Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Public Lands Debate Hijacked by Extremists in Nevada

At the urging of a small but vocal group of extremists, the Nevada legislature is considering an unconstitutional bill that would take public lands currently managed by the Federal government and hand them over to private interests for grazing, logging and mining (Assembly Bill 408).  Cliven Bundy, whose dangerous supporters aimed semi-automatic rifles at law enforcement officers, characterizes the bill as a "freedom and liberty thing," according to the Los Angeles Times.  They suggest that the Federal government limits public access to public land in Nevada, but they apparently define "freedom" as giving industry free reign to destroy the desert.

Southern Nevada is blessed with some beautiful desert wildlands.  Drive in any direction from Las Vegas and you'll find a corner of desert where you can enjoy solitude, the smell of creosote, and a beautiful landscape.  Contrary to what Bundy would like me to believe, I have never felt fenced out.   I have camped and hiked on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) south of Searchlight where I watched the setting sun light up Spirit Mountain.  I camped with my brother in the Wee Thump Wilderness area among a forest of Joshua Trees.  I have enjoyed visits to the Desert and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuges where I stood in awe of how species can adapt and thrive in such an unforgiving landscape.  I watched a shelf of billowy white and silver clouds sit on top of the magnificant Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area as a late winter storm approached.  I drove up rough roads to the base of Bare Mountain to investigate a natural spring frequented by bighorn sheep, and watched a golden eagle circle high above the peak.

Sunset across the Piute Valley with Spirit Mountain catching the last rays of light. BLM lands south of Searchlight, Nevada.
Public lands in Nevada are not being shielded from human destruction, either.  I would argue that quite the opposite is happening as increasing human and industrial demands are taking a toll.  There are bulldozers scraping several square miles of desert habitat next to Primm for First Solar's Silver State South solar project.  Suburbs and cities in southern Nevada have ballooned over the past few decades, eating up open space and tapping into a dwindling water supply.  Bundy's cows are grazing illegally on thousands of acres of the desert near Gold Butte, while cows belonging to other ranchers that follow the law and pay their fair share also graze in the state.  In Clark County alone, mines produced over 4.5 million metric tons of various commodities in the year 2013. Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts enjoy open areas and miles of routes carved into the desert, some of which I also depend upon to get to my favorite camping spots. 

So what do Cliven Bundy and some members of the Nevada legislature think we should be doing with our public lands?   Apparently they want a free-for-all where the most powerful interests can expand destructive uses, depriving the rest of us of the natural treasures that we should be protecting for future generations.  Are these people familiar with the tragedy of the commons?

I do not always agree with the Federal government's decisions on how to manage public lands, but I sure as hell do not agree with Cliven Bundy's proposal to hand over public lands to industry and other profiteers under the guise of freedom.  Public lands should stay in public hands, and that means finding a balance among the multitude of human demands that protects wildlife and wide-open landscapes.  We should not take open space and biodiversity for granted.

We should have a rational discussion about land management in Nevada, but people like Cliven Bundy - who want to deprive us of our ability to enjoy and explore public lands - have proven that they have nothing constructive to say.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

West Mojave Plan Would Expand OHV Route Network


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in February released a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the West Mojave Plan that would expand the open route network for off-highway vehicle (OHV) use and limit livestock grazing.  Despite concerns that an earlier iteration of the plan's OHV route network would have a significant adverse effect on wildlife, this draft proposes to significantly expand authorized OHV access to 10,428 miles of routes.  For the sake of comparison, the City of Los Angeles alone has about 6,500 miles of paved roads.

The last iteration of the West Mojave Plan was finalized in 2006 and proposed to designate 5,098 miles of open routes, but a Federal judge ordered the BLM to revise the plan.  The court ruled that the original plan lacked sufficient analysis of the effects of OHV use and grazing on wildlife, and asked the BLM to evaluate alternative OHV route networks that would minimize conflict and avoid considerable adverse effects on soil, wildlife and cultural resources.

A wash southwest of Ridgecrest known to support Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise.  The El Paso Mountains can be seen in the distance.
The court also asked the BLM to update its baseline inventory of existing routes (both authorized and unauthorized).  The public expressed concern that the BLM's original assessment of 8,000 miles of existing routes underestimated the amount of illegal new routes carved by OHV riders not following open routes.  In response, the BLM took another look at the West Mojave using high resolution satellite imagery and found approximately 15,000 miles of authorized and illegal routes carved into the West Mojave - far more than the BLM had originally thought existed.

Miles of existing routes inventoried in 2001: approximately 8,000 miles

Miles of open route designated in the 2006 West Mojave Plan:  5,098

Miles of existing routes inventoried in 2012: approximately 15,00

Miles proposed as open routes in the 2015 supplemental EIS: 10,428

Despite public concern that the smaller open route network would itself have adverse impacts on wildlife, the BLM is now proposing to more than double the miles of authorized routes in its 2015 supplemental EIS.   Although every fan of the desert relies on open routes to access our favorite corners of this beautiful region, there is a careful balance that needs to be struck between access, recreation, and protecting the integrity of our wildlands.  The plan would create areas where the concentration of open routes combined with the high frequency of OHV use would encourage a pattern of erosion and vegetation loss that could threaten the viability of wildlife habitat over time.  Specifically, a significant portion of the proposed open routes occur between the Golden Valley and El Paso Mountains Wilderness areas, which serves as important habitat for the Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise.  Each route eliminates desert vegetation, and reduces forage and cover available to animals.

A screen shot of the open route network map for a portion of the West Mojave Plan area near Ridgecrest, California.  The open routes are designated in green, with a significant concentration between the Golden Valley and El Paso Mountains Wilderness Areas.
Perhaps the impacts of the route network could be manageable if every OHV rider stayed on designated routes, but the impacts are likely to expand with unauthorized route creation.  Without proper education and enforcement, riders sometimes add to the network by departing from authorized routes and carving new tracks across the desert.  Once a track is carved into the desert soil, it is unlikely to disappear for years.   Other riders may see and follow the track, assuming it is part of an open network.  The repeat OHV travel on the illegal track increases the damage, and makes it all the more difficult to conceal from other OHV riders. 

A hill south of Ridgecrest scarred by multiple OHV routes.  Over time, the loss of topsoil contributes to erosion and prevents vegetation from growing.  As routes become impassable, OHV riders sometimes carve new routes, further expanding erosion and loss of vegetation.
The BLM is accepting comments on the draft supplemental EIS until June 4, 2015, and has indicated that it may revise the open route network based on specific comments from the public.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Grid Operator Says Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Line Unnecessary

Southern California Edison's (SCE) proposal to build a destructive new transmission line across desert wildlands just hit a snag.  The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) - the organization responsible for managing the state's transmission grid - reported that SCE's proposed Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project is no longer necessary to bring all of the Mojave Solar project's energy to the grid.  SCE had argued that it could not deliver energy from Abengoa's Mojave Solar on existing transmission lines because those lines were already in use by other power plants.  A new 75 mile transmission line would be needed to connect the project to the grid, according to SCE, a portion of which would be built outside of existing transmission corridors.

The early dawn sun highlights desert silhouettes in the northern Lucerne Valley, just east of the Granite Mountains.  The proposed Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project would cut right through this landscape.
However, the CAISO's submission to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) undercuts SCE's case for building the new transmission line.  SCE needs CPUC's approval in order to pass along costs to build the new line to ratepayers.  CAISO argues that the retirement of other power plants in the region have freed up enough capacity on transmission lines to fully deliver the energy generated by the Mojave Solar project.  This doesn't count the Coolwater natural gas plant, that has also ceased operations but has not relinquished its rights to transmission lines.  If that plant also follows suit, even more capacity will be available.

SCE has put forward other reasons to build the Coolwater-Lugo Transmission line, but it had scrapped less destructive alternatives because it argued that it needed to serve the Mojave Solar project.  Hopefully CPUC will ask SCE to reconsider its options for transmission line upgrades in the desert.  There are plenty of existing transmission corridors that can be upgraded, and distributed generation and storage should be used to alleviate the need for new transmission lines in the first place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DRECP: Is the New Approach a Threat or Opportunity?

The Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) agencies announced this week that they would adopt a phased approach to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) in response to widespread concern about the proposed endangered species permitting mechanism and conflict with county land use plans.   Under this approach, the more contentious aspects of the DRECP will be further refined after additional consultation with the counties and rolled out at a later date.

The first phase will amend the land use planning for Federal lands in the California desert, establishing both conservation and development focus areas.  The second phase will establish development areas on private lands as well as the streamlined permitting process for renewable energy projects under State and Federal Endangered Species Acts.  Reactions to the phased approach range from concern to relief.

Will Desert Conservation Move Forward?

How well the first phase is received will depend largely on whether or not the BLM sticks to its original preferred alternative or attempts to cram more Development Focus Areas (DFAs) onto public lands.  CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas during a teleconference this week noted that many of the 12,000 public comments on the DRECP expressed strong support for conservation designations on public lands.  It is safe to say that many of those comments probably asked for even more public lands to be included in the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) or designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

Although the draft BLM land use plan was not perfect, many recognize the need to confer the conservation designations that the desert needs.   As California expands its Renewable Portfolio Standard, we can expect the energy rush on public lands to continue; any delay in conservation measures will only prolong the dangerous game of  roulette that we have played with our prized desert landscapes and wildlife.

However, public land enthusiasts and conservation groups have expressed concern that the BLM may try to compensate for the delayed roll out of DFAs on private lands by adding more DFAs on public lands.  During the teleconference announcement this week BLM California Director Jim Kenna did not specify whether, or how much the "preferred alternative" would change when it is rolled out in a final environmental impact statement.  This is not surprising considering that Federal agencies have not finished reviewing public comments and typically maintain silence regarding internal deliberations.  However, Mr. Kenna did acknowledge that the BLM land use plan will be based on the original range of alternatives included in the draft DRECP. 

A significant addition of DFAs on public lands almost certainly would rile the majority of people that spent time reviewing and commenting on the DRECP because of the overwhelming support for conservation designations, and the fact that most people probably did not have the time to comment on the DRECP beyond the preferred alternative.  Although the draft DRECP identified several other alternative land use plans with varying configurations of DFAs and conservation designations, most people I spoke with had focused their comments on the the constellation of DFAs identified in the preferred alternative.  Selecting a different alternative would constitute a last minute bait-and-switch, depriving people of providing meaningful input on additional DFAs.



An Opportunity to Reduce DFAs

Delaying the second phase of the DRECP provides more time for agencies to reconsider the role that distributed generation can play in meeting our renewable energy goals.  Plenty of individuals and groups urged the REAT agencies to re-evaluate the role that energy efficiency and rooftop solar can play, thereby reducing the need for DFAs.  During this week's announcement,  the REAT agencies did not give any indication that they planned to do so, however.  In fact, the announcement of the phased approach reiterated the DRECP's underlying assumption that DFAs should accommodate 20,000 megawatts of large-scale renewable energy generation in the California desert.

However, closer coordination with the counties should still allow for a reduction in the DFAs.  The draft DRECP over-allocated DFA lands in part to counter perceived uncertainty regarding whether renewable energy companies can secure access to private lands for development.  Presumably, coordination with counties will clear up some of this uncertainty, enabling planners to significantly reduce proposed DFAs. 

Sand verbena blooming at the base of Amboy Crater in the Mojave Desert