Saving Ivanpah

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2011 recommended that no further large-scale development be permitted in the Ivanpah Valley, warning that destroying more desert habitat in the area could sever or impair a critical linkage between desert tortoise populations, according to its Biological Opinion.  According to the FWS:
If development in the Ivanpah Valley severed population connectivity, it would essentially isolate the Eldorado Valley population from the rest of the recovery unit.
We recommend that the Bureau amend the necessary land use plans to prohibit large- scale development (e.g., solar energy facilities, wind development, etc.) within all remaining portions of the Ivanpah Valley to reduce fragmentation within the critical linkage between the Ivanpah Critical Habitat Unit and the El Dorado Critical Habitat Unit.
This recommendation was issued after the Department of Interior approved two large solar projects (ISEGS and Silver State North) and a high-speed rail line for construction in Ivanpah, pushing the viability of the tortoise linkage to the limit.  In addition to the FWS biological opinion, the revised desert tortoise recovery plan issued last year indicated that connecting blocks of desert tortoise habitat, such as tortoise conservation areas, was necessary in order to maintain gene flow between populations.  The Department of Interior also identified Ivanpah as a "desert tortoise connectivity corridor" in its draft supplement to the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.  And a panel of independent scientists advised the Renewable Energy Action Team in 2010 to adhere to a strategy of "no regrets" in the near-term, since the rush of solar and wind projects in the desert was outpacing our ability to understand the impacts on the desert ecosystem.

The overwhelming array of recommendations and guidance underscoring the importance of protecting Ivanpah has yet to actually change the way we manage the land there, and saving Ivanpah from further industrial development takes on added significance this year as Interior continues to evaluate two proposals by First Solar to build the Stateline and Silver State South solar projects. The projects would destroy several more square miles of habitat in Ivanpah and almost certainly jeopardize the critical genetic linkage.
A photo by Basin and Range Watch showing rich Mojave Desert scrub habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.
Many citizens and environmental groups are now backing a proposal to designate the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) that I posted about previously on this blog.   A coalition of groups already back the ACEC proposal, including: Basin and Range Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Desert Biodiversity, Desert Tortoise Council, and the Desert Protective Council.   Earlier in February, the Desert Committee of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee voted unanimously to support the ACEC proposal. Although the tortoise linkage is probably the most well-known aspect to Ivanpah,  the healthy tortoise population there undoubtedly benefits from a rich assemblage of other plants and wildlife, some of which are rare in their own right, including White-margined Penstemon, Mojave milkweed, Gila Monster, and Western Burrowing Owl.

Designating an Ivanpah ACEC makes sense considering the sweeping negative impact that could befall long-term tortoise recovery efforts if the linkage is cut off.  Preventing further destruction of Ivanpah by large-scale solar facilities also makes sense, considering that permitting the two additional First Solar projects would set a new precedent of ignoring science-based recommendations and go against the wisdom of a zone-based approach to renewable energy siting advocated by national environmental organizations.

Ivanpah simply is not a suitable place for industrial scale energy development.  We learned that the hard way with BrightSource Energy's ill-sited Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  It's time to correct course and designate remaining habitat there as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

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