Monday, February 28, 2011

OHV Damage Prompts Jawbone Canyon Trail Closures

An update on the "Friends of Jawbone Canyon" website highlights recent route closures as a result of illegal off-highway vehicle use causing damage to private property and areas of critical environmental concern.  Jawbone Canyon is a checkerboard of public and private land on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, just northeast of Tehachapi and southwest of Ridgecrest.  Some of the public land is designated as protected under the Jawbone-Butterbredt Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

In partnership with private landowners and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), dozens of miles of OHV routes were opened to the public to enjoy the natural splendor of the area.  An unlawful few, however, began to create new routes, irreparably harming undisturbed land, natural springs, and even cutting private fences.  Some routes have been closed as Friend of Jawbone (FOJ) Canyon works in partnership with Kern County and the BLM to restore damaged lands.

There is such thing as responsible OHV recreation, but OHV drivers should understand that this is the most destructive to recreate in a very fragile ecosystem.  Stay informed, stick to designated routes, and watch for wildlife.  The BLM publishes maps of open routes.  For Jawbone Canyon, you can access the map at the FOJ site

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Marine Base Expansion Will Limit OHV Recreation

The Twentynine Palms Marine Base released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (draft EIS) for its proposed expansion, which would put over 146,000 acres of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) area under military control for live-fire exercises.  The military has reportedly met with OHV groups to work out arrangements that give OHV users access to part of the exercise area when it is not being used by the military.  As a result, the Marines' preferred alternative would let OHV users access a portion of the area during 10 months out of the year.

The Johnson OHV area is one of the largest in the Mojave Desert, and draws thousands of OHV enthusiasts each year.  OHV use takes a heavy toll on the viability of desert habitat, so much of the area has already been degraded by years of intense OHV use.  However, desert plant and wildlife would still be impacted by the heavy military use of the area, and the Marines expect that anywhere from 121 to 189 adult desert tortoises could be impacted in the acquired training lands, although more would be impacted by translocation and testing activities.  The military would attempt to mitigate impacts on the crucifixion thorn, a special status plant species that grows in rocky desert washes.

The map above shows the expansion of the Twentynine Palms base westward into the Johnson Valley OHV area.  The red shaded areas would be permanently restricted, but the yellow shaded areas to the south would provide for public access during certain times of the year.

The military assesses that biological resources could benefit overall in areas restricted to public access because the reduced OHV usage would decrease harm to biological resources.  The military would designate specific areas for exercises, but other areas would be left relatively untouched.  In its survey of the biological resources in the Johnson OHV area, many "highly disturbed" lands were identified as a result of the constant OHV recreation use, including the area photographed below.
The photo below was included in the Marines' biological resources survey as an example of the highly disturbed land in the Johnson OHV area.  The assessment notes that multiple vehicle tracks, RV staging areas, and hill climbs resulted in vegetation loss that severely degrades the quality of the desert habitat.  Once transferred to military control, the report assesses that overall negative impacts on the land would be less than if it were to remain as an OHV recreation area.

However, some of the proposed military exercise routes would still impact areas that could have relatively higher desert tortoise density.  The exercise routes are not yet final, and should be adjusted to avoid the most biologically intact habitat.  Some of the areas under consideration for high impact exercises are assessed to host tortoise densities up to 31 tortoises per square mile. Not surprisingly, most of the most biologically intact areas appear to be in parts of the OHV area that are less accessible or contain fewer vehicle race course routes.
The western portion of the map assesses desert tortoise density per square kilometer, with an overlay of theoretical exercise routes that would have high impacts.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Speak Up For An Energy Policy That Preserves Pristine Desert

The Federal government is currently reviewing a broad policy shift that could encourage solar energy development on thousands of square miles of pristine public land in America's deserts, according to its Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Draft EIS).  Unfortunately, the new policy fails to consider a much better alternative, which is to encourage solar energy development on rooftops and on already-disturbed lands.  After a summary of the policy's potential impacts, you can read below to learn how to submit public comments on the policy as a concerned citizen, and urge a smarter approach.

Summary of the Policy:
The Departments of Interior and Energy are jointly reviewing three alternative policies for permitting solar energy on public land.   Each alternative makes a different amount of public land available to energy companies, but the government estimates that companies will use 214,000 acres (334 square miles) within 20 years.

  • The "No Action Alternative" would basically maintain the status quo and allow energy companies to apply for use of any of our public lands.  This is not ideal since over the past two years the Federal government has granted approval to several solar projects on prime habitat for imperiled wildlife, even though there are less destructive places to build solar facilities.  
  • The "Solar Development Program Alternative" would allow energy companies to apply for use of over 21,581,154 acres (33,720 square miles) of land in America's southwest.  This is the government's "preferred alternative."  Although this is less than the total amount of public land available under the status quo, it would still give energy companies access to sites that are important to the ecological health of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.  It prioritizes the wishes of energy companies over long-term land stewardship.
  • The "Solar Energy Zone Alternative" would designate 677,384 acres (1,058 square miles) of public land as special zones for solar energy companies.  California would bear most of the cost, with over 339,000 acres of solar energy zones (SEZ) that would severely fragment the State's desert ecosystems.  The "Riverside East SEZ" would destroy a stretch of mixed creosote scrub, dune, and ironwood wash habitat stretching from Joshua Tree National Park all the way to California's border with Arizona, and another SEZ in the Mojave would wipe out one of the last remaining pockets of a rare wildflower.
What is Missing?
I know what you're thinking.  The Solar Energy Zone Alternative is what you'd vote for because 1,058 square miles is less than 33,000 square miles.  But this policy is missing an option that creates incentives for solar energy companies to put solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already-disturbed land.  As I mentioned earlier this month, the EPA's "RE-Powering America's Land" program has identified millions of acres of already-disturbed land that are ripe for solar energy development.  Why does the Draft EIS ignore the EPA's program and not present incentives for development on these already-disturbed lands?

A desert tortoise foraging on one of the proposed Solar Energy Zones in the Mojave Desert.  Photo from CEC EIS document.
The Draft EIS takes a narrow approach to solar energy policy at a time when we should be thinking outside the box.  The Department of Interior should accept that our pristine deserts are not an ideal place to build solar energy facilities, and should instead evaluate a fourth alternative that provides incentives for solar on already-disturbed land and on rooftops.  Even the projected development of 334 square miles could decimate our desert ecosystems, especially in California where the bulk of this industrialization is expected to occur.

A single solar project site can have impacts that reverberate throughout the desert.  For example, the approved Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will destroy over 5 square miles of habitat in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  Since the beginning of construction last fall, over 50 desert tortoises have been displaced or killed on the site.  This endangered species is in decline throughout its range and biologists are trying to defend it from the threats of urbanization, disease, invasive species and illegal off-highway vehicle use.   Solar energy development could push the desert tortoise closer to extinction as projects like Ivanpah destroy some of its best habitat and fragment its population, halting genetic linkages that are crucial to the overall health of the species.

Speak Up:
The government is currently accepting public comments on this plan.  Your comments can encourage the government to take a smarter approach to renewable energy development.   Submit comments at the Draft EIS website at this link by March 17th.  

Feel free to use some of the following talking points in your comments:
  • We need to increase generation of renewable energy in order to limit harmful greenhouse gas emissions.  However, the Draft Programmatic EIS focuses on an unnecessarily destructive method of achieving this goal by sacrificing treasured public lands. 
  • The Draft Programmatic EIS should include a fourth alternative that encourages distributed generation (commonly referred to as "rooftop solar") or development on already-disturbed lands.
  • The Departments of Interior and Energy should work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to institute incentives for energy companies that build on lands identified in EPA's "RE-Powering America's Land Program," or on other lands that have been previously disturbed for agriculture or industry.
  • The Draft EIS does not adequately assess the environmental impacts of industrial development in either of the three proposed alternatives, nor does it assess the impacts of transmission line upgrades that will be required by the projects.  In addition to the lack of a disturbed lands and distributed generation alternative, an inadequate understanding of the cumulative impacts of such widespread energy development in America's southwest will hinder the government's ability to identify which policy represents an ideal way forward for renewable energy.
  • The "Solar Energy Development" program should not be the "preferred alternative," since it closely resembles the status quo, whereby energy companies are applying to use sites that are inappropriate for industrial development.  This program will still result in a lengthy and expensive environmental review process for energy companies, and it will severely fragment America's desert ecosystems.
  • The "Solar Energy Zones" identified in the Draft Programmatic EIS would concentrate development on pristine desert habitat of importance to imperiled plant and wildlife. The Riverside East, Pisgah, and Iron Mountain Zones in California will have significant cumulative impacts on the threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizard and desert tortoise.  The Imperial Zone has already been determined to contain hundreds of sites of cultural significance to Native American tribes, and prime habitat for the threatened flat-tailed horned lizard.  
  • Hundreds of square miles of industrial development in these zones will lead to cumulative ecological damage that the proposed mitigation measures will not be able to reverse.

Is this the future of our desert ecosystems?

Or can we preserve our deserts for future generations, and build solar energy on already-disturbed lands and rooftops?

Environmental Organizations Demand Wiser Desert Solar Policy

The editorial below was jointly authored by the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Wilderness Society in response to wayward government policy that could needlessly sacrifice hundreds of square miles of pristine desert to solar energy development.  These groups are finally showing much needed leadership on a vexing issue -- that not all renewable energy is "green." I explore the issue in more depth in "Green vs. Greed." 

The bottom line is that the Department of Interior is willing to permit solar energy development on desert habitat, even though millions of acres of already-disturbed lands are being ignored by our government and energy companies.  Additionally, rooftop solar programs have not yet tapped the full potential of distributed generation in our cities.  Our energy policy needs to break free from the old paradigm of massive transmission lines and facilities and take advantage of the true benefit of solar -- that it can be generated wherever the sun shines.  There is no need to bulldoze fragile ecosystems.

Although I disagree with some of the conclusions in the editorial--such as the implication that the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone is a wise place to build solar facilities--we can at least agree on the fact that there are better places to start building our renewable energy future than on pristine public land.

The editorial was originally published by the San Diego Union-Tribune on 18 February.

Sunny Southern California is one of the hottest markets for solar energy development. Over the past year, a record amount of solar energy has been permitted in California – enough to power more than 1 million homes with clean, renewable electricity. This year, we can expect to see more proposals for solar power projects, which could lead to new jobs, a stronger economy and a cleaner environment.
Such quick growth, however, doesn’t come without growing pains. And the solar energy industry has been no exception. Much of the solar energy permitted last year will come from large-scale solar power projects that will be built on public lands in the California desert. The piecemeal process used to plan, locate and permit these projects over the past year has often led to significant resource conflicts, frustration and uncertainty. And despite hard work and improvements, some of the projects pose serious impacts on water, wildlife and the environment.

California’s public lands are valuable not only for their solar energy potential. They also provide irreplaceable habitat for imperiled wildlife such as desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and golden eagles. In addition, they’re prized by local communities for their recreation opportunities, open space, intrinsic beauty and the tourist dollars they bring.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have solar energy development in the desert. In fact, there are many good locations. Already degraded lands like former industrial sites, brownfields and abandoned agricultural lands are the kinds of places to look at first for solar development because they would have the least impacts on wildlife and natural resources.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has issued a draft plan that would guide solar energy development on public lands it manages. The plan aims to reduce conflict and speed development by identifying solar energy zones that have high solar resources, are close to existing roads and transmission lines and have the fewest impacts on wildlife habitat, wild lands and other important resources.

A zones approach to solar energy development on public lands, if designed correctly, could lead to faster siting, less harm to wildlife and the environment, and greater certainty for project developers and investors. Unfortunately, the Interior Department’s proposal hasn’t got it quite right yet.

The problem is that the plan, in addition to laying out 24 solar zones in six states – some 677,000 acres of high solar potential lands – would also open nearly 22 million more acres of public lands to possible solar development. Opening so many acres would not resolve the conflicts over solar development – it would just lead to increased uncertainty and guaranteed strife. It’s also unnecessary – the Bureau of Land Management’s own study estimates that we need fewer than 300,000 acres to reach our clean energy goals.

To make matters worse, the plan includes little analysis of the wildlife and environmental impacts of development. For example, if the Bureau of Land Management had done more review, it would have likely determined that the Pisgah and Iron Mountain zones are not right for solar development. These places contain important habitat for threatened desert tortoises and pristine lands that have been recommended as wilderness. Both these zones should be taken off the table. Instead, conservation groups have suggested analysis of disturbed lands in the West Mojave area and a possible zone near the Chocolate Mountains.

Next week, the Interior Department is hosting public meetings in Sacramento and Barstow to discuss and take public comment on the solar development plan. Californians still have a chance to improve the proposal. To get this right, the Interior Department must revise the plan to focus development in only the appropriate zones – places with nearby roads and transmission, and the lowest possible conflicts with wildlife habitat and natural resources. The final plans should lay out clear guidelines for how projects should be built and operated to reduce environmental impacts. And the Bureau of Land Management should give the public confidence, through a strong environmental analysis, that its plan will lead to responsible renewable energy development on public lands. With these improvements, we can have a clean energy future that’s “smart from the start.” The Interior Department’s plan is not there yet.

Boyle is senior representative of the Sierra Club. O’Shea is deputy director of the Western Renewable Energy Project of Natural Resources Defense Council. Delfino is California program director of Defenders of Wildlife. Eaton is deputy vice president of public lands, The Wilderness Society.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Massive Searchlight Wind Project a Danger to Desert Birds

I've written a lot about energy companies rushing to build massive solar facilities in America's deserts --mostly on pristine habitat that is home to a variety of rare plant and wildlife.  Wind projects also threaten these ecosystems, including the proposed Searchlight Wind project to be built by Duke Energy in Nevada.  Even though wind energy projects may not require as much ground disturbance as solar energy facilities, the spinning blades have been proven to kill rare bat species, golden eagles, vultures, and other birds. 

The Searchlight Project, near the town of Searchlight, would place up to 160 giant wind turbines on up to 14 square miles of public land.  At least 40 miles of new roads will scar the area to reach each turbine.   Basin and Range Watch has covered the proposal extensively on its website, and they also provide some beautiful photos of the area.

The danger to desert birds is real, but most people tend to think wind energy farms are "environmentally friendly", simply because they do not emit greenhouse gasses.  The American Bird Conservancy is collecting petition signatures to urge the Federal government to consider more careful siting and development of wind energy.

Underscoring the dangers of wind power to birds, the You Tube video embedded below shows an unfortunate collision between a vulture and a wind turbine.  Please be warned that the video is graphic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Desert Rain: The Sequel

The Mojave Desert is receiving another round of rain showers tonight, with chances of rain forecast for next week, as well.  Readers of this blog and residents of Southern California will remember the nearly 5 days of rain showers that pounded the desert in late December, setting the stage for a potentially great wildflower season this spring.  Todays rains could improve our chances for a good show. 

Mojave Monkeyflower blooming in late March 2010 in the Mojave National Preserve.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tessera Solar Trading Public Land and Money

Tessera Solar LLC recently sold its rights to build the Imperial Valley Solar project on over 10 square miles of pristine desert to AES Solar.   Tessera Solar received approval by the Federal government last year to build the solar facility on the vast tract of public land that also contains threatened species and hundreds of sites of cultural significance to the Quechan Tribe, but Tessera did not have the money to build the project.  The Quechan tribe filed a lawsuit against the Federal government for approving the project without understanding the cultural resources that would be destroyed, and a judge ruled in December that the government likely failed to properly consult with the tribe, ordering a halt to any construction plans.  AES Solar will not be able to build on the site until the case is resolved, which could take years.

Tessera Solar also sold its Calico Solar power project rights to K Road Power in December.  In some ways, Tessera Solar's dealings resemble the mortgage derivatives that led to the collapse of markets in recent years, since Tessera Solar has been trading in the promise of developing on public land that it does not own in the hope of building facilities that will require taxpayer-backed financing to be successful.  What is worse, both projects sold by Tessera to other companies are under judicial review, since the Sierra Club filed a legal challenge against California's approval of the Calico Solar power project.

Companies are making money from the distant prospect of destroying public land, using public money.   This does not sound like a sustainable industry, and I hope we realize soon that our beautiful desert vistas, and rare plant and wildlife face the threat of unnecessary destruction at the whim of poor business decisions made by companies that depend on taxpayer life support.  We can cut down our carbon emissions and improve energy independence by building solar on rooftops or already-disturbed land--we should not sacrifice our few remaining wild places.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Who Should Lead Our Renewable Energy Policy?

The Department of Interior plans to make millions of acres of mostly pristine desert land in America's southwest available to energy companies as part of its solar energy development proposal.   Much of this energy development will take place in California's deserts, and threatens to drive rare plants and wildlife to extinction.  The light is shining so brightly on Interior's misguided proposal that we have forgotten a promising effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build renewable energy on already-disturbed land instead of our treasured open space.

There is a need for the Department of Interior to reform its renewable energy siting process, which prompted it to draft its solar energy development proposal, and there is certainly a need to increase America's generation of clean energy.  But where we generate this energy is just as important as why we need to -- preservation of our natural resources.    So why does Washington's premier policy proposal to increase clean energy production ignore a reasonable compromise in favor of an alternative that will decimate an ecosystem?  In its draft environmental review for the program, Interior fails to consider other alternatives to generate renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, or developing on private lands.

Yet another government agency is getting it right.  It's just that nobody is paying attention.  The EPA's RE-Powering America program has identified 1.2 million acres of contaminated or already-disturbed lands potentially suitable for solar energy development.  Only a fraction of this total would be necessary to meet project renewable energy demand.  The sites include abandoned mines, decommissioned land-fills, and industrial sites.  These sites are of very low economic value to the communities we live in, so building on these sites is unlikely to present economic conflicts.  And because the land is already-disturbed, environmental impacts would likely be minimal.

Just imagine if BrightSource Energy had invested in developing on lands identified by the EPA instead of building on BLM-administered land in California -- we would not be losing 5.6 square miles of pristine desert habitat; we would not be displacing or killing over 50 desert tortoises; we would not be driving a rare and little-understood desert plant close to extinction; we would not be fragmenting a fragile yet inspiring ecosystem.  So why is the Department of Interior--an agency charged with caring for public lands and ensuring their value to future generations--also tasked with accommodating big energy companies?

If Washington is serious about truly "green" energy, it would consider sparing the natural beauty of public land and work to create incentives for development on EPA's list of disturbed lands.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Glimpse of What is at Stake: New Plant Species

The cavedwelling evening primrose (Oenothera cavernae), a rare desert forb, was discovered in the Ivanpah Valley in 2006, and it is still being studied by botanists.   Desert experts continue to discover new species of plants and reptiles in California's desert, so it is understandable that citizens are concerned about Federal government and energy company plans to bulldoze hundreds of square miles of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, likely wiping out undiscovered or little-understood species.

A photo of the cavedwelling evening primrose (Oenothera cavernae) in bloom.  Photo by James M. Andre, copyright 2008.
Energy companies plan to destroy over 20 square miles of pristine desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to build three solar facilities--Stateline and Silver State by First Solar Inc, and ISEGS by BrightSource Energy.  Some environmental organization shave asked developers to move such projects to land that is already disturbed or, better yet, distributed generation (rooftop solar).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Destructive First Solar Projects Loom Over Ivanpah Valley

Southern California Edison announced this month a plan to buy solar power from First Solar Inc.'s proposed Silver State South solar project.    The "power purchase agreement" gives the solar energy company more confidence that its project would be economically viable.  However, the Silver State South project is proposed for an ecologically important area of the Mojave Desert known as the Ivanpah Valley, which is home to an abundant and thriving desert tortoise population, according to biological surveys of the area, even though the species is declining in the rest of its range.  Biologists have also discovered a new plant species in the area.

First Solar has not received Federal approval to build the Silver State South project, which would destroy over 12 square miles of pristine desert.  The Department of Interior approved the smaller Silver State North project--approximately 500 acres--but declined to give the green light to the South project, citing concerns over impacts on the endangered desert tortoise.  First Solar is also considering building the "Stateline" solar power project, also proposed for the Ivanpah Valley, although this has not yet progressed beyond initial planning.

First Solar is likely to encounter significant hurdles in its attempts to build in the Ivanpah Valley given the significant environmental concerns.  It's not clear why First Solar chose sites here, and the company could have pursued projects on already-disturbed land or invested in more distributed generation projects.  The Ivanpah Valley projects would necessitate a costly upgrade to the transmission lines in the area, causing even more ecological damage.

In January, Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior for approving BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which would share the same valley with First Solar's projects.  The legal challenge points to numerous shortcomings in the environmental review process, approving the project without adequate understanding of mitigation measures, and not reviewing the transmission line upgrade that would be necessary for the solar facility to be fully functional.  Biologists have already displaced 50 desert tortoises during initial clearing of the BrightSource Energy site, despite only estimating a maximum of 38 for the entire project.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Clock Ticking for Calico Solar Site

K Road Power, the company that purchased the rights from Tessera Solar to build the proposed Calico Solar power project, recently told the Desert Dispatch that they could begin bulldozing the site as early as August.   The Calico site is one of several locations poorly chosen by energy companies for solar development, and is home to a high density population of desert tortoise and a pocket of rare plants found in only a few other spots in the world.  The Sierra Club filed a legal challenge against the State of California for approving the project on such ecologically important land.

K Road Power (and its subsidiary, K Road Solar), expect to change the original plan of development to use fewer of Tessera Solar's "Suncatcher" dishes, and more photovoltaic panels.  The change in technology almost certainly will necessitate a new environmental review because of differences in ground disturbance and water flow during rain storms. 

The Calico site after a winter rain shower with the Cady Mountains in the distance.
Although the Calico site layout was reduced in order to lessen impacts on endangered species, the project would still displace or kill at least 22 desert tortoises, according to biological surveys.  The site also hosts one of the few pockets of rare white-margined beardtongue plants, and would block wildlife movement along the Cady Mountains.

The rare white-margined beardtongue plant found on the Calico site.

A desert tortoise foraging on the proposed Calico Solar site.  Photo from a CEC biological resources report.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Center for Biological Diversity Opposes Palen Solar Project

The California Energy Commission (CEC) rejected a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) opposing the Palen Solar power project.  The CEC approved the project, proposed by Solar Millennium LLC for nearly 8 square miles of the Chuckwalla Valley, in December.  CBD argues that the CEC violated California law when it approved the Palen Solar project before the Department of Interior gave its final approval to the project, which will have direct and indirect impacts on critical habitat and wildlife management areas.  The Commission is under immense political pressure to favor energy companies in its decisions, and has been heavily criticized for bending and breaking laws to permit fast-track solar power projects.

California State public resources code requires that the State not permit any facility on lands designated for wildlife protection until the land management agency has approved the project.  According to Interior's website for the project, Federal approval has not yet been issued.

The Commission responded to CBD's petition that the State did not violate the law because the public resources code only applies to lands designated as necessary for wildlife preservation as of 1975, which precedes the designation of the wildlife management areas impacted by the Palen Solar project.  The relevant public resources code is copied below, and the Commission's rejection of CBD's petition hinges on one phrase in the law and the last paragraph [emphasis added]:
The following areas of the state shall not be approved as a site for a facility, unless the commission finds that such use is not inconsistent with the primary uses of such lands and that there will be no substantial adverse environmental effects and the approval of any public agency having ownership or control of such lands is obtained:
(a) State, regional, county and city parks; wilderness, scenic or natural reserves; areas for wildlife protection, recreation, historic preservation; or natural preservation areas in existence on the effective date of this division.
(b) Estuaries in an essentially natural and undeveloped state.
In considering applications for certification, the commission shall give the greatest consideration to the need for protecting areas of critical environmental concern, including, but not limited to, unique and irreplaceable scientific, scenic, and educational wildlife habitats; unique historical, archaeological, and cultural sites; lands of hazardous concern; and areas under consideration by the state or the United States for wilderness, or wildlife and game reserves.
The CEC's response relies heavily on interpretations of grammar to make its point, stating that the use of semicolons were not intended to prevent the "effective date" clause from applying to the preceding language.  The CEC also argues that the "State" at the beginning of subsection (a) applies to the rest of the subsection, so none of the wildlife and natural area concerns were intended to apply to Federal lands.

In its rush to approve dozens of square miles of solar power projects on public land, the CEC appears to have forgotten the intent of the law--to protect "areas of critical environmental concern" and "areas under consideration by the state or the United States for wilderness or wildlife conservation".   I highly doubt that the authors of the law wrote it for the sake of displaying intricate understanding of grammar.  To the contrary, they were imploring the Commission to protect our country's natural resources for future generations.  

The Palen Solar power project is assessed to have harmful impacts on desert tortoise habitat, wildlife corridors, and the threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizard.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Two Court Rulings Favor Citizens Seeking to Preserve Deserts

Over the past week, two major court rulings were handed down that vindicate Americans demanding that the government take a wiser approach to land use in California's deserts.

Off-Road Vehicles 
In the first ruling on 29 January, Honorable Susan Illston of the United States District Court ordered the Department of the Interior to take steps that limit the impacts of off-road vehicle (ORV) recreation on public lands in the West Mojave.  The judge ordered the Department to study and designate new off-road vehicle routes by March 2014, clearly mark routes that are legal for off-road use, monitor the land for signs of illegal ORV use, and provide sufficient enforcement capacity.   ORV use--if not probably checked--causes severe degradation of desert habitat through collisions with endangered species such as the desert tortoise, and the compaction of desert soil that prevents plants and wildflowers from thriving, impacting the entire food chain.

The Bureau of Land Management--part of the Department of the Interior--has been faulted for drafting a West Mojave plan in 2006 that would permit 5,098 miles of ORV routes.  The Court initially ruled in September 2009 that the route designations violated the California Desert Conservation Act, which does not permit new ORV routes beyond those that were in existence in 1980, when the Act was passed.  Since 1980, ORV routes continued to be carved into the desert illegally.   The judges ruling in January is the follow-up to the 2009 decision, and lays out specific actions that the Bureau of Land Management must take to be in compliance with the law.

Transmission Corridors
In the second ruling on 1 February, the Ninth District Court ruled 2-1 that the Department of Energy failed to conduct a necessary environmental review of its proposal to designate national transmission line corridors throughout America's southwestern deserts.  The Court also pointed out that the Department of Energy failed to adequately consult with the States affected by the plan, and unnecessarily withheld information on a grid "congestion"study that informed the Department's transmission plans.

The plan, called the National Interested Electrical Transmission Corridors (NIETC), would have designated millions of acres throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts where energy companies could build new transmission lines.  The NIETC also grants the government the ability to exercise eminent domain over private property in order to build transmission lines that benefit energy companies and utilities.  The Department of Energy argued that it did not need to conduct an environmental review because the impacts of its plan were not significant, and no construction would take place until a specific project was proposed.  However, the Court pointed out that the designated transmission corridors would force energy companies to develop in chosen areas, so the establishment of a corridor itself should be expected to result in development.  The Court found that the scale of such development almost certainly would have impacts necessitating environmental review.

The lawsuit was brought against the Department of Energy by a number of organizations and supported by many individual intervenors, including The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the California Wilderness Coalition.  Intervenors included the Desert Protective Council, San Bernardino Valley Audobon, and the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy.

A screenshot of a BLM map depicting transmission corridors, proposed solar and wind projects, military lands, ORV areas, and some conserved lands.  Many competing uses of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts have led to a besieged ecosystem.