The San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department recently filed their response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Calico Solar Project, located east of Newberry Springs. If I am reading it correctly, the County explicitly opposes long-term conservation of Mojave Desert habitat as a means to off-set the negative impacts of industrial scale development.
The County comments stirred some though on just what a deal energy companies are getting by developing on public land, and how the County's argument cheapens the value of open space for future generations. As many of you already know, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may require a developer to fund or purchase private land that contains suitable desert habitat and set it aside for conservation. This is required because the developers are applying to bulldoze thousands of acres of natural resources on public land essentially because they are too lazy or greedy to build their project on privately owned land. Since habitat destruction is one of the key factors in the demise of endangered species, such as the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel, this requirement is intended to compensate for the damage done by the proposed development.
If the County, however, had its way, the public loses even more pristine desert wilderness. The County argues that mitigation requirements--especially requirements that involve the developer conserving land at a ratio of up to 3:1 (private land conserved: public land developed)--will ultimately hurt the County's "economic" development. The County is concerned that any land set aside for conservation is land that it cannot exploit for more industrial and commercial development in the future.
So this is how the County would like to see things play out: 1.) Have the American taxpayer give away some of the best desert habitat and recreation area in the BLM's holding of public land, 2.) have the taxpayer subsidize and finance the energy companies' projects, and 3.) instead of attempting to correct the environmental damage by purchasing and conserving desert land held by private owners, we should just bulldoze that as well for even more industrial development.
The CEC should dismiss the County's comments on this matter since the County clearly misinterprets the original intent of the environmental impact review process in the first place, and ignores the fact that these "renewable" energy projects will damage wilderness that has value far beyond a fallow alfafa farm, parking lot, or warehouse rooftop (the types of private parcels of land where solar panels should be built). Sensible land policy would dictate that we balance industrial economic needs with the less tangible economic benefits of conservation and open space. The mitigation measures proposed by the CEC attempt to convey the true public value of the desert wilderness such projects intend to destroy by ensuring that the public value is preserved in the form of similar land set aside elsewhere.
If the County prefers to develop its private land instead of setting it aside for conservation, then perhaps they should talk to the energy companies that bypassed the County's private land and chose to develop on public land. In it's statement, the County already acknowledges that the solar development would bring in over 400 million dollars in taxes, wages, and induced spending over the life of the project. That seems fairly promising during these hard economic times. But there are better places to build solar power plants, and the supposed benefits are minuscule when you consider the cost of converting pristine wilderness into an uninspiring industrial landscape that will be damaged for centuries, or the cost of your children never being able to see the same landscape that earlier generations enjoyed, or knowing what a desert tortoise looked like and behaved.
Below is a rendering of what the Calico Solar site would look like after development with added transmission lines and solar dishes, as provided in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, CEC website.