Thursday, July 30, 2015

Diversity and Inclusion on Our Public Lands

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 - escape and rejuvenation. But all of these experiences rest on the same fabric - a landscape that is still largely intact in many parts of the desert southwest. Whether they were looking for gold, harvesting seeds, or passing through to Los Angeles, people in this land likely knew the same scent of creosote bush that I enjoy.  The riot of wildflower color in spring. They knew the relief of sunset, as cooler temperatures and the shadows of the mountains fall upon graceful valleys. Bats flutter overhead and owls call from a rocky perch.

The human experience in the desert spans a relatively short period of time, much younger than the rocks that we scramble across in Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks.  But this experience is made up of so many individual stories and emotions.  It is the diversity of those experiences that makes our natural heritage so much richer and meaningful.  And the desert - as intact as it is - provides an opportunity to step partly into those experiences, and to ponder our past and future.
But the future of this landscape - and our natural heritage - is under threat as we prioritize extractive industry over conservation, and the concept of outdoor enjoyment becomes distorted by companies that seem to suggest that you need hundreds of dollars of gear to properly enjoy a night under the stars.  Is the idea of conservation an anomaly that will ultimately give way to a tide of extractive industry and for-profit uses?  Are National Parks a fad that will eventually give in to the weight of human desire for material consumption?
Although there is no question that visitation and use of our public lands continues to climb,  this enjoyment has not been experienced equally across our communities and we must ensure that access to wildlands does not become some luxury good available only to a select few.  We are all responsible for these lands, and we are all responsible for ensuring that every corner of our society has access to the enrichment that we gain from open space.
Whenever I see the environmental community discuss issues of diversity and inclusion, I notice a knee-jerk reaction among some that refuse to acknowledge that we have work to do on this issue.  In response to articles and blog posts on how to ensure that communities of color are welcomed in our wildlands, I have seen comments that are dismissive that any barriers exist.  Some commenters suggest that it's simply a matter of choice that has resulted in some communities of color being underrepresented in visitation to our national parks.
We all have our own individual preferences for how we like to spend our free time, but to suggest that some communities simply don't have the desire to see the gushing falls of the Yosemite Valley, or to see a carpet of wildflowers erupt across a desert grassland in the spring is absurd. In the 2011 survey conducted by the National Park Service regarding visitation, those that had not visited a national park in the previous two years did not express some overall disinterest in nature.  Instead, the survey indicated that a myriad of factors ultimately discourage or prevent more people of color from visiting wildlands. High on the list  of factors was a lack of information and lack of familiarity with national parks, as well as perceived costs.

When I flipped through my latest issue of High Country News - the "Special Outdoor Recreation Issue" - I realized that there is not a single person of color that I could identify in any of the dozens of photos of people enjoying the outdoors.  I know that this was not some intentional effort by the magazine to exclude people, but probably an the result of a lack of diversity among those that write about and market the outdoors.  Consider the fact that the National Park Service staff is nearly 80% white.  This staff is working tirelessly under severe budget constraints to manage, protect and share some of our most treasured landscapes.  But it is all the more difficult to reach out to communities of color, and for communities of color to view our parks as accessible, with this gap in diversity. 

For those that are eager to give me the knee-jerk reaction, I will stress that this discussion is not about divisiveness or disunity.  Quite the opposite. Our wildlands ultimately forge a shared experience and constitute a shared treasure.  If we're going to protect them for eternity - if we want conservation to not just survive, but thrive - then we have to recognize how and when we are failing to be nature's advocate in our own communities. And to accomplish this, we need to look critically at how we communicate the value of our wildlands.

I hope that one hundred years from now someone else will find that same camping spot in the Mojave National Preserve and be able to look out across unspoiled desert valleys and mountains.  And just as I was able to reflect on the historical human experience in the desert before me, I hope that future visitors will be reflecting on how absurd it was that my generation continued to exploit and destroy wildlands and wildlife.   But if we're going to succeed in changing that paradigm, we need to make sure that everyone else in our community knows about the treasure that what we stand to lose.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Renewable Energy Legislation Would Slash Environmental Protection

The Wilderness Society is endorsing a bill that would encourage more corporate development of public lands, and allow Washington to undermine the National Environmental Police Act (NEPA).  The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act ( S. 1407, H.R. 2663) would require the Department of Interior to identify priority and "variance" development areas for wind and geothermal energy, adding to the controversial Solar Energy Zones and variance lands established in 2012.  The bill would not require "exclusion areas," would add staffing to speed up renewable energy permitting, and would allow Washington to short-circuit environmental review.

More of the Same...
Landscape-level planning could ostensibly protect desert wildlands, but programmatic energy development plans have shown significant deference to industry and offer environmental shortcuts for industry to bulldoze significant swaths of intact habitat.  If you want to imagine what will happen if the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act passes, you can take a close look at the Solar Energy Program established in 2012 that left hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful desert valleys vulnerable to energy development through variance lands and development priority areas known as Solar Energy Zones.

Projects in Solar Energy Zones receive streamlined environmental review, but at significant cost to wildlands and natural resources.  The Riverside East Solar Energy Zone in California threatens to constrain a vital wildlife corridor, and projects proposed for Nevada's Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone were approved even though they will contribute to the extreme overdraft of a groundwater basin.   The zones also streamline utility-scale solar projects despite the potential to undermine endangered bird species, including the western yellow-billed cuckoo and Yuma clapper rail, which have already been killed at other solar projects. The Solar Energy Program did establish some exclusion areas, but conservationists - including the Wilderness Society - were forced to accept variance lands and Solar Energy Zones even in some of the most remote corners of the desert.

In the end, the Solar Energy Program not only established a corporate shortcut on over 445 square miles of public lands (Solar Energy Zones), it also allowed for additional destruction on over 30,000 square miles of "variance" lands.   And that is only the beginning because the program allows Interior to identify additional fast-track Solar Energy Zones across six western states during regular revisions of Resource Management Plans.  The draft Resource Management Plan for Southern Nevada has already proposed six more Solar Energy Zones in that state alone.  Variance lands were widely opposed by environmental groups in comments on the Solar Energy Program, and yet the Wilderness Society is now encouraging more such designations.

In the end, the Solar Energy Program did more to reduce environmental scrutiny of projects on public lands in the west, and its only redeeming quality - exclusion areas - were sparsely applied out of deference to industry.

...Or Worse?
The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act does not explicitly require that the Department of Interior establish exclusion areas for geothermal or wind, and would also loosen environmental protections more so than is the case for the Solar Energy Program.   The legislation will likely result in hundreds of thousands of acres of additional energy zones and variance lands across the west for wind and geothermal energy, catering to corporate access and discarding wildlife, recreation and solitude.

Section 203 of the legislation would allow the Department of Interior to determine that a renewable energy project does not require any further environmental review (under NEPA) other than a cursory programmatic assessment.  This is significant because programmatic assessments rarely evaluate site-specific issues in sufficient detail, as we have already experienced with the Solar Energy Program. Why would the Wilderness Society support efforts to water down NEPA?

Section 204 encourages the Department of Interior to also expedite review of utility-scale projects in variance areas.  Under the Solar Energy Program developers are encouraged to first look to priority areas (the Solar Energy Zones) for project proposals; it is supposed to be comparatively difficult for developers to propose projects on variance lands because environmental review would take longer.  This new legislation would eliminate that key distinguishing factor, and streamline permitting on lands that are supposed to receive some modicum of protection from utility-scale energy development.

A Backwards Approach
As climate change threatens the wild places we cherish, our approach should be to expand conservation designations, such as the National Landscape Conservation System, while doubling down on policies that encourage distributed generation and energy efficiency.   Instead, we are accommodating a destructive status quo and ignoring a golden opportunity to undermine the centralized industrial model that has ravaged wildlands.   We're stuck in a negotiation where our options are unjustly constrained by corporate interests.   When faced with the destruction of our public lands by the fossil fuel industry, our counter offer is to give the renewable energy industry expedited access to add to the destruction already caused by fossil fuels and other industries.

In a poll conducted about the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, respondents favored guiding larger renewable energy projects to already-disturbed lands by a 2-1 margin.  The respondents probably were not asked whether they also prefer solar panels on rooftops and over parking lots, but its clear that the public would rather protect wildlands from utility-scale energy development.   But the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act says nothing about guiding energy development to already-disturbed lands. 

So let's rescind the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act and instead introduce a Sustainable Energy and Public Land Conservation Act.  Instead of identifying thousands of acres for the energy industry to destroy, let's identify more lands to add to the National Landscape Conservation System.  And let's generate clean energy sustainably by using the spaced in and around our cities that are already-disturbed.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

New Bill Would Gut Desert National Wildlife Refuge

The draft National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 (NDAA) is loaded with plenty of problematic riders, including attempts to lift endangered species protection for threatened sea otters in California, de-list the endangered lesser-prairie chicken, and prevent the listing of the sage grouse.  Of particular relevance in the Mojave Desert, the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives includes language that would offer jurisdiction of over half of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge to the U.S. Air Force for weapons testing.  Handing over jurisdiction of this important desert habitat is unnecessary because the military already has access to over several million acres of training and weapons testing ranges throughout the southwestern United States.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation's largest, at about1.6 million acres.  However, over half of the Refuge is closed to the public and managed jointly by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Secretary of the Air Force as part of the Nevada Test and Training Range (see map above).  Within this restricted area of the Refuge, the U.S. Air Force  has primary jurisdiction of nearly 112,000 acres of bombing impact areas (blue areas in the map above), but the Fish and Wildlife Service retains secondary jurisdiction over these areas.   The draft NDAA language under consideration in Washington would offer the entirety of this restricted area - over 800,000 acres - to the Air Force, removing Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction altogether, and substantially reducing any consideration for wildlife in how the land is managed.

The photos below show how the 112,000 acres of existing bomb impact areas within the Refuge boundary are affected by military activities.  If more land is handed over to military jurisdiction, you can expect more desert habitat to be destroyed. 

Bomb craters are visible in this Google Earth image, covering nearly one square mile of desert in Three Lakes Valley.  This is part of 112,000 acres of existing bomb impact areas that fall within the Refuge boundary.  The draft NDAA bill would permit the Air Force to conduct this type of activity on much more land if transferred from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Air Force.

The red line added to this Google Earth image traces a string of bomb craters over 1.25 miles long, ending in a large disturbed area on the left hand side of the photo. This disturbance is in the Indian Springs Valley.

This is a Google Earth image of what appears to be a mock base constructed for training or target practice purposes in Three Lakes Valley, within a designated bomb impact area of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
There are multiple live weapons testing and training areas throughout the southwestern United States already available to the military, in addition to the 112,000 acres of bomb impact areas in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.  Giving the Air Force several hundred thousand more acres seems unnecessary, and Congress should instead ensure that the military efficiently uses the spaces already available for testing and training.
  • In Nevada, the military already has access to the entire Nevada Test and Training Range, a total over over 2.9 million acres.  It's not clear if this 2.9 million acres also includes over 1,300 square miles of the heavily impacted Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons were tested.

    The square-shaped clearing alone is an area of bulldozed desert encompassing
    over 1.8 square miles at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  This is prime Mojave Ground Squirrel habitat.
The NDAA does not make clear why the Department of Defense needs to add several hundred thousand more acres to these test and training ranges (the list above is only a sampling of the live ordnance training areas on U.S. territory).  I could not find Department of Defense testimony indicating that this extra land is necessary, but the Department of Interior testified in 2014 against a similar attempt to gut the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. 

The House and Senate are now debating the final language of the NDAA before it is sent to the President, who has threatened to veto the bill if it ignores his Administration's national security funding requests.   It is appalling that Congress is opposed to designating new national monuments to protect our natural heritage, but it is willing to needlessly designate so much of America's beautiful landscapes as bombing ranges.

If you live in Nevada, sign this petition to urge your elected officials to oppose this unnecessary rider in the NDAA.

Severe cratering from nuclear weapon testing during the middle of the last century at the Nevada Test Site, just west of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
An early spring shower brings rain to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge from Bristlecone Media on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

"Green" Extractivism and the Ivanpah Valley

The Ivanpah Valley is now emblematic of the market's power not only to displace nature for the sake of materialism at an impressive scale, but also to limit the environmental movement's willingness to pursue sustainability.  First Solar continues to bulldoze intact habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to make way for over 6 square miles of solar panels at its Stateline and Silver State South projects.  The impact of the construction has been sobering, with desert tortoises, kit fox, LeConte's thrasher, ancient yucca, and countless other wildlife displaced or destroyed for a clean technology that can easily be installed on rooftops, over parking lots, and on already-disturbed lands. 

These First Solar projects join two other solar projects - including the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar project - and have turned a mostly wild landscape into one that is starkly dominated by human development.  Ivanpah proves that elements of our clean energy transition are dangerously compatible with a status quo extractive paradigm whereby our material consumption - however frivolous -  reigns supreme over nature.

Unit 1 (out of a total of 3) BrightSource power towers glares over the Ivanpah Valley as bulldozers clear intact habitat in the distance for First Solar's Stateline Solar project.

Ivanpah: A Model of "Green" Extractivism
There is nothing sustainable about what energy companies are doing in the Ivanpah Valley because these projects fail to adhere to a conservation ethic, and represent the same anthropocentric arrogance that has already brought us to the brink of the sixth mass extinction.  It is easy for some to dismiss the Ivanpah Valley as just some little corner of the desert, but the scale of destruction there is traumatic when you stop and behold what has been lost in such a short amount of time.  And if we are going to allow industrial-scale renewable energy to compose a significant portion of our future energy generation - as opposed to a more sustainable focus that I will describe later - we are set to witness an ecological trauma that will ironically rival the climate disaster we are trying to avoid in the first place. 
  • The projects in the Ivanpah Valley will have a combined nameplate capacity of nearly 1,000 MW when they are all completed, or less than two percent of California's peak energy demand.
  • The total amount of habitat destroyed for solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley is approximately 12 square miles.  This is an area greater than the size of Yosemite Valley.  Or imagine the Disneyland/California Adventure theme park, and multiply that area by 30.
Habitat bulldozed for the Stateline Solar project (foreground),
and thousands of BrightSource heliostats (background).
The projects online or under construction in the Ivanpah Valley are particularly emblematic of our nonchalance toward nature because we have barely begun to tap easier and more sustainable solutions to our fossil fuel addiction.  Every energy vampire we unplug, and every solar panel we put on a rooftop is another wild life or landscape that we spare. The scale of sustainable opportunities is immense.
  • The majority of the energy that our society generates is wastedEnergy efficiency improvement is the cheapest and easiest way to cut down on electricity use.  The 30 cities with the most potential energy efficiency savings could cut a combined 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh).  To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of shutting down dozens of dirty fossil fuel plants.
  • California's rooftops and parking lots offer space for enough solar panels to generate enough energy to meet the state's demand three to five times over, according to a Stanford study.  We have the technology (solar panels, energy storage, grid management tools), we have the space (our cities and already-disturbed lands), we just need the policies and incentives.
...And Another Capitalist Victory over Environmentalism
Naomi Klein argues in her book This Changes Everything that "we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism."  The Ivanpah Valley is a glaring example of how we may still find a way to satisfy climate hawks while changing nothing about the way we view and treat our planet.  People have celebrated the destruction of these wildlands, willing to accept a shallow victory of clean energy over fossil fuels.  On a higher order, however, they are applauding the continued waste of the planet for the sake of profit and materialism.

Barely visible in the center of the photo and above the GPS device placed on the ground is a juvenile desert tortoise found wandering an area recently bulldozed for First Solar's Stateline Solar project.  Photo from Stateline Solar compliance reports.

Climate change is a symptom of a deeper problem in our society; our recognition of the threat that climate change poses is an opportunity not just to swap out fossil fuels, but also to adopt a more thoughtful way of life.  But sustainability seems to be a difficult theme for the environmental community to talk about, probably because it requires addressing how each of us lives our own lives, and requires that we challenge what Naomi Klein calls "market fundamentalism."

Construction equipment scrapes away thousands of acres of intact creosote and yucca scrub habitat to make way for the Silver State South solar project at the northern edge of the Ivanpah Valley.
We tend to censor discussion of sustainability even when it stares us in the face, in favor of a narrow focus on climate. Although much discussion about Pope Francis' recent encyclical centered on his remarks about climate change, the document is actually about our treatment of the environment and the poor as a whole, of which climate change is a part.  And the Pope's message on sustainability is not a new one, either.  Pope Francis quotes from a 1991 encyclical that implores us to change "lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies" in order to improve our world. 

Ivanpah makes clear that we have a long path ahead of us to achieve a more sustainable way generating and consuming energy.

A view of the northwestern portion of the Ivanpah Valley from Metamorphic Hill, with the dry lake bed in the distance.  This photo was taken in 2012, before construction began on the Stateline Solar project
A similar view from Metamorphic Hill, with the Stateline Solar project clearing only partially completed.  Photo from the Stateline Solar project compliance reports.