desert tortoise connectivity area.

The Yellow Pine Solar project will also require substantial water for construction and maintenance in a groundwater basin that is already severely over drafted.  Although the project does not currently have a power purchase agreement, Nevada's utility company has favored destructive centralized power plant and has funded attacks on rooftop solar.  This is despite the fact that analysis has soundly concluded that rooftop solar provides a net benefit to the grid.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Eagle Mountain: Confronting the Industrial Juggernauts

Please Take Action:  Send an e-mail by May 27, 2016 to " " asking the National Park Service to restore the maximum allowable acreage of the Eagle Mountain area to Joshua Tree National Park.

The National Park Service is considering restoring lands removed from what was then Joshua Tree National Monument in the 1950s (it did not become a National Park until 1994), but that restoration may not stop one more giant industrial project from moving forward in the Eagle Mountain area.   The land in question was originally removed from the Monument by Congress to allow for the expansion of the Eagle Mountain Mine, but that mine is no longer in operation.  Although the massive open pit remains, surrounding desert wildlands still provide important habitat for wildlife, including an important desert bighorn sheep corridor.  The Park Service is accepting public comments until May 27, 2016.

Mining, Sanitation, and now Energy Industries Stake Claims on Joshua Tree's Eagle Mountain

Eagle Mountain was within the original Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936, but it was removed in 1950 to cater to the mining and steel industries.  The National Park Service's consideration of restoring most of the lands to Joshua Tree National Park would bring more certainty that this wildlife habitat will be managed for conservation rather than profit.
  • Joshua Tree National Monument was established in 1936 after a grassroots campaign led by Minerva Hoyt urged President Roosevelt to protect the beautiful desert wildlands that were threatened by human activity, including the mass removal of cacti for gardens and the ridiculous practice of torching Joshua Trees to guide motorists at night.
Joshua Tree National Monument boundary as established in 1936.  The Eagle Mountain Area of current concern is highlighted in red. Map by the National Park Service.
  • America's demand for steel forced the National Park Service in 1948 to grant conditional use permits to industrialist Henry Kaiser for the Iron Chief mine in what was then Joshua Tree National Monument.  The Iron Chief mine was the smaller predecessor to the Eagle Mountain Mine.
  • In 1950, Congress withdrew thousands of acres from the Monument to make them available for large-scale mining operations, including the Eagle Mountain Mine.  The iron ore was sent to Kaiser's steel mill in Fontana, where processing resulted in significant air pollution.

Congress eviscerated Joshua Tree National Monument with Public Law 81-837, making thousands of acres of the Monument available to mining. Map by the National Park Service.
  • Competition from cheaper overseas steel and efforts to reduce air pollution resulted in the closure of Kaiser Steel mills in Fontana and the associated Eagle Mountain Mine next to Joshua Tree in the 1980s.
  • In 1989, Kaiser proposed to turn the open pit mine into a giant landfill for Los Angeles, seeking to import thousands of tons of garbage by truck.   The landfill would depend upon a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management.

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 established Joshua Tree as a National Park, and restored some of the lands originally taken from the Monument in 1950.  But The Eagle Mountain landfill proposal prevented the return of the Eagle Mountain area to the Park. Map by the National Park Service.
  • After nearly two decades of legal wrangling, Los Angeles dropped plans to send its trash to Joshua Tree in 2013.
  • Kaiser Sells its mining claims to Eagle Crest, a company with another idea for the massive open pits of the old mine.
The Landfill Proposal Fades, but Energy Projects Loom
The landfill proposal was not the end to the Eagle Mountain saga.  After the landfill failure Kaiser sold its patented claims to Eagle Crest.  The Eagle Crest company wants to build a hydroelectric pumped storage project on the mine.   Another developer is proposing to build a utility-scale wind project on the Eagle Mountain lands that Congress removed from Joshua Tree in 1950, although that is not as far along as Eagle Crest.

Eagle Crest's plan is to fill one of the mine's lower open pits with groundwater.  When utility-scale solar and wind projects in the area generate excess clean energy that the grid cannot absorb, that energy would be used to pump the Eagle Crest water to another open pit at a higher elevation.  When the grid needs that energy again, the water would flow back to the lower pit through turbines, generating hydropower energy.  The project could use as much as 32 billion gallons of groundwater over its lifetime.  This is a seemingly frivolous use of water in a parched area, especially considering that excess renewable energy production could also be smoothed out with battery storage and demand response.

Although the National Park Service's proposed boundary change may not put an end to the Eagle Crest project, it would at least protect the surrounding wildlands that still serve as foraging habitat and corridors for wildlife.  Below is a map of the National Park Service's preferred alternative for the adjustment of the Joshua Tree National Park boundary in the Eagle Mountain area.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Wind Project To Be Crammed In Amidst Wilderness and Wildlife

Sweden-based company Eolus is reviving plans to build the Crescent Peak Wind project in southern Nevada on wildlands prized for wildlife and primitive recreation.  Basin & Range Watch learned that the company filed initial paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin environmental review of the project.
This photo was taken along the northeastern boundary of the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area. The Crescent Peak area is in the distance on the right, and would be covered in giant wind turbines if Eolus gets its way.
Solitude or Industrial Zone?
Eolus is targeting a patchwork of unprotected lands in the Piute Valley that the BLM acknowledges are ideal for primitive recreation, and surrounded by conservation and wilderness designations. The Piute Valley offers a “range of outdoor recreation activities associated with a wide-open landscape with limited developments,” according to the BLM's own draft resource management plan.

The Piute Valley is roughly an hour drive south from the Las Vegas metropolitan area, offering an outdoor getaway to a population increasingly hemmed in by sprawl and industry. Wildlands to the northeast of Las Vegas are being bulldozed for utility-scale solar and industrial parks (Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, Moapa Solar project, Apex Industrial Park), suffering the same fate as the Ivanpah Valley to the southwest of the city.

If the project is built, however, dozens of giant wind turbines towering hundreds of feet in the air would span across the ridgelines, with red hazard lights flashing at night. The industrial project would tarnish the wilderness qualities of the neighboring Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness, South McCullough Wilderness, Mojave National Preserve and Castle Mountains National Monument.

Looking north along the Walking Box Ranch Road, a gateway to the Castle Mountains National Monument. Crescent Peak is in the distance on the left, forming the gentle northern edge of the New York Mountain range that spans the California and Nevada border.
Golden Eagle Hot Spot
The western Piute Valley and McCullough Mountain area also appears to host a high density of golden eagle nests. A Nevada Department of Wildlife survey found nearly 40 golden eagle nests within and near the proposed footprint of the wind project. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan identified several golden eagle nests on the California side of the border in the New York Mountains and Castle Mountains (Appendix R2.7 of the Draft DRECP).

The Eolus project would have to conduct extensive golden eagle surveys to determine an estimated impact on the species, but some project developers decide to move forward with projects despite high risks to golden eagles and other avian species.

Stay tuned for updates on this project proposal and its estimated impacts on wildlands and wildlife.

Above: An approximate outline of the proposed Crescent Peak wind project in red, imposed on a Google Earth image of southern Nevada and eastern California. Below: A map submitted in 2012 by the project's first proponent - Oak Creek Energy Systems.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Interior Approval Threatens Mojave Wildlife

Interior this month signed the Record of Decision formally approving the Soda Mountain Solar project, despite landscape-level planning that identified this area as a significant opportunity to connect otherwise isolated bighorn sheep populations.  If Bechtel finds a utility company willing to purchase power from the 287 MW project, it will bulldoze nearly 4 square miles of intact desert next to the Mojave National Preserve to install photovoltaic panels that can just as easily be installed on rooftops or on already disturbed lands (more than 400 MW of rooftop solar capacity was installed in the first three months of 2015, alone).

These bighorn sheep are part of a large herd that inhabit the Soda Mountains. Their water source and foraging habitat would be jeopardized by the Soda Mountain Solar project if it is built, and an opportunity to connect this herd with the historical range of the bighorn sheep may be threatened by construction of the project.
Interior delayed issuing the record of decision for almost a year after it published a final environmental assessment, underscoring the difficulty Interior has faced trying to say yes to this unnecessary and controversial project. The area that would be bulldozed currently provides foraging habitat for bighorn sheep, and the water pumped by the project could threaten natural springs that wildlife - including the endangered Mojave Tui Chub - depend upon.  According to biological surveys, the site is inhabited by burrowing owls, kit fox, badgers, kangaroo rats, lesser nighthawk, Bewick' wren, Say's phoebe, and desert tortoises.  The area also provides forage for Townsend's big-eared, canyon, hoary, and Mexican free-tailed bats.

A detailed list of wildlife species observed or detected on the desert habitat targeted by Bechtel is available below.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), which owns the nearest transmission lines to the Soda Mountain site, has already said it would not purchase power from the project because of its environmental impact.  However, Bechtel could still request permission to use the transmission lines to deliver power to another buyer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ivanpah Bird Mortality Report Released; Data on Separate Project Kept Secret

Biologists estimate that as many as 1,314 birds died at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) - a solar power tower project that also burns natural gas - from 25 May to 17 August 2015 based on partial searches of the sprawling facility.  Many of the birds died from collision with giant mirrors or after flying through zones of intense heat above the project.  The deaths last summer are in addition to thousands of others caused by the project since it was constructed.

During last summer at least two birds - a peregrine falcon and common raven - were severely burned by the project but still managed to fly close to the project's outer edge before dying, again suggesting that the study may underestimate the number of birds burned in the air space above the field of mirrors.  The peregrine falcon was found in July and euthanized in September; the raven was found already dead.

Ivanpah Solar project, mirrors (foreground) and tower.

According to a previous monitoring report, two other birds with burned feathers were found incidentally - not during organized surveys - outside the main project area.  All of these incidents are reasons that the mortality surveys should also cover the desert habitat beyond the fence line of the project since severely burned birds can fly a good distance before dropping to the ground.  This is not only important to get a more accurate sense of how many birds are dying, but also to identify the impacts of the project on all species, including those capable of flying beyond the current survey area with severe injuries.

Ivanpah Data Undermines Solar Reserve Claims

The California Energy Commission required that the Ivanpah Solar project developer (Brightsource Energy) study and monitor bird mortality at Ivanpah and make the results public.  This stands in contrast with the lack of data made available at the Crescent Dunes Solar project developed by Solar Reserve in Nevada.  Solar Reserve hastily attempted to portray the project as bird friendly after a leaked video showed the project burning as many as 130 birds during an initial test in January 2015.  The company then inaccurately claimed that simply focusing the mirrors away from the tower stops bird deaths.  Unfortunately, this is a misleading public relations move by Solar Reserve because the mirrors must be focused on the tower in order for the project to operate.  Also, birds can die at power tower projects from collisions with the mirrors or exposure to elevated heat above the mirror field.

The Crescent Dunes Solar project built by Solar Reserve in Nevada.  The company has issued misleading statements regarding the project's impact on birds, and ongoing monitoring of another solar power tower project - the Ivanpah Solar project in California - suggests there are no simple fixes that can prevent bird mortality at these projects. Photo by Basin & Range Watch.
Outside of the leaked video, little is known about the extent of ongoing bird mortality at the project, or what the Department of Interior (the project is built on public lands) is doing to monitor or mitigate the bird deaths.  Now, desert conservation group Basin & Range Watch has filed a legal challenge to compel the release of bird mortality data at the project.  The ongoing study of bird mortality at Ivanpah suggests there are no simple fixes, so Solar Reserve's Crescent Dunes project almost certainly continues to cause bird deaths.  Because these projects are built on public lands and have impacts on wildlife, it is important for us to study and understand the environmental impacts so we can make wiser choices as we develop and deploy renewable energy.  Keeping data in the dark only helps corporations, not the public.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Amazing Desert Wildlands Receive Permanent Protection

When I was young my grandparents took my brother, sister and me on a road trip from our home in the Victor Valley, California to their home in New Mexico, spending a night in Laughlin, Nevada on the way.  My exposure to the desert up until then was limited to the parcels of undeveloped private land scattered across the Victor Valley and surrounding its edges where my brother and I would play, spending most of our time in a 90 acre plot across the street from our home.  At the time, that corner of the desert seemed to offer endless opportunity for exploration, riding our bikes, finding lizards, identifying different wildflowers and insects, before even that lot was bulldozed for a new housing development. 

I remember staring out the window of my grandparent's car on that trip as we traversed Interstate 40, and eventually cutting up Highway 95 in Nevada to Laughlin, taking a dirt road that I think may have been Christmas Tree Pass.  I remember feeling endless amazement as the landscape unfolded.  Valley after vast valley, interrupted only by the desert mountain ranges that seemed to beckon one to climb them and enjoy a long gaze upon the majesty of the desert.

My view of the desert then was uncluttered by the knowledge I have now. I was not burdened by the names of mountains and valleys, by our maps of different jurisdictions and land use designations, of grazing allotments and areas of critical environmental concern. I didn't know about the studies that show how the highways isolate wildlife populations, of invasive plant species, or of proposed mines and energy projects that would one day threaten to undo the remaining landscape's wildness.  I could just stare out at the desert and imagine what creatures and wonders existed across that big space, extrapolating from my knowledge that even the small desert lot by our home offered so many surprises.

I remember stopping to marvel at lava rocks, probably near the Pisgah lava flow and Route 66.  I remember being confused by plants that looked like stunted Joshua trees that I would later know to be the Mojave yucca - common in the desert but not found in our 90 acre desert playground in the Victor Valley.  And clusters of cactus, probably the dense Bigelow cholla along the highway before reaching Needles, California.   I would let my imagination drift in the sweeping desert vistas.

We took this trip in the late 80s.  Unbeknown to me then, conservation groups had been working with Senator Cranston, and then Senator Feinstein to designate new wilderness areas and national parks to protect parts of the landscape.  That effort would eventually culminate in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, protecting places that I would eventually enjoy visiting after college.  Watching sunsets, photographing wildflowers, and listening to the coyotes sing.  But the desert's offering of solitude and wildness remained in harm's way as energy companies proposed industrializing large tracts of the desert.  My favorite campsites in the Mojave National Preserve, for example, could overlook valleys full of wind turbines and solar panels if action was not taken to protect this treasured landscape.

On February 12, 2016 - over two decades after that road trip introduced me to just how grand the desert truly is -  the President designated the Mojave Trails National Monument, Castle Mountains National Monument, and Sand to Snow National Monument.  The monuments tie together years of previous conservation work, and protect the rhythm of nature and the soothing contours of the vast desert landscape that stretches beyond the horizon.  I will always enjoy the memory of that road trip with my grandparents, cruising by places I would later explore as an adult.  And with a newborn daughter, it's good to know that she too will be able to experience the California desert as I have.

A thunderstorm builds over the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness area, south of the Mojave National Preserve.  The valley at the foot of the mountains - partially obscured - is protected as part of the new Mojave Trails National Monument, connecting decades of conservation work to protect this beautiful desert horizon.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Opposition to Monuments Based on Misinformation

A majority of Californians have expressed support for three new monuments proposed for California's desert and under consideration by the President.  Voices opposing the designation of new national monuments, however, appear to be driven by misinformation and a distorted faith in Congress to act as a responsible steward of our wildlands.  They claim that conservation has run amok, that monument designations will lock out the public, and that only Congress should decide which lands to protect.

Tyrannical Conservation Designations?
The first claim - that conservation is some oppressive land management regime that has run amok - is relatively easy to dispute.  National Parks, monuments, and wilderness areas - wildlands that are protected from most types of industrial development - account for about 4% of the total land area of the United States.  With that number in mind, consider that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of wildlife species on Earth.  This is mostly driven by habitat loss, among a host of other human impacts that - combined - have led scientists to declare that humans have pushed the planet into a new geological epochIn other words, it is a miracle that we even have the opportunity to visit the California desert and experience a landscape and ecosystem that stretches beyond the horizon.

Without permanent protection from industrial uses, this landscape will remain vulnerable. We will not be able to guarantee that future generations will share the same experience that we - and our ancestors - have enjoyed on these widlands.  Why should my daughter visit the Mojave Trails area 30 years from now if the prized section of Historic Route 66 is surrounded by a sea of solar panels and wind turbines, and the mountains have been carved open by open pit mines?  Beyond the priceless experiences that generations of humans have to gain from desert conservation, there is still the intrinsic value of a healthy ecosystem where wildflowers erupt in a riot of color in the spring and natural springs feed bighorn sheep and migrating birds.
Conservation Locking out the Public?
Desert monuments would maintain our access to public lands, not lock us out.  California's desert is a popular landscape that attracts millions of visitors each year for hiking, photography, 4x4 touring, rock climbing, camping, wildlife watching, and astronomy.  Monument status would ensure that future generations get to enjoy these same activities without the threat that some energy company will come along and bulldoze our favorite camping spot.

Most voices against desert monuments, however, fret that monument status would significantly limit vehicle access to desert wildlands.  This fear is probably encouraged by "land grab" rhetoric from the same folks that brought us the Bundy militia.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already manages the lands within the boundary of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, and would continue to do so once a monument is established.  The BLM has long-favored vehicle access on lands that it manages (sometimes a bit much),  and there is nothing inherent in the monument proposal that would lead to a significant loss in vehicle access.  Some of the monument opponents may be confusing monument designations with wilderness designations, which do prohibit most vehicle access.  But the monument proposals do not include wilderness designations; wilderness would have to be established by Congress.

Others fear that other recreational activities would be prohibited.  As an example, some in the rock hound community believe they'll be shut out and not allowed to collect gems and minerals.  However, rock hounding would almost certainly still be permitted in the Mojave Trails National Monument as it is in other monuments managed by the BLM.  Just like horseback riding, ATV riding on designated routes, rock climbing, mountain biking, camping, and plenty of other outdoor activities.  The idea that monuments lock out the public is simply misinformed.

Congress or the Antiquities Act?
Finally, many argue that the President should not use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate new monuments in the desert, claiming that Congress would be a superior and more transparent way to bestow conservation designations.  I agree that it would be nice if Congress would act to protect our public lands, but there is no reason for me to believe that we could accomplish that without undue cost and sacrifice.  Representative Cook's own "compromise" legislation would open up thousands of acres in the Mojave Trails area to mining and prohibit the President from granting permanent protection status to this iconic stretch of Historic Route 66 and the surrounding desert vistas.

This Congress has moved multiple times to undermine the Endangered Species Act and has encouraged the privatization of public lands.  There is little appetite in Congress for the scale of conservation that is necessary to protect the beauty of the California desert.  How can I tell?  The California Desert Protection Act has been festering in a toxic Congress since 2010 with no movement forward.  Why should I believe that suddenly Congress has a genuine interest in protecting public lands in the desert?

Furthermore, the claim that Congress is a more transparent route to conservation is false.  Industry lobbyists have plenty of access to the halls of the Capitol building, and can negatively influence conservation provisions of the bill at various stages of the legislative process.  Legislative horse trading can occur last minute without public input before a bill is put up for a vote, so we could end up with an anti-conservation rider in a bill at the last minute.  In short, be careful of what you wish for.  Now is not a good time to give Congress an opportunity to re-write how we manage and protect our desert wildlands. 

It is time to grant permanent protection to these desert wildlands from industrial destruction.  If Congress had shown any sincere appreciation for our public lands over the past few years these monument proposals would not even be on the President's desk for consideration. Instead of watching Congress kicking the can down the road, I hope that the President will soon establish the Mojave Trails, Sand-to-Snow and Castle Mountains National Monuments.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Armed Takeover Another Troubling Step Against Public Lands

Armed extremists occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon's high desert continue to argue that our public lands be handed over to states or private interests to expand economic exploitation.  The sound bite media coverage of this occupation sometimes frames this standoff in a way that fails to convey what is at stake for you and me - the public.   The militia are attempting to rob us of our public lands using force and intimidation, threatening to fire upon any law enforcement effort to renew our access to the occupied lands.  The militia's alternative is to return to a corrupt giveaway of public lands that only leads to destruction and privatization of our natural heritage, a trend we had decided decades ago was not in our national interest. 

The militia say they are speaking for the public, but they are actually speaking for a small slice of the population that wants to do what they want with our lands without limitations or costs.  They'd like to let their cattle mow down stream side vegetation and ruin our waterways, or log our forests in a way that would leave our mountains bare. They want to drill and blast away canyons for uranium mining. They may wear jeans and cowboy hats, but their mentality is no different than Brightsource Energy or Exxon Mobil executives in suits and ties.  In the interest of profit, they would rather create a Tragedy of the Commons than propose science-based alternatives that would balance economic interests with the long-term heath of our public lands.  Nancy Langston's piece on the history of commercial exploitation and land management at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge further underscores that the militia is simply selling another brand of snake oil.

And despite the militia's complaints that land use regulations amount to "tyranny," the Bureau of Land Management still administers nearly 18,000 grazing permits on nearly 155 million acres of public lands.  The cost of grazing on public land is 93% cheaper than on private land, and receives many other taxpayer subsidies.  The Forest Service in 2014 allowed the removal of nearly 2.8 billion board feet of timber.  This is in addition to the millions of acres opened up to natural gas, coal, solar and wind.  There is no shortage of representation in Washington that caters to industry and agricultural uses of our public lands, which makes the Bundy militia's claim that public land is off limits to extractive industry all the more ironic. 

I don't always agree with how the Department of Interior manages our public lands, but there is no doubt in my mind that handing our lands over to the states or private interests - as the militia has argued - would spell doom for the spectacular natural treasures that make America special.  Some states and local jurisdictions have made it very clear that they would hand over public land to industry if given the chance,  rather than manage our beautiful wildlands for the benefit of all Americans.  To this end, organizations like ALEC have carried out legislative and legal campaigns to privatize our public lands with the help of some misguided elected officials.  Apparently they can count on the Bundy militia to be the thugs that point the guns at the public during this takeover.