The site is home to a high density population of desert tortoise--to include a healthy juvenile tortoise population--and the site functions as a key corridor for the movement of Mojave desert ground squirrel. Nevertheless, Solar Millenium is insisting on identifying mitigation conditions that would allow it to construct on the site, and is likely trying to separate the site's impacts on desert tortoise from the impacts on Mojave ground squirrel survival in order to find a site layout that will be permitted.
During the 17 May hearing, the representative for Solar Millennium indicated that as a result of the public workshops held earlier this year, and conversations with the Federal and State agencies, the company had come to realize that the site chosen by the company would lead to significant habitat destruction, harm wildlife "connectivity" and have side effects on the health of the Mojave outside of the site footprint. Despite this, the representative declared that the company "would like to continue to work at winnowing those away," according to the hearing transcript. The representative complained that as a result of the workshops, the company was not yet at a place where it can identify "what can we do to mitigate, or how can we understand the impacts better." These introductory remarks suggest the company is unwilling to absorb the bottom line of the CEC's preliminary assessment: that the Ridgecrest Solar Power project is proposed for a site where construction would incur irreparable harm to the Mojave Desert.
One development that may be giving Solar Millennium some hope for their poorly chosen project site is the fact that CEC staff are planning to conduct additional analysis of the impact on biological resources. Some of the additional analysis was prompted by Solar Millennium's adjustment of their site layout in order to avoid washes and territory deemed critical to the Mojave ground squirrel movement. Solar Millenium is seizing on debate surrounding the desert tortoise density on the site, and whether or not this is significant, probably in an attempt to declare damage to the desert tortoise habitat as less than significant after mitigation measures are instituted. Once that has been settled, Solar Millenium will probably try to address the impacts on Mojave Ground squirrel movement through changes to the site layout.
If the Ridgecrest Solar Power project is permitted to move forward--regardless of the site layout--there is likely to be an insidious effect on the habitat over time that ultimately jeopardizes desert tortoise and the Mojave ground squirrel, since no single species in the Mojave is able to flourish independent of other organisms in the habitat. Instead of considering what to build after bulldozing this habitat, the State and Federal government should be considering wilderness or state park designations that can protect the land in perpetuity.
I'll end this post with the wise words of the CEC staff assessment of the Ridegcrest Solar Power project site that seem to be falling on deaf ears in Solar Millennium LLC:
"Staff believes this site should be protected because of its importance to the DT [Desert Tortoise] population and its unique and critical benefits to the MGS [Mojave Ground Squirrel]."
Images below are from the California Energy Commission website, provided in the SA/DEIS for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project: