Saturday, June 22, 2013

Calico Solar Canceled; Mojave Desert Habitat Spared

K Road Solar this week decided to withdraw its application to bulldoze nearly six square miles of desert in the central Mojave Desert.  The company's Calico Solar project has haunted this important swath of desert habitat since 2007 when the project's previous owner first filed plans with the Bureau of Land Management.  The Calico Solar project was among the first in a wave of applications that have begun to fragment and industrialize otherwise intact habitat in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  Citizen conservationists and national environmental groups - including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council - opposed the Calico project during environmental review and in court, but the BLM and California Energy Commission still seemed intent on permitting the project.

Much of the desert in this view would have been destroyed to make way for the proposed Calico Solar project.  The Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area can be seen in the distance.
Word of the cancellation is an exceptional piece of good news as other energy developers continue to bulldoze desert in the Ivanpah Valley, along the Tehachapi mountains, near Joshua Tree National Park, and north of Blythe.   Other industrial-scale solar and wind projects are planned for the north and eastern edges of the Mojave National Preserve, and in the impressive expanse of the Silurian Valley.
Phacelia in bloom on a hilltop overlooking the proposed Calico Solar site in the background. Most of the site is creosote bush scrub habitat at the foot of the Cady Mountains, but further down there is also sand dune habitat that hosts Mojave fringe-toed lizards.
The Calico cancellation, however, is sweetened by another policy that will grant the area some degree of protection.  Although I am critical of the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, the solar development policy that it established does include a provision that will now save the site of the Calico Solar project from future destruction by solar developers.  The solar development policy created thousands of acres of "variance lands" that will allow industrial energy development outside the solar energy zones, but the policy also created "exclusion zones," where solar companies cannot build due to the environmental importance of the land.

The exclusion zones cover much of the desert in the vicinity of the Calico Solar project, but because the Calico Solar project application was filed long before the solar development policy took effect, the BLM would have allowed the company to proceed with construction as a "grandfathered" project.  However, now that K Road is withdrawing the project, the site should now be safe from future ill-sited solar proposals.

[click on image to expand] K Road Solar in 2012 modified the layout of the Calico Solar project in a half-hearted attempt to reduce environmental impacts. The "wildlife connectivity" corridor (bright green) in the center of the project would have provided less than a half sqaure mile of habitat among nearly six square miles of destruction.  The project would still jeopardize rare plants, desert tortoises, burrowing owls, and foraging habitat for bighorn sheep and raptors.
The Calico Solar site hosts an impressive array of wildlife, and boasts spectacular scenery that deserves protection from such large scale land disturbance   Mojave fringe-toed lizards, desert tortoises, burrowing owls, and the rare flowering plant - the white-margined beardtongue - can be found on the site.  Travelling east along the Historic Route 66 coming from Barstow, the expansive creosote scrub habitat at the base of the Cady Mountains serves as an introduction to the open desert mountains and valleys where wild'ness dominates, not human use.  Travelers, hikers, and explorers can enjoy this escape for nearly 125 miles until they reach the outpost of Needles.

A desert tortoise photographed on the site of the proposed Calico Solar project.  Photo from the original draft environmental impact statement for the project.
It's not clear if K Road has plans for other swaths of desert in California, but the company is already bulldozing nearly three square miles of desert for the Moapa Solar project northeast of Las Vegas, and the company's owner is also constructing a  600 MW coal power plant in the Philippines.

1 comment:

  1. I never dreamed that this would happen.
    Having walked this specific area, I can attest to the beauty, the spectacular views, the abundance of plants and animals.
    It was meant to remain that way, the land was bought by a trust for the purpose of saving it for future generations and given to the government to hold and maintain; our government reneged on the deal and turned it over to the solar developers- that hopefully will not happen again.
    By the way, the bureaucrats responsible were never disciplined for their bad faith decisions, it is still business as usual.

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