Monday, June 28, 2010

Renewable Energy Action Team Fund Established

An inter-agency forum known as the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) seeking to streamline the renewable energy permitting process in California has succeeded in establishing a fund to centralize conservation funds that offset the impact of energy development.  The REAT is composed of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), and the California Energy Commission (CEC), as I noted in a previous post on the topic.  Among the policy tools REAT hopes to implement is the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which would provide a framework for implementing regionally coordinated land acquisition and mitigation to off-set the negative affects of the renewable energy rush on desert biological resources.  The DRECP is not expect to be completed until 2012, however.

One of the REAT's policy goals was to establish a central fund to which renewable energy developers would pay their required mitigation fees--funds intended to purchase conservation land or enable activities that enhance already established conservation measures intended for threatened species, such as the desert tortoise.  As of May 2010, the REAT entered into an agreement with the Washington DC based National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which will serve as the central manager of the Renewable Energy Action Team Mitigation Account.  The REAT Mitigation Account will allow energy companies to deposit money into the account and satisfy some of their mitigation requirements set forth during the permitting process in a more timely manner.  REAT agencies will withdrawal money for specific land acquisition or conservation measures agreed upon by REAT agencies. 

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will maintain separate sub-accounts for each mitigation requirement (e.g. Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System mitigation funds, Calico Solar mitigation funds, etc) but if mitigation measures for a specific project do not use all of the funds in the account, the money can be put toward long-term project management or deposited into another sub-account.  The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will  report twice a year--15 June and 15 December--on the status of mitigation funds for each energy project are spent.  The REAT Mitigation Account would compliment the Renewable Energy Development Fee Trust Fund, which was established by California State legislation (SBX834) and managed by California.  Developers could pay into either REAT or the State-run trust fund.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Name that Bird part Two

I'm posting a couple more photos of the unidentified bird from my previous post to see if it helps anyone in their identification of the species.   One commenter suggested that it perhaps could have been a black-throated gray warbler.  I'm no expert so I could not completely discard this possibility, but the images online for the warbler show more distinct black and white patterns than the bird in my photo, which is mostly gray with the only visible patter being the blue and white streaks by the eyes.   Welcome more comments/ideas.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Name that Bird

If you have any guesses as to what species of bird is perched on the cholla cactus in the picture below, feel free to leave a comment.  I got a picture of it from a distance, but I'm not sure what species of bird I captured in the photo.  The photo was taken in the western Mojave National Preserve.  Note the streaks of blue and white by its eyes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Granite Mountain Wind Project Cuts Into Bendire's Thrasher ACEC

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Granite Mountain Wind Energy project, part of the project's footprint and the access roads would interfere with the Bendire's Thrasher Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).  The Granite Mountain Wind Energy Project is being proposed for the hills on the outskirts of Apple Valley by Granite Wind LLC.

The Bendire's Thrasher is a threatened species deemed by ornithologists to be so rare that it is difficult to properly assess its recent population trends, although sufficient data suggests that the population has declined approximately 34% since 1966.  The bird's habitat is threatened by urbanization, loss of Joshua Trees, and Off-highway vehicle use resulting in habitat degradation.

Although the Granite Wind Energy project may not be as destructive as other industrial-scale energy projects proposed for the Mojave Desert--such as the Calico Solar Project or the Ridgecrest Solar Power project--it does not make sense to build access roads through land specifically designated as an area of critical environmental concern for a threatened species.   While the environmental report maintains that the habitat immediately adjacent to the proposed access road is not suitable for the Bendire's Thrasher, a paved road through the area is likely to invite more vehicle access and probably off-highway vehicle access that could lead to the degradation of the ACEC further from the access road.

Additionally, the potential for the deaths of birds or bats striking the wind turbines exist, and if construction is approved, the site should be monitored for such biological impact and halt operations if the turbines result in the deaths of sensitive species. 

If you wish to submit comments for the Granite Mountain Wind Energy Project, you can follow the instructions on the BLM Barstow Field Office website, which are copied below for your reference.

Publication of the notice of availability for the draft EIS initiates a 90-day public comment period, ending July 1, 2010.  Written comments will be accepted by Bureau of Land Management, Barstow Field Office, Attn: Granite Wind Project Manager, 2601 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311, or by email to  Additionally, comments may be mailed to Carrie Hyke, Principal Planner, County of San Bernardino Land Use Services Department, 385 North Arrowhead Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92415-0182.

The screenshot below was copied from the Granite Mountain Wind Energy Project Draft EIS posted on the website of the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department website and depicts the project overlap with the Bendire's Thrasher ACEC (shown in green):

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mojave Narrows Regional Park

I took this photo a while back at Mojave Narrows Regional Park.  The lake at Mojave Narrows is man made but it draws from the natural Mojave River, which Indian Americans relied upon for ages before the current cities within the Victor Valley began to draw upon its water and the underground aquifers.  I have been slowly making my way through Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, which at one point discusses the migratory birds that previously found stopover points at various natural watering holes throughout the arid Southwest.  Government decisions led to the destruction of some of these vital desert waterways to divert water to agricultural use, forcing birds to change their migratory patterns or possibly even jeopardizing their populations.   Such poor policy decisions regarding natural resources in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts may sound familiar.  If the vast number of solar energy sites are constructed in the area, not only will they deprive us of open desert vistas and desert wildlife, they also will drain millions of gallons of water from underground desert aquifers.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Solar Millenium Study Casts Doubt on Desert Tortoise Significance

Solar Millennium presented the results of a study that it presumably funded regarding the desert tortoise population on the proposed site of the Ridgecrest Solar Power project.  As noted in previous posts, the California Energy Commission (CEC) staff judged that construction on the proposed site would incur harm to the threatened Mohave Ground Squirrel and endangered desert tortoise that could not be corrected by mitigation efforts, and recommended against the project.  Solar Millenium's study, however,  supports its desire to build on the site and argues that the tortoise population present on the site is not worth preserving.

The Study's Findings:
According to the Solar Millennium study, the density of the desert tortoise population on the Ridgecrest site is not significant based on surveys of the West Mojave conducted in 1999.   The study makes this judgment by citing previous surveys (1999 and older) that suggest the desert tortoise population on the Ridgecrest site is comparatively lower than the population in other areas of the West Mojave.    The study criticizes the CEC staff study of tortoise density in the Ridegcrest area, arguing that the CEC study used a method that does not apply appropriate precision and extrapolates trends from broad-area studies that cannot be applied to "small" sites such as the Ridgecrest Solar Power project.

Furthermore, the study claims that the desert tortoise population on the site is unlikely to be of genetic significance (and, thus,  not of importance to the ongoing recovery of the tortoise population in the area) since the genetic value of the tortoise population in the area has already been degraded by population loss and fragmentation caused by Highway 395, ravens,  and agricultural development.  The study claims that the site is home to a medium density population, at best.   In my view, a medium density population of any endangered species is significant.

The Study's Flaws:
The standards for biological value set forth by Solar Millennium in this study suggest that the company believes it should be permitted to bulldoze any tract of desert that does not have a "high density" of tortoises and where the tortoise population has not been impacted by development, transportation, or ravens.  Using this criteria, Solar Millennium is practically writing itself a pass to build on any tract of public land in the Mojave Desert.

The Solar Millennium study fails to consider the cumulative impact of the project on the future health of the desert tortoise population in the West Mojave by simply writing off the habitat in the entire area as too fragmented.    It is not the job of Solar Millennium or contracted researches to essentially devalue large swaths of public land--and the endangered species therein.  It is even more ironic that the study argues in favor of construction by essentially claiming that the tortoises on site are threatened by the same factors that made it endangered in the first place--habitat loss and development.

The tortoise population on site is significant because even at medium density preserving the site could maintain an important anchor for the West Mojave population and area connectivity that will eventually be critical in the species' recovery.  Unlike Solar Millennium, the American public has not yet given up on the existence of the desert tortoise in the West Mojave.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mohave Ground Squirrel Considered for Endangered Species Listing

The Department of Interior is currently considering a petition by Defenders of Wildlife to list the Mohave Ground Squirrel as an endangered species.  The Mohave Ground Squirrel--whose range spans portions of the western and north-western Mojave Desert--is currently listed as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act, but it is not recognized under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

I have to take this opportunity to correct mistaken references to the Mohave Ground Squirrel (MGS; alternatively: Mojave Ground Squirrel) on this blog as an "endangered species," even though it has not technically been listed as such under Federal authorities. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)--part of the Department of the Interior--has deemed the petition contains substantial information indicating that listing the MGS as an endangered species may be warranted.    According to the Federal Register (April 27, 2010; Vol 75, Number 80), the USFWS is soliciting scientific, commercial, and other information to conduct a comprehensive "status review" of the Mohave Ground Squirrel.  At the end of this status review, which could last months, the USFWS will issue a determination as to whether or not it agrees with the petition.

You can submit comments or information at the website by 28 June 2010, although keep in mind that the USFWS is probably most interested in science-based or specific information concerning the MGS' status and the threats to its survival based on criteria set forth in the Endangered Species Act.

According to the Federal Register listing, the USFWS must consider whether the status of the species meets one or more of the following criteria:   (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

The USFWS found that the petitioner (Defenders of Wildlife) only presented compelling information on the destruction, modification or curtailment of MGS habitat.  The petition did not successfully argue that the other criteria impacted the MGS' survival.  Nevertheless, anybody familiar with development and population growth in the Mojave Desert (and any reader of this blog) is aware that the threat of habitat destruction alone is sufficient to imperil a species.  The habitat destruction in the western Mojave Desert is particularly acute,  which does not bode well for the MGS.

One of the potential hurdles to the listing of the Mohave Ground Squirrel is the relative lack of information concerning its habitat characteristics, survival, and population trends.  Without this data, any petitioner will have difficulty conveying the threats to the MGS population.  The Desert Managers Group, which consists of several government agencies and stakeholders in the California deserts,   has sought to encourage more research into the MGS status.  According to the MGS research strategy outlined on its website, the Desert Managers Group noted that funding and resource shortfalls have beleaguered research attempts to date.  For example, a workshop to convene experts to discuss strategies for monitoring the MGS was not funded or scheduled, in part due to a lack of resources in the California Department of Fish and Game.

At the end of the day, the MGS is another Mojave Desert species whose plight serves as a warning of the stresses being placed on the health of the Mojave Desert, and jeopardizing the future of Mojave wilderness.  The survival of any species in the Mojave--not just the MGS--is integral to the ability of future generations of Americans to enjoy Mojave wilderness.  So whether or not the USFWS ultimately lists the Mohave Ground Squirrel as an Endangered Species, the threats to the Mojave and its species are real and are growing, and are outpacing the public and the government efforts to manage and preserve the Mojave's treasures.

Photo by P. Leitner, 1997, from Defenders of Wildlife Petition to the USFWS

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Solar Millennium Intent on Building on Poorly Chosen Ridgecrest Site

Despite an array of potentially disastrous impacts on Mojave Desert species, water resources for the community of Ridgecrest, and even the risk of spreading Valley Fever among residents, Solar Millennium LLC appears intent to build the proposed Ridgecrest Solar Power project.   During a 17 May status conference, Solar Millennium demanded clarity from the CEC and wildlife agencies on specifically what mitigation measures could be instituted to overcome the biological impacts.  I previously posted on the Ridgecrest project in March after the California Energy Commission (CEC) issued a preliminary assessment recommending against construction on the site, claiming that no mitigation measures--habitat restoration, translocation of tortoises, etc--would adequately make up for the damage Solar Millennium would incur on our natural resources.

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:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What Next for the California Desert Protection Act?

The mid-May Senate hearing for the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010 or S.2921) was a positive step for the legislation proposed by Senator Feinstein, considering most proposed legislation never makes it beyond the committee.   However, the hearings revealed technical objections from government agencies and some deeper concerns expressed by fellow Senators on the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources.   As noted in a previous post, the legislative calendar and political dynamics outside of California could eclipse the need for near-term sensible land management in the Mojave Desert, and CDPA may not even get the attention it deserves until next year. 

If Senator Feinstein's office can work with the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture to quickly incorporate the technical modifications sought by these agencies during the hearings, the Senator will still face more hurdles before the bill can be put to the full Senate before Congress adjourns this Fall.  I do not believe the adjournment date has been set yet, but considering that it is an election year, you can bet that business will be closed before November.  Also, keep in mind that the Senate will be closed for business from 9 August until 9 September for a lengthy recess. 

The biggest hurdle to CDPA 2010 at the moment appears to be Senators on the committee concerned about the impacts of the legislation on future energy development in the Mojave Desert, as noted in my previous post regarding the hearings.  Senator Murkowski (R-AK) was the most vocal about this concern, but she likely  echoes the sentiments that would be voiced by the opposition if the legislation goes before the full Senate, unless these concerns are addressed.

Senators opposing the bill based on the alleged harm to solar energy industry may not fully understand the pace with which solar energy development could quickly overrun attempts by local, state and Federal agencies to balance industrial needs with conservation of wilderness and recreation space.  As noted during the BLM testimony on 20 May, multiple large-scale solar projects are on a fast track and could break ground before the year.  Even beyond this year,  hundreds of thousands of acres of solar and wind development that are in more initial stages of development could continue to carve out large swaths of open wilderness.  Some of the projects would consume chunks of pristine Mojave Desert larger than Los Angeles International Airport.

Therefore, concerns that CDPA 2010 could stymie investment in solar energy are misplaced.  Ultimately, investment in solar energy over the next few years is not going to be reversed by CDPA 2010 considering the immense government-backed financial incentives for renewable energy.  If anything, more sensible land policy and smart conservation (achieved through CDPA 2010 and mitigation efforts by the BLM and California Department of Fish and Game) could alleviate pressure on energy companies submitting their projects for review to the California Energy Commission (CEC), since the cumulative impact of renewable energy development would be partially balanced by the two new national monuments and additional wilderness areas that would be set aside by CDPA 2010.

Another point that should be more prominent in the debate is that energy companies do not always have the American public's best interest in mind, as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Even though "green" energy companies portray themselves in the positive glow of "renewable energy,"  the bottom line is that they are for-profit organizations seeking to benefit from public lands, and seeking public subsidies (in the form of ARRA funding).  Opponents of the legislation only further subsidize and encourage potentially reckless decisions by the energy companies by stalling legislation aimed at balancing energy needs with the need to protect America's natural treasures.

Even if the opponents of the legislation on the Committee can be persuaded to let the legislation move forward relatively unscathed (maintaining it's primary goal of desert conservation), the Gulf oil spill crisis is likely to consume much of the Committee's focus and time over the next few weeks as they receive testimony from government agencies and the energy companies to determine what went wrong and how to fix it.  Additionally, the Congress has not yet proposed or addressed a comprehensive energy bill.  The Gulf oil spill will only further complicate that endeavor since Congress will feel compelled to address such a high profile issue before the elections.  Tackling comprehensive energy legislation will be slow since there are divergent views on whether to restrict off-shore drilling, institute cap-and-trade rules, encourage nuclear energy, etc.  The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources' calendar will be full, with or without CDPA 2010.   Again, the Committee is still one of the first hurdles in the process--preceding consideration by the full Senate, then the House, and then having any differences between the Senate and House reconciled.

With only a few working weeks left in the Senate's calendar before the August-September recess,  it will be difficult for Senator Feinstein and the Committe on Energy and Natural Resources to fit CDPA 2010 on the schedule, and then push it onto the Senate calendar.  We may be looking at CDPA 2011 if the Senator's office cannot achieve passage this year, and the landscape on the Hill could be a lot different in 2011.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Granite Wind Energy Project Comment Period...

Someone recently commented on a blog post regarding the impact of wind energy on bats that the comment period for the Granite Wind Energy project proposed for the Apple Valley/Barstow area will close on 01 July.  I have been meaning to catch up with the wind energy projects in the Mojave Desert and should have a post on this soon, but I wanted to share this in the meantime.

New Layout for Calico Solar Project May Not Provide Adequate Wildlife Corridor

Tessera Solar and Stirling Energy Systems, the companies proposing to build the Calico Solar Power project in the Mojave Desert, filed details on an alternative layout for the site with the California Energy Commission (CEC).  Although the companies claim that the reduced site footprint provides a 4000 foot wildlife corridor between the solar project and the Cady Mountains to allow desert tortoise and other species passage through the area, the maps presented in the documents filed with the CEC suggest that the layout falls short of this goal.

The Calico Solar Project is currently the largest solar project proposed for the Mojave Desert that is currently under review by the CEC and Bureau of Land Management for approval.  The project would be built on public land and would be partially funded by the taxpayers.  The original proposed project would take up 8,230 acres, and potentially displace or kill at least 100 desert tortoises, and jeopardize the white-margined beardtongue, a rare plant species found on the site.  The alternative layout proposed by Tessera Solar brings the total size down to approximately 6000 acres, and would likely reduce (although not eliminate) impacts on desert tortoise and the white-margined beardtongue.

The alternative layout proposed by Tessera is intended to address concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Desert Tortoise Recovery Office and the Bureau of Land Management regarding wildlife mobility in the area following construction and operation of the site.  Tessera's proposal does not appear to meet the wildlife agencies' recommendation, however, even though Tessera attempts to portray the alternative as compliant with the recommendation.

The graphic below was submitted by Tessera Solar to the CEC, and posted on the CEC's website.  The green line meandering through the upper right portion of the graphic represents the 4000 foot corridor boundary as determined based on distance between the project and the Cady Mountains.  As more clearly evident in the full size graphic available on the CEC website, portions of the project would still interfere with the recommended corridor, to include the detention basins and portions of phase 2 solar fields in the northern and northeastern edges of the project.

I could be missing something, but there seems to be an obvious discrepancy between what Tessera says and what the graphic above depicts.

Here is what Tessera said about the alternative layout:

On May 14, 2010 a Supplement was filed that described modifications to the Project's northern boundary. Based on input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Desert Tortoise Recovery Office (DTRO) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the northern boundary of the Project site has been further modified to include a 4,000-foot wildlife corridor between the Project (inclusive of all detention basins) and the base of the Cady Mountains. To accommodate this modification, the detention basins were re-configured to extend east to west along the northern Project boundary and the boundary between Phases 1 and 2. Through this change in detention basin design, two objectives are achieved: the detention basins are included within the Project fenceline and outside of the 4,000-foot wildlife corridor, as requested by the wildlife agencies, and the detention basin design maintains the natural drainage patterns of the site.  "

Close examination of the graphic indicates that portions of the detention basins and other portions of the project site interfere with the corridor.  If anyone can explain this discrepancy, please comment.

On the positive side, the alternative layout proposed by Tessera would clearly be less disruptive than the original design, particularly because the northern portion of the site seems to contain the most desert tortoise, according to previous BLM studies.  But as one of the largest solar projects under review for public land--with significant environmental impact--Tessera should not be allowed to cut corners. 

Tessera boasts that its alternative layout for Calico is better than the "avoidance of donated lands alternative" evaluated by CEC, which cuts out parcels of land that fall inside the project boundary because they were donated to the Federal Government by The Wildlands Conservancy for conservation.  This is likely true from an ecological standpoint since untouched desert habitat surrounded on all four sides by construction will eventually degrade in habitat quality.  However, the Tessera filing fails to note that the "reduced acreage alternative" evaluated by the CEC--which would cut the total area bulldozed by 67%--would be much less harmful.  Tessera likely does not even consider this an option since it would drastically reduce the energy produced at the Calico site.   The company seems to expect that it can cut corners in environmental mitigation and still be granted access to exploit public land.   Tessera's apparent failure even to fully accommodate a 4,000 foot wildlife corridor conveys a sense of entitlement to public land and funding that suggest the company is likely taking a similar approach to its other projects proposed for the California desets.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Sunset Glow of the Cholla Cactus

I got these shots of cholla cactus near the Granite Hills in the Mojave National Preserve practically glowing as the sun set, which provided a back light to their needles.

Monday, June 7, 2010

San Bernardino County Opposes Desert Conservation?

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 land2.) 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.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Desert Blooms

My brother Todd took some photos during a recent bike ride in the desert around Hesperia.  The rains this year seem to have prolonged a colorful Mojave landscape.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Calico Solar Site to Be Altered?

According to the Daily Press, the Calico Solar Project originally proposed for nearly 8,230 acres east of Newberry Springs at the foot of the Cady Mountains will be altered to reduce its footprint.  I have not yet found any documentation for the altered proposal at the California Energy Commission (CEC) or the Tessera Solar (the parent company) website, but I will post details from the primary source as soon as they become available.

The Calico Solar proposed site would be reduced by 2,000 acres in order to avoid land designated as Desert Tortoise Recovery Area, and the altered site would supposedly maintain a wildlife corridor.  According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project--released by the CEC in March--the Calico site is home to at least one hundred desert tortoises.  The altered footprint may spare some of those tortoises, but the site also is home to several other status species, which you can read about in my previous post on the topic.

I'll pass along more details as they become available.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ranking Member of Senate Committee Guards Energy Companies

Reviewing the transcripts from the 20 May Senate hearing on the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010 or S.2921),  the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource's opening comments struck me as ill-informed, and as knee-jerk opposition that assumes the effort to protect public land is somehow more reckless than the chaotic "gold rush" effort by energy companies to bulldoze pristine Mojave wilderness.  In her comments, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) stated that the proposed legislation would "encumber" renewable energy development and take land off the table before the government had a chance to determine whether or not it would be suitable for renewable energy development.

Murkowski's argument was flawed for a few reasons:
1.) CDPA 2010's proposed national monuments and wilderness areas do not affect the Department of Energy's solar energy study zones, which are the only lands currently being evaluated by the Federal government for concerted renewable energy development. 

2.)  The Senator assumes that energy companies should have the first right to public lands in the Mojave Desert, which only shows that the Senator does not appreciate the dwindling desert wilderness for the other tangible and intangible benefits this land provides to the public.

3.) Murkowski compared the current approval process for renewable energy in California to the "10 year" process for wind energy on the east coast.  Contrary to her fear, some solar projects in California are currently fast-tracked and could be approved by the end of the year.

Murkowski went on to argue that investors will become "gun shy" if the government intervenes in a project even when "the companies feel they have a good project," suggesting CDPA 2010 will send the wrong tone to private interests.  Once again Murkowski suggests that Congress and the Federal Government should defer to the energy companies concerning their efforts to utilize public lands in the Mojave Desert.   If Murkowski reviewed the environmental impact statements for some of the proposed solar energy projects (Ivanpah, Ridgecrest, Calico Solar), she would see that more often than not, when the energy companies "feel they have a good project," they are preparing to severely disrupt desert ecology in an irreparable way. 

Murkowski's claim that more "evaluation" is needed to understand how CDPA 2010 would impact renewable energy development is a stall tactic that should be turned on its head.   Instead, we should be taking more time to evaluate the cumulative impact of the dozens of proposed industrial scale energy projects proposed for the Mojave--an impact that CDPA 2010 recognizes and for which it is trying to compensate.   The current process for evaluating and approving energy development in the Mojave is rushed by hasty political demands from Washington and Sacramento and favors energy company use of public lands for profit.   If Murkowski's staff had done their homework, they would know that the impact of energy companies' attempts develop solar energy fields several square miles each--one would be larger than Los Angeles International Airport--has already been scientifically evaluated, and indicates that damage would be done to the endangered desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel, as well as several special status plant and bird species.   The Senator's suggestion that CDPA 2010 is closing the door on energy development is blind to the reality that energy development is already beginning to stampede onto priceless desert wilderness.