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Showing posts from 2015

Suburban Sprawl Continues Creep Across Desert

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The revival of the housing market has renewed a perennial threat to desert wildlands - urban sprawl.  Developers are considering plans for large new suburban developments across the southwest, years after such large developments mostly stalled when the housing industry began to crash in 2006.  At a time when most of our efforts have been focused on protecting public lands from industrial-scale development, urban sprawl underscores the need for local efforts to protect open space under private ownership.

The NASA video above shows the extent of Las Vegas' urban sprawl since 1972.
Along the Mojave River in California, the Tapestry project could result in the destruction of nearly 9 square miles of juniper woodland and chaparral habitat in the Summit Valley to make way for at least 16,196 homes.  The area is popular for hiking, jogging, and mountain bike riding.  During environmental surveys, biologists observed or detected western pond turtles, coastal horned lizards, bobcats, mul…

Final Plans for Public Lands Portion of DRECP Introduce Ambiguity

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The Department of Interior on Tuesday released the final environmental impact statement for the first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which significantly alters the land use planning for public lands administered by Interior in the California desert.  Although the final version expands conservation designations that were popular in the draft DRECP,  it also seems to introduce uncertainty for nearly 802,000 acres of "unallocated" lands that are neither part of conservation nor a development designation.  The public has 30 days to submit any concerns regarding the final draft before it is made official by a Record of Decision.

Subtle Change Has Significant Impacts

If you looked at the draft DRECP released for public comment late last year you probably paid attention to where large-scale energy development would be allowed, and where it would not.  After all, it is the added threat posed by utility-scale energy development to public lands that pro…

Solar Power Tower Developers Attempt to Dismiss Shortfalls

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Solar power tower developers have chided critical press coverage of their massive facilities as letting perfect be the enemy of good.  But we have learned enough about this technology to know that power tower projects do not even qualify as "good" clean energy projects.  Far superior alternatives exist in terms of life-cycle carbon emissions and sustainable siting.

Solar power towers have earned a bad reputation, and their developers are desperate to restore the green halo that they enjoyed a few years ago.  NRG - the current owner of the Ivanpah Solar project in California - and Solar Reserve - owner of the Crescent Dunes project in Nevada - have long been on the defensive with inaccurate and misleading public relations efforts.  But they have stepped up their PR efforts after new reports on their natural gas use and impacts on wildlife. Although developers promise to eventually deliver energy storage benefits, other technologies allow us to do so without burning birds in …

Southern Nevada Wildlands Get Temporary Reprieve

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A Federal judge recently ruled against the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the Searchlight Wind project because the BLM did not adequately analyze potential impacts on golden eagles, bats and desert tortoises, according to Basin & Range Watch.  The BLM initially approved of the Searchlight Wind project in 2013 based on poor quality wildlife surveys paid for by the developer.  The original impact analysis considered only three golden eagle nests within a ten-mile radius of the wind project, even though a separate study funded by the BLM found as many as ten nests.

Apex Clean Energy - the project developer - and the BLM may decide to redo some of the environmental analysis that the court found to be lacking.  However, it would be wiser if Nevada and its neighbors focused investments on energy efficiency, and implemented policies that encourage distributed, locally-controlled renewable energy generation and battery storage.

This stretch of southern Nevada is relative…

Supervisor Lovingood Lays Out Hollow Case Against Monuments

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San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood traveled to Washington last week to testify against the potential establishment of national monuments in the California desert, but his concerns rang hollow.  His most concrete complaints centered on the prospects of a long-shuttered gold mine located over 70 miles from the nearest San Bernardino County city and owned by a Canadian company.  Lovingood's testimony reveals that his opposition to the monuments is politically motivated, rather than practically rooted and that he is out of touch with his constituents.

Lovingood Picks a Battle Over Castle Mountains

Most San Bernardino County residents would fall in love with the Castle Mountains if they saw them.  But Supervisor Lovingood's testimony suggests he has a different vision for this remote stretch of the county.  Lovingood expressed concern to officials in Washington that the nearby Castle Mountain gold mine may have difficulty operating if a desert monument is established …

What are you doing on Tuesday?

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Now is our moment to protect public access to desert wildlands for future generations to enjoy.   Tuesday is an important opportunity to tell government officials that we cherish the vast open landscapes that the California desert has to offer.  Our presence will send a message that we are tired of losing public lands to private, for-profit destruction.  At stake will be the White House's consideration of the Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains and Sand-to-Snow National Monuments.  Without these monuments, our desert will transition from a humbling, natural landscape to an industrial checkerboard. 


The desert that early inhabitants experienced was a lot more expansive than the desert we know today, and if we don't take action now, our grandchildren will inherit a landscape unrecognizable to us and preserved only in our photographs.  Since 2009, dozens of square miles of our desert wildlands have been bulldozed and converted into energy projects and subdivisions. The alternative to…

Cook's Desert Bill is a Political Ransom Note

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A new bill introduced by Congressman Paul Cook would encourage the destruction of over 246 square miles of desert wildlands in exchange for widely supported conservation designations.  The bill - the California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act - panders to harmful, for-profit uses of public lands, including in the heart of the Mojave Desert along Historic Route 66.

The bill appears to be an effort to counter the desert conservation and recreation legislation introduced by Senator Feinstein, who decided earlier this year to seek establishment of desert monuments through the Antiquities Act because of roadblocks in Congress.  Contrary to misinformation I have seen spread online, the monuments would not "restrict access" for people that enjoy and explore desert wildlands.  I say this as a person that uses designated routes to access remote areas of the desert for camping, hiking and photography.  Unlike the monument proposals, Cook's bill would promote th…

First Solar Project Displaces Over 160 Desert Tortoises

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First Solar has displaced at least 161 adult and juvenile desert tortoises to make way for its Silver State South Solar project in Nevada, as of August 2015, according to documents provided by the Department of Interior.  Initial information indicates several tortoises relocated from the project site have already died, possibly as a result of being forced into unfamiliar ranges.  First Solar is clearing over 3.7 square miles of intact desert habitat for the project after the company ignored requests to consider less destructive locations.  Underscoring its interest in profit over the environment, the company has even funded attacks on rooftop solar - a more sustainable alternative to meeting our renewable energy needs that First Solar sees as a threat to its bulldozer-led approach.

Translocation Results Uneven

Although the 161 desert tortoises found on the Silver State South project site were moved to the surrounding desert before bulldozers leveled the area for solar panels, at least …

Calculating the Many Benefits of Distributed Generation

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"Renewable distributed generation (“DG”) has benefits to society that cannot be measured on utility balance sheets." That is the bottom line of an extensive white paper submitted by the Sierra Club to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the regulatory body that is currently deciding whether rooftop solar will continue to expand in California or be buried by monopolistic utility companies seeking to continue a destructive status quo.

The CPUC will decide by the end of the year how much the energy generated by a rooftop solar installation is worth under net-metering, and it has solicited proposals from stakeholders regarding how to determine this value.  If you live or work in a home with solar panels on the roof, or if you have purchased shares in a community solar project because you don't own the roof over your head, the utility companies currently credit you at the retail rate of electricity for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) that your solar panels generate. …

Bird Deaths at Ivanpah Solar Project Likely Underestimated

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Birds with severely singed feathers are travelling over a half-mile from the center of the Ivanpah Solar project before falling to the ground, indicating that current research efforts are incapable of accounting for the full scope of project-related avian fatality.  Abengoa recently withdrew plans for a similar "power tower" project after acknowledging concerns about the technology's impact on wildlife, but also suggesting that the technology's benefits are uncertain and unreliable.

Birds Dying Beyond the Reach of Research?

Efforts to determine how many birds are killed by the project involve carcass surveys of only 29% of the project area and do not involve significant searches of the desert surrounding the Ivanpah Solar project's boundary.  According to the 2014-2015 Winter Report for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System Avian & Bat Monitoring Plan, (covering 21 October 2014 to 15 March 2015), seven birds with singed feathers were found far from the…

Clean Power Plan Requires Grassroots Polishing

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The Environmental Protection Agency this week rolled out a Federal rule - known as the Clean Power Plan - that is designed to reduce toxic emissions from power plants. The Clean Power Plan is a necessary top-down step to cut fossil fuels and toxic emissions, especially in states where policymakers are climate deniers and shills for the coal industry.

But let's be honest - the easiest path for most states to achieve the relatively weak targets set by the Clean Power Plan will be profitable for most utility companies and power plant owners, and destructive to wildlands and wildlife.  And the states that have the most work to do on emissions reductions are the ones least likely to prioritize sustainability or local ownership in how they respond to the plan.

As the President said of the Clean Power Plan, "this is our moment to leave something better for our kids...let's make the most of it."  We have more work to do to ensure that the Clean Power Plan unleashes sustaina…

Diversity and Inclusion on Our Public Lands

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I camped in the Mojave National Preserve early this summer at the southern base of the Providence Mountains.  A couple of hours before sunset I watched thunderstorms slowly build to the east and cross over the Colorado River and Dead Mountains, over 50 miles away.  To the southeast the Clipper Mountains stood prominently, with the graceful Old Woman Mountains further in the distance.

I have to admit that I like having open space to myself.  Looking out for miles and soaking my mind in a landscape dominated by nature. Not by cars, billboards, suburbs, or strip malls.  Although I find solitude in the desert, I know that I am gazing upon a landscape crowded with a diverse human experience.  Native American tribes would meet at the Old Woman Mountains, and miners and homesteaders of various backgrounds claimed different corners of the desert.
The human experience in the desert was not always positive, and the reasons that brought others to the desert are starkly different than my own -…