Thursday, March 6, 2014

Defenders of Wildlife Steps in to Protect Critical Tortoise Habitat

Defenders of Wildlife filed a legal challenge this week against the Department of Interior's decision to permit two large solar projects along the California-Nevada border because each would significantly impair a critical desert tortoise habitat linkage.  The challenge calls out the Department of Interior's own doublespeak with respect to the need for "responsible development of renewable energy on our public lands."  The solar projects in question - First Solar's Stateline and Silver State South - would destroy a total of over 6.3 square miles of habitat in the Ivanpah Valley; this area not only provides genetic connectivity across the tortoise's range, but research also shows the valley will "retain the precipitation and temperature levels necessary to sustain the species" through anticipated impacts of climate change.  First Solar refused to consider relocating the projects to already-disturbed lands, and the Department of Interior decided to permit the projects even though they would be located outside of designated "solar energy zones" identified to encourage "responsible development."

The site of the proposed Silver State South solar project (pictured above) in the Ivanpah Valley provides a critical habitat linkage for the desert tortoise, and hosts a variety of animal and plant species, such as this giant cholla cactus (foreground), and the Mojave yucca in the background.
The U.S. Government has contradicted itself when it has evaluated the importance of the Ivanpah Valley.  The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2011 described the land on which the Silver State South project would be built as "critically important" because the it “has the lowest level of existing habitat degradation and likely provides the most reliable potential for continued population connectivity” for the desert tortoise.  During preliminary environmental review of the Silver State South project in 2012, FWS argued that the Bureau of Land Management should reject the project because of the impacts on tortoise habitat connectivity.

Yet, in 2013, FWS' final biological opinion did not mention either of these previous official comments and suggested both the habitat linkage and the solar project may be able to co-exist, but acknowledged that if this was not true then "[l]oss of population connectivity between the northern and southern portions of Ivanpah Valley would create a nearly closed population of desert tortoises within a 258-square-mile area in its southern portion...and a nearly closed population within the 255-square-mile area of the northern portion of the valley," potentially leading to the local decline of the species.  The final environmental impact statement recommended long-term monitoring of the project's impact on habitat connectivity, but failed to identify steps the government would take to correct for any harmful impacts. The Stateline Solar project would be built on the western edge of the Ivanpah Valley, and would also contribute to the loss of habitat connectivity, although probably to a less degree than the Silver State South project.

This desert tortoise's burrow is located on the site of the proposed Stateline Solar power project, across from the proposed site of the Silver State South project on the western edge of the Ivanpah Valley. Both projects would pinch, if not eliminate habitat connectivity for the species.
What is most frustrating about these two First Solar projects is that they can be built on alternative locations that do not jeopardize the recovery of desert wildlife.  The solar panels can be installed on rooftops or on already-disturbed lands;  First Solar should know this by now - the company's 250 megawatt Agua Caliente solar project was built on already-disturbed land in Arizona, and they are investing in other projects on already-disturbed lands.  Other companies are building even larger projects on former agricultural land, such as SunPower's 579 megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Ranch project.  There is no reasons to sacrifice critically important wildlife habitat to install solar panels, when the technology can be adapted to nearly any location.

Defenders' legal challenge is important because it reaffirms the need for all energy companies to respect fundamental environmental concerns when choosing where to build, and forces the Department of Interior to uphold not just the law, but its own standards for "responsible development" when evaluating the environmental impacts of energy projects.

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