Thursday, August 30, 2012

Desert Report - New Issue Available

The September issue of the Sierra Club Desert Committee's Desert Report is now available, and contains some great articles on a range of issues impacting desert conservation. Check it out!

Here are some of the issue's contents:

• The Colorado River Delta: Present And Future
• Las Vegas Valley’s Treasure Trove Of Ice Age Fossils
• Fast, Furious, And Anonymous: Off-Road Vehicle Riders Violate The Law With Impunity
• The Palo Verde Mesa: Sacrificed For Solar Energy
• An Ill-Wind Blows In Ocotillo, California
• The Death Of The California Desert
• Saving The Greater Sage-Grouse…And The Sagebrush Sea
• Desert Tortoise Conservation
• Outings
• Current Issues

Monday, August 27, 2012

Solar for All

Rooftop solar is already revolutionizing the way we think about energy.  Instead of letting utility companies call the shots, destroy our wildlands, burn fossil fuels, and then send us charge us for this destruction,  local solar installations allow us to invest in our communities, cut carbon emissions, save wildlands, and give us leverage over our utility companies.  This is frightening to utility companies, and they have sought to weaken any policy initiatives that would encourage greater adoption of rooftop solar.

In California, legislators introduced a bill known as "Solar for All" (AB 1990) that would mandate that utility companies buy 190 megawatts of clean energy generated by solar panels in our cities.  The fate of this effort is uncertain, as utility company lobbyists are hitting Sacramento to fight local clean energy.  As Sierra Club My Generation organizer put it in a recent opinion piece in the San Bernardino Sun:
The source of Edison's and other private utilities' opposition is straightforward. As more and more of their customers tap into rooftop solar, private utilities are, for really the first time, being forced to compete for customers. -- Allen Hernandez, Sierra Club.
The "Solar for All" bill is expected to come up for a vote this week,  as noted in today's ReWire piece on KCETIf you live in California, tell your Assemblymember to support the AB 1990 Solar for All bill.  You can find more information on how to contact your Assemblymember at the Sierra Club My Generation action page.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Feds Signal Approval for Project Despite Incomplete Research

The Department of Interior has placed First Solar’s Silver State South solar project on the notorious “fast track” list, which means senior political appointees in Washington probably expect to approve the project within the next year, rushing ahead of studies still in progress to understand how the project will impact desert tortoise habitat connectivity.  According to an initial report obtained by Basin and Range Watch, biologists were slated to begin a full year of data collection this year aimed at understanding whether or not First Solar's project will cut off genetic connectivity between different tortoise populations by destroying a narrow slice of habitat linking two regions of the Mojave Desert.   The researchers are studying nearby swaths of rougher and higher elevation desert terrain for their potential to provide connectivity from the Ivanpah Valley to other regions of the desert -- if they do not serve as a genetic linkage, the First Solar project could deliver a significant blow to the recovery of the imperiled desert tortoise.
Maintaining connectivity between large core habitat areas is important for preserving gene flow among individuals of a population. Gene flow promotes higher genetic variability, or heterozygosity, which improves overall fitness of a species. – Biological Resources Technical Report for the Silver State South Solar project.
Initial surveys of the proposed Silver State South project site have already revealed a healthy tortoise population – with anywhere from 3 to 27 tortoises per square mile. The local tortoise population apparently experienced a decline four years ago, possibly due to a severe drought, but surveys in 2011 showed that 7% of the tortoises encountered on the project site were juveniles, a sign that the local population may be on the rebound.

[Click on image to expand] This Google Earth image shows First Solar's Silver State Right of Way in purple, covering a patch of suitable tortoise habitat that links two larger populations of the species.  The two red boxes are the approximate areas being studied to determine whether they also provide a genetic linkage for the species, even though they consist of rougher and higher elevation terrain.
The tortoise is one part of a vibrant desert ecosystem that would be bulldozed to make way for photovoltaic solar panels – the same technology that can be placed more sustainably on rooftops or over parking lots. If approved, the Silver State South project would destroy habitat for over 150 plant, 36 bird, and 12 reptile species, some of them considered imperiled by both Nevada and Federal wildlife officials.

The year-long tortoise habitat connectivity study probably started in the spring of 2012, suggesting the research may not be complete before Interior releases the “fast track” environmental impact statement for the project later this year. The draft document almost certainly will select a “preferred alternative” without waiting for the study’s crucial findings, and a final decision could be issued before the research is even complete, assuming the research requires a full year of data collection as noted in the initial biological report.
Ecologically intact desert habitat where First Solar proposes building its large Silver State South solar project, threatening to displace or kill dozens of desert tortoises. Beyond the Lucy Gray mountains in the distance lies another area of desert habitat that researchers are studying to determine whether or not it supports genetic connectivity for the desert tortoise. If it does not, then the First Solar project could deliver a significant setback to the recovery of the threatened desert tortoise.
Leaping before looking has been standard practice under Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who signed off on BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project in 2010 despite concerns that the tortoise estimates were too low. Those concerns turned out to be well-founded, and the project was temporarily halted after Interior realized the number of tortoises displaced or killed by the project would exceed initial estimates by well over 100. Another “fast track” project known as Imperial Valley Solar was halted after a judge found that the Department of Interior did not adequately consult with Native American tribes, which stood to lose sacred sites and burial grounds to the project.   And in Riverside County, the Genesis Solar power project likely caused an outbreak of deadly canine distemper among desert kit fox, and also threatens to destroy Native American burial grounds that were not identified during the rushed environmental review.

First Solar’s proposed Silver State South solar project is the second phase of a smaller solar facility- Silver State North - that is already in operation in the Ivanpah Valley. That smaller project and BrightSource Energy’s notorious Ivanpah Solar project have already destroyed just under 6 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat. If approved, First Solar’s Silver State South project could push that number to over 10 square miles, wreaking havoc on a remote swath of desert.  The Silver State South project footprints under consideration in the Biological Resources Technical Report range  from 4 to 6 square miles in size, but the BLM website currently lists the size as 2.2 square miles.

Basin and Range Watch submitted a proposal to classify the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.   Ironically, the Department of Interior also acknowledged the conservation value of the Ivanpah Valley when it decided in its Solar Energy Development Program that no further industrial-scale energy development should be permitted in the area to preserve its ecological importance, and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan also labels the Ivanpah Valley as a proposed conservation area.  Both of these plans, however, make exceptions for industry proposals on the books before late 2011, which has allowed First Solar to move forward with its Silver State South and Stateline solar projects.

Embedded below is a PDF copy of the list of plant and animal species observed in the desert where First Solar plans to build the Silver State South project. The list is a result of surveys conducted by Ironwood Consulting as part of the Biological Technical Resources Report.
Silver State South Species List

Sunday, August 19, 2012


The death of desert solitude.

Originally a pristine view of Mojave Desert wildlands and the Spirit Mountain in southern Nevada. [click on image to expand]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Aerial Photos Show Wind Project's Toll on the Desert

Pattern Energy has begun clearing beautiful desert near Anza-Borrego State Park for the nearly 16 square mile Ocotillo Express Wind project.  Once completed, the facility will consist of 112 wind turbines, each one standing over 400 feet tall, and requiring wide new roads carved into the fragile desert soil.

Photographer Phillip Colla gives us a birds-eye view of the beginning phase of the destruction with a series of images available at his website.  The photos were made possible by aviation support provided by LightHawk.

A photograph of preparations for a single wind turbine pad.  Notice the new dirt road, and clearing around the pad, with a deep pit that will be filled with tons of cement and steel to anchor the turbine.  Photo by Phillip Colla. Aviation support provided by LightHawk.

Wide new roads are carved into the desert soil to accommodate construction traffic and the arrival of turbine parts larger than an average home.  The disturbance of the soil for roads will invite invasive plant species, create dust storms, and lead to further erosion of the adjacent desert habitat.  Photo by Phillip Colla. Aviation support provided by LightHawk
A large swath of the desert is ripped open by Pattern Energy, probably to accommodate cement mixing operations.  Wind turbines require large amounts of cement and steel to anchor the massive structures in the ground.  Both ingredients require greenhouse gas intensive manufacturing. Photo by Phillip Colla. Aviation support provided by LightHawk

This destruction for new pads and roads will be repeated to accommodate 112 turbines across an area larger than downtown San Diego, shattering the quiet and peaceful desert landscape. Photo by Phillip Colla. Aviation support provided by LightHawk

A photo of the desert habitat that is being destroyed and fragmented to make way for Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Express Wind project.  Majestic Ocotillo plants tower over other cacti and shrubs, blooming after spring rains. Photo by Terry Weiner.

This photo shows a truck carrying just one section of a single turbine to the project site -- the beginning of an industrial landscape near Ocotillo, California.  The project will require dozens of additional trips by long-haul trucks to bring all of the required components.  Photo by Jim Pelley.

A single blade for a wind turbine requires its own diesel truck and two cranes.  The blade dwarfs the desert vegetation. Photo by Park Ewing.

Earth movers have graded some of the intact desert. Photo by Tom Budlong.
Ocotillo plants and cactus are discarded after Pattern Energy bulldozed this once intact desert habitat.  Photo by Tom Budlong.

As climate change, urban sprawl and other industrial uses target our wildlands, we should be challenging ourselves to adopt a more sustainable renewable energy path focused on improving our energy efficiency,  and deploying solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already-disturbed lands.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Desert Lands Policy: Wind Industry Gets Reality Check

If you have been listening to the the past few stakeholder conferences for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) -- an inter-agency effort to protect desert ecosystems while identifying areas suitable for renewable energy in California's deserts -- then you know that representatives from the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) sound disappointed as their plans to industrialize much of California's desert wildlands meet resistance.   Some of the DRECP's proposed development focus areas would only accommodate 2-17% of the nearly 2 million acres to which the wind industry initially requested access. The wind industry expressed frustration during the meetings, wondering aloud why they cannot bulldoze desert, carve hundreds of miles of new roads, and set up massive wind turbines standing over 400 feet tall across public lands.

It is a rude awakening for CalWEA and other industry officials to the realities of the desert, where stakeholders have been in line to exploit or enjoy the open landscapes long before the energy industry discovered a way to make profit in the desert.  At the end of the DRECP stakeholders process, it became evident that many areas sought after by the wind industry are of high importance not only to wildlife, but to military and recreation stakeholders, as well.

This map shows the areas in California's desert region where the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) expected to have the ability to build industrial wind energy facilities. The blue areas depict the "priority wind resoure areas", while the green shaded areas show portions of the priority wind resource areas where the average wind speed is high enough to justify investment under current market conditions -- clearly an overreach by the wind industry.
Authorities Aim to Prevent Avian Catastrophy
US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials involved in the DRECP process have taken a cautious approach to permitting wind energy facilities on desert lands, according to their presentation at a late July DRECP meeting. The officials indicated the need to prevent the decimation of the desert's fragile golden eagle population as it considers industry requests to build in the region, and the need for continued research on golden eagle presence and behavior.  The USFWS officials are considering siting practices that would limit or prohibit the construction of wind turbines or solar "power towers" within 4 miles of an active golden eagle nest, and limiting overall take -- the harassment or death of golden eagles -- to 5% of the total population in California.

[Click on image to expand] The map above was presented by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the DRECP stakeholders showing known golden eagle nests and projected four mile buffer zones where wind industry development presumably would be limited or prohibited.
USFWS probably wants to avoid the scenarios that have already played out at the Pine Tree Wind project in the western Mojave Desert, which has already killed several golden eagles and may be one of the deadliest to birds and bats.  The wind industry's own version of science claims that avian mortality can be reduced with bigger turbines, yet the Pine Tree project already uses such large turbines, and a new study suggests that the large turbines may be more deadly to bats.

The wind industry's response to USFWS has been hostile. CalWEA officials at the July stakeholders meeting for the DRECP claimed that the science behind USFWS concern was lacking -- an ironic statement to make for an industry that is coordinating with the pro-wind American Wind Wildlife Institute to produce "studies" that support industry's  own version of "science," according to a leaked wind industry strategy document.

Wind Industry Claims Wildlife and Industry Coexist
During the DRECP stakeholders meeting, wind industry representatives claimed that wildlife and industrial facilities can coexist -- claims reminiscent of BrightSource Energy's propaganda suggesting that desert ecosystems could flourish underneath the company's massive mirrors and steel towers, even though vegetation is mowed down and soil is compacted or graded. The bottom line is that wind industry facilities on wildlands require miles of new roads wide enough to accommodate construction vehicles and the delivery and installation of towers over 400 feet tall.  The construction activity destroys habitat, contributed to erosion of soils, and introduces invasive plant species.  Once in place, the tower's spinning blades pose a threat to birds and bats, with over 440,000 birds being killed each year, according to a study highlighted by the American Bird Conservancy. 

An aerial photo of wind turbines in the western Mojave Desert, pushing raptors from foraging territory and industrializing otherwise peaceful desert habitat.
Military Red Zones
CalWEA likely expected the challenge from wildlife officials attempting to maintain the integrity of desert ecosystems.  What they did not expect was the Department of Defense's interest in protecting a unique area for training and testing among an assemblage of military bases in the desert that has not be replicated anywhere else in the world. As noted by the Press-Enterprise in a May article, Defense officials have expressed concern to the DRECP stakeholders that spinning wind turbine blades interfere with radar signals, and that super-heated solar "power towers" can distract the thermal image-based targeting sensors of military weapons.  If wind and solar "power tower" facilities proliferate across the desert, training and testing ranges used by the Department of Defense would be disrupted.

[Click on image to expand] This screen shot of a map presented by the Department of Defense to DRECP stakeholders shows in red the DRECP's development focus areas where wind facilities would conflict with the military's mission needs. Other areas in blue, green and yellow depict military bases and training areas.
The Department of Defense plans to identify a "red zone" in California's desert where it would oppose most wind energy facilities, although the Department did express a willingness to consider projects on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not interference with military activities could be mitigated. It's not clear how this policy will play out, and some stakeholders questioned how wind facilities have been permitted in the western Mojave Desert, which appears to be included in the proposed "red zone." Yet BLM records also indicated that some wind projects have been stymied by military concerns, including Iberdola's planned Silurian Valley Wind project, which would destroy dozens of square miles of pristine desert north of Baker, California.

Industry Squeezing Recreation
The military is already claiming some prized off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation areas as new training grounds -- now the wind industry wants to challenge the military and recreational visitors to the rest of the desert. Although the wind industry claims that the public will still have access to desert lands where wind facilities are built, the reality on the ground has been mixed.  Visitors -- including hikers and OHV riders -- have been barred from parts of Jawbone Canyon in the western Mojave Desert where wind facilities have been under construction.  Other visitors will find the landscapes unattractive -- the quiet and open deserts marred by the blight of massive and loud wind turbines.  The desert is often seen as a quiet getaway by many visitors.  According to a poll of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park, nearly 90% cited "views without development" as the reason for visiting the desert wildlands. Towers taller than the Statue of Liberty and new transmission lines probably are not compatible with the peaceful solitude many expect to find in the desert.

Industry Likely to Push Back
Local officials from the USFWS and military seem to be taking a policy approach that carefully considers the impact of industrial-scale energy facilities on desert resources -- a breath of fresh air from the typically blind approval the wind industry receives from political appointees and national environmental groups inside Washington's Beltway. CalWEA and the larger American Wind Energy Association have coordinated efforts and invested large sums of money to buy political support for the industry, which depends on access to vast swaths of public lands to continue making profit.  The industry likely will continue challenging science-based concerns by USFWS and the military in favor of Wall Street's bottom line, lobbying the White House and the Secretary of Interior to undermine barriers in its way.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Energy Efficiency vs. Desert Destruction

It is easy to overlook the power each individual can exercise simply by switching off lights that are not being used, upgrading appliances, or unplugging your cell phone charger.  A July 2009 study by McKinsey and Company found enormous energy efficiency potential in the United States, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory packaged that data in a map that helps us understand just how much money and electricity we could be saving if we lived more sustainably and built more efficient homes and appliances.

The 30 cities with the most potential energy efficiency savings could cut a combined 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh).  To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of shutting down dozens of dirty fossil fuel plants.   That energy savings is also the equivalent of nearly 241 desert-destroying solar projects like BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar facility, which has already decimated 5.6 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat.

[click on image to expand] This map by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows potential savings from energy efficiency across the United States. 
Why are we destroying grasslands in Wyoming, and desert in California for industrial-scale solar and wind projects when we could be pursuing more sustainable options to combat fossil fuels? 

It is just as easy to overlook the energy generation potential in our cities.  Rooftops, parking lots, and other already-disturbed lands.  Another set of graphics from NREL shows how many rooftops were adorned with solar panels since 2000.   Even without proper incentives, the market has spread considerably, adding over 160,000 installations and generating over 2,600 megawatts.  That is more than five times the output of the destructive Ivanpah Solar project in the desert.

White dots represent rooftop or other local solar panel installations.  You can watch the video at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's website.
Check out the time lapse video below of a solar installation over a parking lot.  How many parking lots could use some of these?  Why are we destroying peaceful desert landscapes when the wastelands in our cities could use a makeover?

Environmental groups have lined up to support giant industrial-scale solar and wind projects on wildlands, such as a Wyoming wind facility that is expected to kill as many as 64 golden eagles each year, yet we have so much more potential to make our country more sustainable before sacrificing such natural treasures.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Desert Lands Policy: Uncertainty Sends Stakeholders Scrambling

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) process is proving surprising in how much it could affect -- for good or bad -- California's desert landscape, and it is about to move to the stage of the process that begins to finalize proposed policies in an environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision. The aim of the DRECP is to craft a land management policy that would direct renewable energy development to lands assessed to be of lesser ecological importance, and designate other swaths of land as inappropriate for development.
You may be thinking: didn't the Department of Interior just finalize its solar energy policy in the desert? The answer is a qualified yes.  Interior published the final environmental impact statement for its solar energy development policy, which will mostly give the renewable energy industry freedom to build wherever it wants on our southwestern desert wildlands, with a few exceptions.  But the DRECP is like a second layer of this policy, going into more detail that a.) applies only to California's deserts and b.) applies to both wind and solar energy projects.   For a great overview of the DRECP alternatives and implications, check out this KCET article.
The DRECP agencies -- including the California Energy Commission (CEC), Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game -- have drafted up five alternative scenarios with different balances of "development focus areas" and "conservation areas," which is how the plan describes areas appropriate for energy development and desert habitat that should be protected.  Solar and wind projects in development focus areas would essentially be "fast-tracked", and projects in conservation areas presumably would be rejected or slowed down.

DRECP Another Phase of a Struggle
Land and wildlife officials realize that there are tremendous burdens on California's desert ecosystems from various industries, the military, and the public.  People want wide open landscapes, clean energy, and places for recreation and enjoyment. Industry wants to make money, whether that is through wind turbines or open pit mines.  Our public lands have always been in the bullseye for these competing interests, and the pressures of an expanding human population in the desert region make the situation all the more difficult.  The DRECP is part of this long struggle of balancing competing demands in the desert, and as with any policymaking process, the door is open for industry to forge rules (or the lack thereof) that are favorable to its primary objective -- profit.   The renewable energy industry is an especially demanding "stakeholder", and its default position has been to seek access to as much land as possible with little or no safeguards for wildlife.

 What we do know of the DRECP process so far is that scientific evaluation by the DRECP agencies has identified large areas of the desert as needing protection from industrial development in order to ensure the long-term viability of the ecosystem and to allow pre-existing uses of the desert, including off-highway vehicle (OHV) open recreation areas and military training needs. Many of the development focus areas in the western Mojave Desert and southeastern desert (part of the Sonoran Desert region) would fall on lands classified as "already-disturbed"-- an apparent attempt by DRECP planners to use spaces closer to where the energy is needed and to reduce impacts on biological resources. Other development focus areas, however, would still fall on intact desert lands.

What we don't know is which DRECP alternative the various agencies will select as their "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS, and whether or not conservation areas will be durable or optional, as they are in the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.  All of this will depend on how land use plans are amended as part of the DRECP.  Land use plans tell land managers and stakeholders what level of use and destruction is allowed on various parcels of land, ranging from areas of critical environmental concern that are managed to preserve habitat and wildlife, to intensive use areas (known as Class I), where heavy levels of disturbance are allowed.

Industry Wants to Cut in Line
Generally speaking, the industry is not happy with the alternatives that the DRECP has put forward, which seek to confine energy development to areas with the fewest conflicts with biological and recreation resources.   A representative from the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) even said at the last stakeholders meeting that they may prefer the "No Action" alternative, since the status quo gives them more freedom to disregard conservation goals.  As I will explore in a future post, the industry's indignant response to the alternatives put forward by the DRECP is basically an expression of their naivete -- a child walking into a room and assuming they can twist knobs on the oven, play with electrical outlets, and throw toys at windows and television screens.  It is taking a while for the renewable energy industry to realize that there have been many stakeholders in line for desert resources much longer than them.

During DRECP stakeholder meetings, the energy industry and California energy officials made it clear that they prefer an alternative that gives the industry as much access to desert habitats as possible. The reason? They cited the need for market competition to keep electricity prices low, which requires more project applications that compete with each other for land and power purchase agreements from the utility companies. This position is another clear indication of how utility-scale energy development is unsustainable given current demands on natural resources.  Separately, utilities are indicating that tapping desert renewable energy resources will require expensive new transmission lines across the Antelope Valley, Victor Valley, Lucerne Valley, and in the Joshua Tree area. The industry and energy representatives are implying that a "viable" utility-scale energy market requires us to sacrifice conservation and biodiversity, even though the DRECP's objective is to find a balance that protects the desert, not Wall Street's pocketbook.

Conservationists Face Potential For Ecological Disaster
Depending on which alternative DRECP selects, some highly valued desert habitat could be put on the chopping block as a "development focus area" for the renewable energy industry.  In some of the alternatives, important golden eagle and California condor habitat is identified as available to industry. In other areas, development focus areas might fall on a critical wildlife corridor, or habitat for a rare plant or animal.  Even a small solar or wind project in the wrong place can have serious consequences.  What desert conservationists want is to make sure that there is adequate evaluation of the development focus areas.  Additionally, conservationists wonder whether or not the DRECP process exaggerates the amount of land necessary for the utility-scale solar industry when we still have more rooftops and already-disturbed areas in our cities for photovoltaic solar installations.

The DRECP assumption is that anywhere from 16,000 megwatts (MW) to 21,500 MW will need to be generated in California's desert region by 2040 to meet clean energy demand.  Conservation groups argue that energy efficiency programs and distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar) across the State could reduce these numbers.  Another point to consider would be that if utility customers will have to subsidize major clean energy projects in the desert, it would seem to be more efficient and ecologically sound for electricity customers to keep the value in their communities by encouraging rooftop solar.  Why should our electricity rates go up so that LADWP or Southern California Edison can fork over large amounts of money to companies destroying our desert when we could use that money to invest in our own homes and businesses?

The map below shows clean energy projects already under construction or approved throughout southern California. Notice the widespread use of local photovoltaic (PV) solar installations in our cities (marked by yellow diamonds).

Local vs Utility-Scale Energy

The DRECP agencies undoubtedly will continue to feel the tug and pull of competing interests as they draft the environmental impact statement, and the potential for political influence from Washington on what should be a science-based approach is an added concern.  The information gaps and general outlines of the range of alternatives have already sent stakeholders scrambling to prepare their last comments before the agencies start the EIS.  They are right to be worried -- the DRECP could make some significant decisions for a very wide area, much like the Solar Programmatic EIS that has just been finalized.

The maps below show each of the five alternatives: including the development focus areas (generally the red areas). lands of ecological importance (blue), proposed "conservation areas" (yellow outlines) and special recreation areas (orange).  Military training and testing layers are not included in the map, other than the outlines of the existing military bases.  You can zoom in on each map using the controls at the bottom of each embedded document:

Alternative 1

Alternative 2

Alternative 3

Alternative 4

Alternative 5

Friday, August 3, 2012

Desert Marine Base Expansion Nears Final Approval

The Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in July took one more step closer to expanding the boundary of its facility when it released a Final Environmental Impact Statement -- a document that takes a close look at the impacts of the plan on the environment and current uses of the area.   Once the plan is approved, the base will acquire an additional 262 square miles of adjacent land--well over twice the size of Orlando, Florida--for training scenarios in the open desert, but the expansion would also deprive off-highway vehicle riders of a major recreation area and pose a new burden to desert widlife.   The Marine Base expansion is just one of many demands on desert wildlands that will continue to challenge the stability of the ecosystem and the recovery of already-beleaguered plants and animals.

OHV Area Takes a Hit
The base expansion will declare a significant portion of the existing Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Area off limits, generating significant concern in the OHV community.  After the base expansion,  129 square miles of the OHV area (about 44% of the original Johnson Valley OHV Area) will remain open to the public for  ten months of the year.  About 69 of the 129 square miles will be available to the public all year.  The portion that is open to the public for ten months of the year  would be along the southern edge of the base expansion area.

The map from the environmental report (above) shows the original Johnson Valley OHV Area outlined in yellow, with the shaded area outlined in blue constituting the new base expansion, and the dark shaded areas in the south are the portion of the base expansion that will be open to the pulic for ten months of the year.
The Department of Defense impact report notes that there are still six other OHV areas in the region, totalling 169 square miles of public lands, which are in addition to thousands of miles of open OHV routes throughout the desert.

Desert Tortoise in Jeopardy...Again
According to the final environmental review, the Marine Corps' preferred alternative would require the displacement, injury, or death of at least 645, and as many as 3,769 desert tortoises -- the official reptile of the State of California and an endangered species. Based on the environmental review, it appears much of the most sensitive habitat lies in the eastern portion of the Johnson Valley, where OHV use may have caused less damage to the ecosystem compared to the western portion.  Some of the habitat hosting higher densities of tortoises will be used for training exercises that involve significant amounts of ground disturbance, according to a map released with the environmental review.

Although the Marine Base will relocate tortoises to "special use areas" where disturbance will be minimized, past translocations of tortoises after Fort Irwin conducted a similar base expansion resulted in many of the tortoises dying within two years of being relocated. The Marine Base expansion is just one of many significant projects in motion, or being proposed, that are likely to significantly challenge the recovery of the desert tortoise.

The failure of translocation as a "mitigation" strategy,  the loss of tortoise habitat, and the loss of genetic connectivity between tortoise populations has concerned desert conservationists, but there does not appear to be any relief in sight.   The Bureau of Land Mananagement (BLM) has authorized 34 square miles of desert solar projects and associated transmission lines, while there are 247 square miles of proposed solar projects still pending in the California desert, many of them on lands within the tortoise's range.   Meanwhile, wind energy companies are exploring development options on nearly 700 square miles of desert habitat. 

With so much desert habitat put in harms way, and so many more proposed destructive projects, it's clear that the Department of Interior should be considering seriously considering conservation alternatives that take an equally hard look at how to maintain a sustainable ecosystem in our southwestern deserts.

Public Comment
You can submit public comments on the final environmental impact statement for the Marine Corps base expansion by following this link

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Find a Rare Plant Treasure Hunt Near You

The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) routinely sponsors field trips in the desert and nearby mountains, know as a "rare plant treasure hunt," checking out local plant populations and looking for some of the rarest plants in our regions.   Intrepid plant enthusiasts earlier this year hiked far into the craggy mountains near Death Valley in search of the rare Panamint Daisy (they found it!), while others scouted out the San Gabriel Mountans and the Mojave National Preserve in search of special blooms.  It's a great way to enjoy desert wildlands and learn more about the ecosystem. The Bristlecone and Creosote Ring Chapters in Southern California have a few more trips planned, and you can check those out at their chapter websites here and here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hidden Hills Solar: Chorus of Concern Grows

As BrightSource Energy's construction hums along at its Ivanpah Solar project site in the northeastern Mojave Desert, the company's proposed Hidden Hills Solar project further north is being scrutinized as the California Energy Commission (CEC) accepts comments on a preliminary staff assessment of the project's potential impacts.  As noted earlier on this blog, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was one of the first to note some serious deficiencies in the CEC's staff assessment, with a focus on the project's demand for scarce groundwater supplies.  Since then, several other parties--including Native American tribes, the National Park Service, Center for Biological Diversity, the Nature Conservancy, and the Amargosa Conservancy--have expressed concerns for water and wildlife,  while Inyo County reiterated its expectation that BrightSource Energy compensate it for millions of dollars worth of increased services needed in the remote corner of California where the project would be built.

Pahrump and Big Pine Paiute Tribes
Both the Pahrump and Big Pine Paiute Tribes voiced concern over the  impacts on biological resources anticipated if the project is approved by the CEC, and noted that the water impact assessment was inadequate.  Also of significance, the Tribes concurred with the preliminary staff assessment that the project would have significant and unmitigable impacts on a landscape of cultural significance to the Tribes, but the Pahrump Paiute Tribe views the CEC's attempt at mitigation as inadequate, explaining the meaning of the landscape and the area to the Tribe's traditions and beliefs:
"This land falls within the path of the Salt Song, a religious trail the deceased of the Southern Paiute (including the Pahrump Paiute) follow to the afterlife. If this path is broken, the spirits of our deceased may not make it to the appropriate place in the afterlife. In exchange for negatively impacting all of the above, the PSA proposes that appropriate compensatory mitigation would be a few panels at an Interpretive Center addressing Native American history and land use, research of an area of historical tribal land use, and restoration of the project site in the event of closure. While our tribe feels these mitigations are proposed in good faith, we do not feel their level of compensation is commensurate with the level of impact this project will have." - Pahrump Paiute Tribe

National Park Service and Old Spanish Trail Association
The Hidden Hills Solar project would be within view, and on top of remnants of the Old Spanish Trail National Historic Trail and Mormon Road.  Both the National Park Service and the Old Spanish Trail Association are stewards of the Trail, have provided information on the Trail's route through the project area, and expressed concerns that BrightSource Energy is downplaying the Trail's significance and remnants of the Trail that likely exist on the project site. The CEC assessment recognizes the significance of this trail, and noted:
"While not all of the traces on the project site have been ground-truthed, it is clear that the project site lies squarely among all of these tracks/traces and, therefore, within the OST-MR Northern Corridor, a regionally and nationally significant travel/trade corridor that aided the exploration and shaped the development of the southwestern United States...The visual quality of this section of the OST-MR would be permanently damaged, resulting in a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource and a significant and unmitigatable impact..." - CEC preliminary staff assessment

Center for Biological Diversity
Although the CEC staff assessment assesses the Hidden Hills project would have significant impacts on biological resources, many intervenors felt that the report fell short of fully analyzing these impacts and establishing appropriate requirements for BrightSource Energy to reduce or "mitigate" those impacts. The Center of Biological Diversity lodged some of the strongest concerns that the CEC assessment was incomplete:
"For biological resources and other topics, the PSA is incomplete, making it impossible to assess much less comment on the all of the proposed project impacts. However, based on the information provided in the incomplete PSA, significant impacts have been identified for a suite of species (PSA pg 4.2-63-67) including groundwater dependent vegetation, special status plant species, migratory/special status resident avian species and potentially golden eagle and negative impacts to numerous other rare plants and animals, including the beleaguered desert kit fox and the declining state threatened desert tortoise."   - Center for Biological Diversity submission to CEC
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) also noted that the CEC assessment fails to comply with California environmental law by failing to fully evaluate sufficient alternatives to the proposed project, rightly noting that only one alternative analyzed in the assessment was at a different location. Other alternatives only explored different solar technologies, which would still have substantial impacts on biological resources.  CBD advocates for the consideration of an alternative location on already-disturbed lands closer to the population centers where the electricity is needed.

Regarding wildlife impacts, CBD keyed in on the lack of complete assessment on the proposed projects impacts on  golden eagles  and bighorn sheep--which are known to forage in the area--as well as rare desert plants and vegetation dependent on groundwater resources.  Significantly, CBD points out that the CEC assessment is missing a translocation plan for the desert tortoises known to inhabit the proposed project site, including an estimated 6 to 33 adult and sub-adult tortoises, and 3 to 34 juveniles. CBD proposes two years of studies of the translocation site and the host population before tortoises are moved from the proposed project site to the translocation area, although expresses concern that tortoise translocation may not be an effective "mitigation" measure based on studies and findings by the Scientific Advisory Committee fo the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A view of the lower Pahrump Valley, where the Hidden Hills Solar project would be built, with the Spring Mountains in the distance.  BrightSource would install thousands of heliostats -- mirrors as large as garage doors -- and 750 foot tall "power towers", significantly taller than the design in the Ivanpah Valley.
Nature Conservancy and Amargosa Conservancy
All of the commenters echoed and expanded upon concerns expressed earlier by BLM about the project's immense water demand, which is expected to put severe strain on an already overdrawn groundwater basin.  But the Nature Conservancy and Amargosa Conservancy are both stewards of the nearbyAmargosa River -- an important ecosystems that the river supports.  The Nature Conservancy noted in its comments that an independent analysis calls into question the validity of a study paid for by BrightSource energy.

Recognizing that there is insufficient data to accurately understand the Hidden Hills Solar project impacts on the Amargosa River's ecological stability, the Nature Conservancy and Amargosa Conservancy are working on long-term studies to understand the "plumbing" system of this area of the desert, but the studies are under-funded and results are approximately five years away.  Both parties recommend more studies to understand and anticipate the solar project's impacts on the Amargosa River, which is designated as a Wild and Scenic River.  Both organizations point out that the Hidden Hills Solar project's demand for water is unlike most agricultural demands because it is continuous and fixed over a long period of time (at least 30 years, if not more), straining the groundwater supply.

Inyo County
The California county where the project would be built has repeatedly urged the CEC to require BrightSource Energy to compensate it for the costs of extending services to such a remote area, and raised concern that BrightSource Energy dismisses the potential impacts of the project on visual resources and County infrastructure.   Although BrightSource Energy is touting possible tax revenues for Inyo County as more than enough to make up for the County's costs, Inyo calls this math into question.  The County notes that BrightSource Energy is just now starting to negotiate its tax agreement with San Bernardino County for the Ivanpah Solar project.  Inyo County is asking that the conditions of certification require the company to obtain a letter of credit for 84.5 million dollars--an amount roughly equal to promised tax revenues--to ensure adequate funds are available to compensate the County for its expenditures.

Wind Facilities Sparking Wildland Fires

As if climate change-induced drought and aridity were not enough of a stress on our desert ecosystems, industrial wind energy facilities creeping across our wildlands are proving to pose a serious fire risk.  As KCET and Friends of Mojave reported late last week, a wind turbine failure caused a fire near Tehachapi, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert.   And last month, an older wind turbine in the desert of Riverside County and along the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest sparked a fire that luckily only burned about 367 acres before it was extinguished.   The fires are yet another sign that the wind industry and wildlands do not coexist harmoniously, as some environmental groups have suggested.