Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Grijalva Introduces Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act

Congressperson Raul Grijalva last week introduced the Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act (H.R. 1799), which would preserve nearly 950,000 acres of open space west of Phoenix.  Among the new designations, the bill would create over 680,000 acres of National Conservation Areas south and north of Interstate 10, over 290,000 acres of new wilderness, and 144,000 acres of Special Management Areas.   The protections would preserve these wildlands for future generations while also protecting habitat connectivity for species like bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and mule deer throughout this corner of the Sonoran Desert.

The Sonoran Desert Heritage Act joins other legislative efforts currently languishing on Capitol Hill as Congress proves unable to make progress on a range of issues, conservation included.  Senator Feinstein is expected to reintroduce the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) this year - the bill has enjoyed grassroots and community support since 2010, but Congress has failed to move the legislation beyond committee in prior years.

In Nevada, the Las Vegas Valley Public Lands and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument Act of 2012 was introduced last year by Senators Reid and Heller. Although it would create a new national monument,  it would also withdraw nearly 16 square miles of wilderness study to facilitate approval of yet another large transmission line.  Also in Nevada, grassroots efforts seek to designate the Gold Butte area as a National Conservation Area with wilderness.

As urban sprawl, climate change, and industrial development continue to threaten the grand scenic vistas of the desert, as well as the wildlife that inhabit them, conservation efforts will become even more necessary and also difficult to achieve.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Devil's Hole Pupfish Recovery Effort

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the results of its April 6-7 count of the Devil's Hole pupfish population, finding 35 observable fish compared to the 63 observed last spring.  Fish and Wildlife Service found 75 fish in the fall of 2012, but noted that the fish experiences natural high and low cycles in its population from fall to spring. Still, the decline between the two spring surveys is concerning, and FWS notes that the species is in continued decline.

It may look like just a puddle, but this is the very top level of water that extends down nearly 400 feet of a cavern, although the Devil's Hole pupfish are believed to only inhabit the upper 80 feet where the water temperature is about 93 degrees.

We cannot afford to lose any more biodiversity, including that of the Devil's Hole pupfish.  The species has survived isolation in its current habitat for 10,000-22,000 years, enduring harsh conditions and changes.  Groundwater pumping by nearby agricultural and industrial development is one of the current threats, but scientists are not exactly sure what is spurring its current decline.

I was lucky enough to visit the Devil's Hole pupfish habitat in February during a trip to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, located in the Amargosa Valley of Nevada. It was a windy and chilly day, but the low clouds provided for some beautiful views of distant Eagle Mountain, near Death Valley National park across the California state line.  I had the pleasure of spotting the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, which is also endangered, and spotted what I think may have been a burrowing owl flying across a dirt road at dusk.

This is a photo of what I think if the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, which lives in natural springs near the Devil's Hole pupfish.  It was a windy day, so I did not get many photos of the fish in this are given that much of the water's surface would be rippled by the wind.

A break in the clouds over Eagle Mountain, which is on the California side of the border near Death Valley National Park.

Below is a good video by the US Fish and Wildlife Service of the Devil's Hole pupfish recovery effort.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Take Action to Protect Wildlife from Poorly Sited Wind Projects

The American Bird Conservancy organized a petition to the new Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell asking her to protect bald and golden eagles from poorly sited wind energy projects.  At issue is the Department of Interior's consideration of issuing 30-year eagle "take" permits that would make it difficult for wildlife officials and scientists to protect these species.  If we are going to build a sustainable clean energy future, we cannot give industry a free pass to destroy what we are trying to protect.

>>Click here to sign the petition. <<

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ode to Silurian Valley

California's desert landscape is a treasure.  Some people see it as a bore, or a wasteland, but what they cannot deny is that it is a wild landscape that offers a stark break from the strip malls and parking lots of Las Vegas or the Victor Valley.  It is not only accessible, but it is expansive -- at least for now.

Chris Clarke at KCET wrote a great piece on one very long stretch of road that can give you the full experience of this wild place.  From Joshua Tree National Park to Death Valley National Park, you can traverse nearly 200 miles on a mostly two-lane road and experience the desert. You can start in a Joshua Tree woodland, hike up a mountain where there are juniper and pine, cross sand dunes, and then enjoy the riparian habitat of the Amargosa River at Shoshone.  You may cross some high voltage power lines, and a couple small towns (Baker, the largest, has a population of around 700), but you will mostly find solitude. Especially if you stop, get out, and walk.

I think one of my favorite experiences along this route occurs just after you leave Baker, heading north.  You drive along the eastern edge of Silver Lake - a lake bed that is dry unless it has just rained. Silver Lake's flat expanse was used as an emergency airstrip in the early days of aviation, when the thought of flying across the Mojave without a trusted back-up plan was unthinkable.  Continuing north you gain a little bit of elevation before you follow a bend over a small hill.  This is my favorite part -- the open expanse of the Silurian Valley greets you as you crest that hill.  The relatively humble Silurian Hills to the east, on the other side of a very gently sloping sea of creosote bushes.  To the west is an imposing sight -- the Avawatz Mountains rise to nearly four thousand feet in dramatic fashion, seemingly at a stand-off with the Silurian Hills, or perhaps trying to gaze at the majestic Clark Mountain in the distance.

Near a faint wash in the Silurian Valley, looking north with the Avawatz Mountains in the distance.  Further north is Death Valley, and Dumont Dunes.  Not pictured, but to the right (east) in this image are the Silurian Hills, and Clark Mountain.
On my last trip to Shoshone I got to walk around the Silurian Valley, crossing numerous washes that braid through this landscape; as elusive as rain can be in the desert, it leaves its own mark.  On this trip in February, the green buds of wildflowers and grasses were apparent, but too early for blooms.  Tracks of rodents and lizards were numerous. 

But I had a hard time studying the animal tracks. The view was too beautiful. I knew that in due time I would be back in the city, surrounded by advertisements and traffic.  In the middle of the Silurian Valley I could look north toward Death Valley and imagine walking for miles marveling at the little surprises of desert wildlife, and experiencing that combination of loneliness and release as I looked up at the naked topography ahead of me.

With the Avawatz Mountains behind me, I could take this photo of the less dramatic (but still beautiful) Silurian Hills to the east.  We camped the night before at the foot of Clark Mountain, which would be a good hike to the east of the Silurian Hills, but almost certainly visible from the top of the Avawatz.

I took my friend Jimmy to the Silurian Valley on our way to Death Valley.  I showed him the meteorological testing tower installed by Iberdrola Renewables, and told him about the plans to build a large wind and solar facility in the valley.  From where we stood at the testing tower, I pointed to a seemingly distant point where the hills reach into the valley.  The entire desert from where we stood to that point would be bulldozed or mowed for the solar facility. Beyond that, dozens of giant wind turbines would dwarf the Silurian Hills, and turn this majestic landscape into another industrial zone, as if you could never escape our own destructive habits.

Looking approximately southeast from the northern portion of the Silurian Valley, this entire experience will be lost if Iberdrola builds its wind and solar facility.  Instead of an open expanse, you will see another profit making venture scarring public lands.

We traveled further north crossing Riggs Wash to the Salt Creek Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) not far from where the Iberdrola project would be built.  The ACEC is a rare point in the desert's landscape where all of the water it hordes underground escapes briefly, to the joy of birds and plants.   Here we were about 100 miles from Las Vegas, and over 200 miles from Los Angeles, and we found the company of others distracted by the desert's peace.  A couple with a dog. A younger group that seemed to be travelling together. And a mother with her two young boys that made their way down the short trail to the creek ahead of us, one of them dragging a toy car over the boulders. The kids were distracted by the water that came into view, perhaps amazed at its presence here in the desert.

Hidden by all of the plant life is the water of the Salt Creek Hills ACEC.
I thought to myself how lucky those kids were.  The desert before them was an adventure full of surprises. Rocks, lizards, water, plants...all of it.  I thought  how lucky I was.  I grew up in Victorville and the best playground of my life was among the creosote and Joshua trees, but I took all of that for granted.  The desert that I called my backyard is gone now. It's a housing development. Three car garages and green lawns.  But that day in the Silurian Valley I could reclaim that amazement.  I could be in this challenging landscape, fortunate enough to survive and enjoy its beauty, and store all of the solitude and peace I could gather. It might be a while before I make my wake back to Silurian Valley, but I hope I can still find an escape there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ward Valley

Desert poet, writer, activist, scholar, defender, and hiker Ruth Nolan attended a gathering of desert residents and activists celebrating the 15th anniversary of the defeat of the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste site.  This place deep in the Mojave Desert provides a solace that is difficult to find in an age of 24/7 news coverage, tragedy and materialism.  What is easy to forget is that each of these "viewsheds" - as we call them in environmental impact statements - has a meaning and a history that is different to each individual and each generation. Ward Valley is sacred to Native American tribes, and its conversion to industrial use would have been a significant loss.

A sign points the way to the 15th anniversary of the victory that saved Ward Valley from becoming a toxic waste site.  Photo by Ruth Nolan.

Ruth Nolan captures the confluence of modern and ancient at Ward Valley in her poem that she wrote to commemorate the occasion of this victory:

Dark Medallion, Quarter Moon
--At the 15th anniversary of the defeat of a proposed radioactive waste facility in Ward Valley, an area of the Mojave Desert sacred to the Colorado River Indian people, February 10, 2013.
Near Interstate 40,
A few miles along Water Road,
In the heart of the Mojave
The deceased ancestors walk through
Ward Valley, 60 miles long
Until they reach the Milky Way
In the throat of the Turtle Mountains
And the wildcats and coyotes
Mark their paw print time
Near the Old Woman Rock Tower,
And the villagers grind grain on stone
On a February morn, before
Calendars are born. One soft moccasin
Is left behind, and it's advised
To follow the turtle for long life.
Cars speed by, stars wink goodnight.
--by Ruth Nolan copyright (c) 2013 by Ruth Nolan

Breaking Ground: The Future of Moapa

The Moapa band of Paiutes showed solidarity yesterday - along with Sierra Club President Allison Chin, and Congressman Horsford of Nevada - against the continued toxic emissions of the Reid Gardner Coal plant, situated along the Muddy River.  Reid Gardner has been hurting this community since 1965, and the Environmental Protection Agency recently disappointed us by giving the power plant a reprieve from the stricter pollution controls last year.

Protesters hold up mock solar panels, with the Reid Gardner Coal plan in the background.  The Reid Gardner facility's toxic emissions not only contribute to climate change, but also directly affect the health of the Moapa community. Photo from Sierra Club.
The demonstration march held on Saturday symbolically walked away from the coal plant, and ended up at the site of the future K Road Power Moapa Solar project, which will destroy over three square miles of intact desert habitat to produce roughly 350 megawatts of solar energy using the same photovoltaic panels that can be installed on rooftops and already-disturbed lands.  The power from the K Road Moapa Solar project will be sold to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, whose customers live nearly 300 miles away.  K Road's lack of regard for proper siting should come as no surprise, since the company is also negotiating with utilities to revive the Calico Solar power project, which is opposed by environmental groups because it will destroy important desert habitat in the central Mojave Desert.

The project's proponent, New York-based K Road Power, assembled a team of utility-scale energy financiers and developers from Barclay Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Sithe Energies.  K Road's Chairman founded the latter company - Sithe Energies - that is now constructing the 600 megawatt Mariveles Station coal power plant in the Philippines, a country that Sithe lauds for its regulatory framework (or lack thereof).  K Road's Chairman probably also benefits from a new 850 megawatt natural gas plant in Canada,  a hydropower dam along the Nile River in Africa, and plans to build a hydropower dam in the remote tropical forests of Guyana. Sithe pats itself on the back for choosing a remote site in the forest because it requires "no resettlement of people," according to its website.  Such a high corporate standard.

Banners of organizations and communities represented at the Coal to Clean Energy march hang on a fence designed to keep Federally-listed desert tortoises out of habitat that will be bulldozed for K Road's Moapa Solar project. Construction crews have already cut or widened access roads on the site, as seen in the background. Photo from Sierra Club.
In addition to the three square miles of the Moapa Reservation that will be developed by K Road, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is also evaluating plans to build the Moapa Solar Energy Center, which would destroy another 1,000 acres - just under two square miles.   The projects will certainly provide financial benefit for the Moapa community, but the destruction they will cause is not necessary to close down Reid Gardner, or to provide clean energy.

On the same day that the Sierra Club visited this 2,000 acre swath of desert destined for the bulldozers,  Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign celebrated a new rooftop solar installation in Bloomington, California.  Earlier last year, the Sierra Club also released a study indicating that the Reid Gardner Coal plant could be shut down if Nevada utility NV Energy invested in energy efficiency upgrades, which would also save Nevada ratepayers $59 million dollars over the next 20 years, and not require destruction of intact ecosystem for a new power plant.

On the same day that the Moapa band of Paiutes celebrated construction of the K Road Moapa Solar project on desert habitat, the Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign gathered to welcome one more rooftop that is no longer wasting the sun's energy.  This rooftop solar installation joins tens of thousands in California, with many more to come. Photo from the Sierra Club.
According to the press release on the K Road Moapa Solar project, Sierra Club president Allison Chin said:
“The Paiutes are leading the way with the Moapa Solar project that will soon break ground and create good jobs for the families that live right here in the Reservation. Today’s march from the Reid Gardner coal plant to the future of site of the Moapa Solar Project represents for all of us a new coal to clean energy path for not only Nevada, but for the entire West to follow."
We are indeed breaking ground, but destruction of intact habitat is not the right path to follow.

Just north of Interstate 15 on the Moapa Reservation, the K Road Moapa Solar project (footprint outlined in red, above) will destroy over three square miles of Mojave habitat. The RES Moapa Solar Energy Center currently undergoing environmental review will be built nearby.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ivanpah Mitigation: Net Gain or Loss?

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and BrightSource Energy just announced that the energy company will purchase 7,000 acres of desert habitat as "mitigation" to compensate for the destruction caused by the company's Ivanpah Solar project in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  Although the deal is being presented as the company satisfying the mitigation requirement,  the description of the lands set aside suggests the company fell short of the expectations set forth when the California Energy Commission approved the project in 2010.   The project approval required the company to acquire at least 7,164 acres of suitable desert habitat for conservation "as close to the project site as possible," but some of the lands are likely over 100 miles from the project.

I took this picture in 2010 of a construction marker in the middle of what was then pristine desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.  Just a few months later this landscape was being bulldozed and mowed by BrightSource Energy.  Most people getting energy from the company's Ivanpah Solar project would have to drive nearly 200 miles to get to the solar plant, when solar panels could have been built much closer, and on already-disturbed lands.
An Unsustainable Smiley Face
This lapse in the mitigation strategy proves that the Ivanpah Solar project is solar done wrong and far from sustainable.  Rather than destroy intact ecosystems, the company could have built on already-disturbed lands or invested in rooftop solar.  Instead, BrightSource Energy mowed down high quality desert habitat with an above-average richness of species, used carbon-intensive materials and construction, and required new transmission lines to ship energy to customers hundreds of miles away.  Despite warnings from conservationists, BrightSource Energy's solar project is displacing or killing off members of a significant population of the desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley, which itself serves a vital genetic corridor that the species needs to prove resilient in the face of climate change.

The press release on the mitigation deal seems to laud BrightSource Energy's generosity, which sadly misses the point that this is avoidable destruction and cost, and that the millions of dollars being spent to compensate for the destruction could have been invested in something more sensible like rooftop solar if we had just made a more sustainable decision in the first place.  Imagine if Keystone or Enbridge spent millions or billions to set aside new forest or arctic preserves to compensate for a new oil-spewing pipeline that tears through prairies and woodlands.  This is simply investing in the status quo's cycle of destruction, and finding some way to put a smiley face on an unsustainable path.

BrightSource Energy construction crews mow down yucca plants that may be hundreds of years old.

The Failure of Mitigation
It is now up to wildlife officials and land managers to make smarter decisions, especially in the Ivanpah Valley.  Saving a species or an ecosystem cannot be accomplished by making bad decisions first, and then trying to make them look good in press releases later.  With two more solar projects proposed for the area and threatening to erode desert tortoise habitat connectivity, the failure of BrightSource Energy to improve the welfare of wildlife in the northeastern Mojave should prompt us to reconsider our  failed "mitigation" approach.  The mitigation process gives companies an easy way to throw money at a problem, but it fails to live up to scientific realities.

As biologist Ray Bransfield noted in the March issue of the Desert Report, "maintaining desert tortoises in conservation areas alone is unlikely to be sufficient for the survival and recovery of the species."  Underscoring his point that we have to think about species' long-term battle for survival, "habitat linkages cannot be narrow alleys where one or two desert tortoises make mad dashes every few hundred years to save the species."  Likewise, tortoises and other imperiled species will not just conveniently follow wherever it is convenient for corporations to buy "mitigation" lands.

And what benefit did we achieve in Ivanpah? Approximately 392 megawatts of solar energy.  Companies in the United States installed far more solar panels on already-disturbed lands and rooftops during the Ivanpah Solar project's construction period.  And Germany added thousands of megawatts of mostly rooftop solar. All while we watched BrightSource destroy a true natural treasure in the Mojave.  We're not sacrificing the desert to save the Earth, we're simply letting corporations continue to destroy the Earth for short-term gain, at the expense of a more sensible approach.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Update

It has been nearly two and a half years since BrightSource Energy began destroying over 5 square miles of intact desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to build a utility-scale solar energy facility.  After mowing down desert vegetation - some of it potentially hundreds of years old - and installing nearly 300,000 giant mirrors and three "power towers", the company is nearing the point of generating and shipping energy over hundreds of miles of transmission lines to customers far from this corner of the Mojave Desert.  The destruction caused by BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is unnecessary -- during the project's construction, California added more rooftop solar than will be generated by BrightSource, and other companies are building solar facilities on already-disturbed lands.

Rare plants, such as the Rusby's desert mallow, Mojave milkweed and Parish club cholla cactus are lost, as are nests of cactus wrens and thrashers, and foraging ground for golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. The species that has gained the most attention from BrightSource Energy's first major project is the desert tortoise. The desert tortoise population faces a difficult recovery before it can be removed from the endangered species list, besieged by urban sprawl, invasive plant species, and disease.  Despite concerns expressed by the conservation community and wildlife officials, BrightSource chose to build its solar project on a patch of ideal tortoise habitat that proved to be home to a healthy population of the species.  All told, hundreds of tortoises have been displaced or handled by the company as it transformed the desert into an industrial zone.

The maps below from the California Energy Commission monthly compliance reports show the initial locations for juvenile tortoises found on the project site. Each tortoise found or handled by the company is given a number preceded by the prefix "BS" for BrightSource. You can zoom in using the controls at the bottom of each file.

The next two maps show the locations where adult tortoises were found on, or near the project site.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Scattered showers brush past the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in February. The same storm system dusted the higher elevations of nearby Bare Mountains and Spring Mountains in snow.  The Desert National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1936, and is the largest refuge in the lower 48 states.  Hopefully urban and industrial sprawl do not isolate this trove of biodiversity from the rest of Nevada's desert wildlands.

You should plan a hike at the Refuge if you are in the Las Vegas area, and you can access the area from the Corn Creek Field Station off of I-95, north of the city.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Nevada Considers Cleaner Future...Sort Of

The Nevada State Legislature is considering a bill (Senate Bill 123) that would begin a modest distributed generation program (i.e. rooftop solar) in Nevada.  This would normally be very good news. Even despite the modest size of the distributed generation program, any rooftop solar benefits in Nevada is a major step forward.  Now the predominant state utility company in Nevada, NV Energy, plans to add an amendment to the bill that would (good news) retire coal plants early, and (bad news) increase natural gas generation.
The Reid Gardner Coal plant pictured above is located next to a community of Moapa band of Paiute, polluting the environment and harming health with toxic emissions.
The toxic Reid Gardner coal plant could be retired as early as 2017 if the plan is approved.  This would be very good news because the residents of Moapa are burdened by the emissions of this coal plant, which was built along the Muddy River in an otherwise scenic corner of the Mojave Desert northeast of Nevada.  But NV Energy also plans to increase natural gas generation facilities by as much as 2,000 megawatts, according to the Las Vegas Sun.  The utility company may also purchase renewable energy from some of the more destructive sources, if not guided properly.  Nevada has already permitted the construction of solar and wind facilities on intact wildlands, despite having already-disturbed lands available.

Nevada should has plenty of renewable resources, and ample opportunities to tap those resources for electricity without destroying more habitat.  Plenty of rooftops lay barren without solar panels, and energy efficiency improvements alone could compensate for the loss of the Reid Gardner coal plant.  Not only are these methods more sustainable from an environmental perspective, they are probably more cost efficient -- you do not need expensive new transmission lines, and you can invest directly in improvements in the community, instead of continuing the greedy and destructive centralized energy model.

The Nevada legislature has the right idea as it considers distributed generation.  Hopefully Nevada does not spoil the moment with destructive natural gas, or end up wrecking the scenic landscapes that so many of us consider to be a treasure.

Spirit Mountain, viewed from the Searchlight area in southern Nevada.  The Bureau of Land Management approved a wind facility on pristine desert habitat here, which will industrialize the character of these lands and displace and destroy wildlife.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Notice the large amount of rooftop space without solar panels. All of that sun going to waste.

Monday, April 1, 2013


I got these photos of what I am pretty sure is a Western Diamonback rattlesnake while on a hike with my brother in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, deep in the Sonoran Desert. Luckily it heard me coming, and gave me some warning!