Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tortoise Toll Mounts at Nevada Solar Project

First Solar's Silver State South project has displaced over 152 desert tortoises, according to data obtained by Basin and Range Watch, and this toll is expected to rise since construction crews have not yet finished bulldozing the threatened animal's habitat.  The Silver State South solar project is being built just east of Primm, Nevada on 3.7 square miles of intact Mojave Desert habitat that biologists have determined to be a key corridor for the desert tortoise - facilitating genetic flow for the species that is important for its survival in the face of many anthropogenic threats, including climate change.

A giant cholla cactus on the site of First Solar's Silver State South Solar project.  This cactus' size suggests it has survived for a long time in the arid and harsh climate of the Mojave Desert, but it will be destroyed to make way for an energy project that allows us to charge our iPhones and run our air conditioners.  The same solar panels that will displace this desert habitat can just as easily, and more efficiently be placed on rooftops or over parking lots.
Of the 152 tortoises displaced, 63 are adult and 89 are juvenile, indicating that First Solar chose a bad location for its solar project.  According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion, the project is expected to displace as many as 115 adult desert tortoises, and the Department of Interior will likely have to halt construction and re-evaluate impacts if the number of adult tortoises found exceeds 107.   Although many of these tortoises will be relocated to other parts of the desert, their chances for survival are dim because they will compete with other tortoises for resources and be more vulnerable to predators.  Environmental groups sought to halt the solar project earlier this year because of its poor location, but failed to secure an injunction from the court.

The Silver State South solar project further underscores the need for better planning and a focus on policies that encourage solar in our cities - such as solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots - rather than solar on desert wildlands.  Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment on its Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the southern Nevada region that proposes to encourage energy and mining development on even more of the tortoise's habitat.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Overriding Considerations and the War on Carbon

The New York Times recently published an Op-Ed by author Rebecca Solnit questioning our concern for the fate of wildlife as we rapidly expand renewable energy generation.  Ms. Solnit's point seems to be that the climate catastrophe poses far too great of a threat to be concerned for the death of wildlife at solar and wind energy projects.  I think it is very timely that her op-ed was published at the same time that our country is left trying to explain why the torture of a few was necessary for the defense of many.  When we are left questioning why we should compromise on our values in the pursuit of victory in war. 

A swallow found dead at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar power project, almost certainly burned by the "solar flux" - superheated air - generated by the project's thousands of giant mirrors.
I would like to argue that Ms. Solnit is missing the point, and that every life has value, including every single bird and insect burned at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, or any burrowing owl that loses its habitat to the effects of climate change.   But she raises a compelling point - climate will bring destruction on a mass scale, and terrorize ecosystems and human communities alike.  As we continue to burn coal and natural gas, human towns will be washed away by rising seas, and we will witness the disappearance of shore bird nests, the hunting grounds of puffins, the homes of polar bears, and stands of Joshua trees.

Climate change is indeed a menace and I agree with Ms. Solnit that it deserves the effort of every individual to address.  However,  climate change is the consequence of our excesses as a human society - the rich flying private jets from coast to coast, and the poor watching television after a long day's work.  We are all using energy - to varying degrees - and it is incumbent that we all pay the price and voluntarily change our habits.  It is foolish and abhorrent to post photos of burned birds - as the New York Times did - and broadcast a morally blind rhetoric that wildlife needs to "suck it up" and take one for the team in our war on carbon; a war in which the enemy and the victor are the same - human beings.

A construction marker placed in the pristine Ivanpah Valley before BrightSource Energy bulldozers destroyed over 5 square miles of desert habitat, displaced or killed over 150 desert tortoises, and began to incinerate countless birds and insects.
I would like to make this very point, but I don't believe many individuals are ready to erase so many barriers between themselves and other life forms on this planet. We are constantly placed in the role of placing a value on life.  We do it to fellow humans, and we have certainly had no problem playing the self-appointed role of judge and God against other species.   We determine the acceptability of the loss of life based on the disturbance it causes in our own - for Ms. Solnit, the burned sparrows are of little consequence when she apparently feels it is incumbent upon herself to command the troops against the invisible enemy.  Slay the birds, tortoises, and ancient yucca and creosote in our quest to defeat our own dependence on fossil fuels.  Is this justice, or is it the same bullshit we have been spewing for the past century in pursuit of our manifest destiny to conquer the wilds of the Earth in service of human desire.   For what do we sacrifice the biodiversity of this planet?  The ability to charge our iPhones, light our patios, and record our favorite TV shows?

I do not expect that every watt of renewable energy will come from rooftops - primarily because I don't expect that a system built upon the consolidation of wealth among the few will let go of the golden egg of our centralized power system so easily.  But I do think it is our responsibility to scrutinize our impacts - whether they are the result of fossil fuels or renewable energy - and strive to reduce our demands on this planet and our fellow species.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Conservation Legislation Loaded with Poison Pills

Congress may grant public lands some new conservation designations before the end of the year, but at a substantial cost.   The House of Representatives and Senate have agreed on draft legislation that will pair conservation proposals with land transfers and special allowances for the mining, timber, grazing and energy interests.  The Senate is expected to pass the bill, which also includes the long-sought Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument north of Las Vegas.  In the last days of a Democrat-controlled Senate, it is a dismal sign of the times to come if even "bi-partisan" conservation deals are so heavily laden with gifts to industry.

Nevada's New Monument

If the legislation passes the Senate - a move expected within the next week - it would establish the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument on over 22,000 acres just north of Las Vegas.  However, the monument would come with its own dose of destructive compromises.  The bill directs the National Park Service to allow for a 400-foot wide right-of-way for future transmission lines and a 100-foot wide right-of-way for a potential water pipeline through the new monument.  The bill also sets up the transfer of hundreds of acres public land to Clark County in the Ivanpah Valley in support of plans to build an airport there, just north of Primm.  Although plans for the airport are temporarily shelved, Las Vegas is likely to revive the plans when McCarran International  begins to reach capacity.

Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area Safe?

A previous version of the legislation establishing the monument also included a provision that would have released over 10,000 acres of the Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area for multiple use.  Although the Las Vegas Review-Journal is reporting the current bill will do just that, it appears to me that this particular provision was not included in the version passed by the House.  The Instant Study Area is essentially managed as a wilderness study area, and cannot be designated released to a  "multiple use" designation until Congress makes a decision on its fate.  At least two rare plants can be found in the Instant Study Area - the Las Vegas Bearpoppy and Ivory-spined agave.   Continuing to manage this area for conservation can help preserve land on the eastern boundary of the growing Las Vegas metropolis for future generations to experience and explore.

Zoom in or download the map to view the boundaries of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, as well as the location of the Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area (darker brown area in the bottom right corner).

Similarly Mixed Bag Up North

But the compromises included in the creation of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument are just the beginning.  Other "conservation" legislation bundled into the National Defense Authorization Act will transfer even more land to private interest.   Thousands of acres of public lands would be transferred to private hands in northern Nevada near Yerington and Fernly, including lands intended to facilitate the expansion of a copper mine.  Elsewhere in the legislation are provisions that would terminate 26,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas, and allow clear cut removal of old growth forest in Alaska.  The bill also includes language that would streamline the permitting of livestock grazing on public lands by gutting environmental review.

In return, Congress will designate approximately 245,000 acres of Wilderness areas, nearly half of which are already managed for wilderness quality.  Of those Wilderness areas, 75,000 acres would be designated in northern Nevada in Lyon and Humboldt Counties.