Showing posts from March, 2011

Ivanpah Solar Project May Displace or Kill Hundreds of Tortoises

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now estimates that BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS) could displace or kill as many as 140 desert adult tortoises, and hundreds of juveniles which are harder to detect during construction.    When the Department of Interior and California Energy Commission initially approved the project, located in the northeastern Mojave Desert, they expected to encounter 38 tortoises on the site.  However, according to the monthly biological compliance report, the construction crews working on the first phase of the project (only a third of the total project) had already displaced 49 tortoises as of February, strongly suggesting that initial biological surveys underestimated the potential biological impact of the project.  The project's destructive impacts leave many asking why BrightSource Energy chose to build its facility on pristine habitat when thousands of acres of already-disturbed land and open rooftops await

A better response to the Atlantic Monthly

Chris Clarke over at Coyote Crossing posted an even better response to the Atlantic Monthly article I blogged about yesterday.  Chris deftly deconstructs Alexis Madrigal's article: We’re one 22-word sentence into Madrigal’s piece, and I’ve spent almost four hundred words explaining what’s wrong with it. Given that the full piece runs to more than 3,300 words — and is at that only an excerpt of an upcoming book — the prospect of trying to tease some sense out of Madrigal’s writing is daunting. ...and tackles Madrigal's insidious attempt to paint Big Solar as a savior and redefine environmentalism in favor of industry: The key is Madrigal’s misleading quote of ecologist Erle Ellis in a 2009 Wired Op-Ed. Ellis’ point was to attack the persistent view of nature and humanity, wilderness and society as somehow mutually exclusive. Ellis’ Op-Ed was deliberately provocative, hyperbolic even; there is much in it with which one could disagree. But it is in no way a call to pa

In Response to the Atlantic Monthly

The Atlantic Monthly published an article today lamenting that "fledgling" solar energy companies face opposition from environmentalists in the quest to pave over the Mojave Desert with massive solar facilities and transmission lines.  The article ridicules our concern over endangered species, and demands an evolution in environmentalism so that we focus on human needs, and abandon what it describes as an outdated focus on conservation of nature far from humans. The article sadly supports an old paradigm in energy generation, where companies are given unfettered access to public lands and we continue to pay inflated rates for electricity.  It ignores the real potential to cut greenhouse gasses by building distributed generation (" rooftop solar ") or building larger facilities on already-disturbed land.  The EPA already identified ample disturbed land for renewable energy projects as part of its RE-powering America's Land program, and Germany is gener

Supreme Court Favors Citizens in Fight Against Trash Dump

The Supreme Court today denied a petition by Kaiser Eagle Mountain Inc. in its quest to operate a landfill near Joshua Tree National Park.  The company filed an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming that the 9th Circuit Court wrongfully ruled in favor of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and concerned citizens Donna and Larry Charpied in 2009.  In that earlier ruling, the 9th Circuit decided that a land swap between the company and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)--which was necessary for the company to operate the landfill--was conducted illegally.  More specifically, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the BLM broke the National Environmental Policy Act when it constructed the "purpose and needs"statement in its evaluation of the project based on the goals of the company, and not the BLM's own goals.   Although ruling against the landfill project, the 9th Circuit was also critical of the Charpieds, disagreeing with their claim that BLM's assessmen

Climate Change Likely to Reduce Range of Joshua Tree

Global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions is expected to eliminate the iconic Joshua Tree ( Yucca breviolia ) from 90% of its current range within 60-90 years.  The tree is likely to be limited to the northern portion of its range, according to a study led by the US Geological Survey that looked at how the tree reacted to a sudden climate warming approximately 12,000 years ago.   A Johusa Tree in the west Mojave Desert, where urban development continues to wipe out swaths of desert habitat. The climate study notes that the sudden warming period in the past reduced the Joshua Tree's range, and the extinction of the giant Shasta ground sloth since that time slowed the tree's ability to reclaim lost territory.  The giant ground sloth used to feed on the seeds of the Joshua Tree and spread them far and wide.  Today, small rodents such as squirrels and packrats still feed on the seeds, but do no carry them as far.  Climate change poses a double threat to desert ecosy

Six Billion Dollar High Speed Train Moves Forward, With Taxpayer Help

The proposed high-speed train line known as the "Desert Xpress" received final environmental approval this week from the Federal Railroad Administration, according to KCET .  The rail would link the City of Victorville with Las Vegas, crossing through the Mojave Desert, and cost at least 6 billion dollars.  The private company proposing the rail line expects a 4.9 billion dollar loan backed by taxpayers to finance most of the project.  As noted on KCET's blog, the rail line has been criticized by citizens as a waste of taxpayer funds and an unwise choice for private investors.  Most travel between Las Vegas and California comes from the Los Angeles basin --why would drivers abandon their cars in Victorville to hop on the train?  And can the line generate enough traffic to pay off the investment? Most of the line follows the same route as Interstate 15, but the additional infrastructure is expected to compound ecological harm in some areas.  Most notably, the rail line

Calico and Ridgecrest Solar Projects Haunt Pristine Desert

Two different solar companies--Solar Millennium LLC and K Road Power--have officially revived proposals to build solar power projects on public land in the Mojave Desert.  Both projects have been heavily criticized by biologists and taxpayers (and some biologists that pay taxes) as a waste of money and public land. Calico Solar Project  K Road Power (and its subsidiary K Road Solar) filed a petition with the California Energy Commission (CEC) on 22 March to modify the original Calico Solar power project, that was approved by the CEC last year.  The company that initially proposed and won approval for the Calico Solar power project--Tessera Solar LLC--could not afford to build the project, and sold the rights to public land to K Road Power .   That company is now proposing slight changes to the original proposal, calling for a mix of photovoltaic panels and the " Suncatcher " design.  Because K Road Solar is changing the original design, they should have to submit to a new e

Environmental Organizations Say Gray Wolf is No Longer Endangered

Earlier this month, ten environmental organizations signed a letter asking a judge to remove populations of the gray wolf in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list, but allowing the Wyoming, Washington and Oregon populations to remain on the list.  The settlement letter was signed by some notable groups, to include the Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife. Decisions on whether or not to remove a species from the endangered list is usually based on a scientific evaluation of that species' recovery, not political decisions and boundaries.  In fact, a judge said so last year in a decision that supported the environmental groups' efforts at the time to maintain the wolf's endangered species protections in Idaho and Montana.  Now the environmental groups are asking that same judge to reverse his decision and de-list the gray wolf based on political boundaries. The blogger Chris Clarke

Desert Wildflowers Begin to Bloom

It's that time of year.  After heavy rains in late December, and some smaller showers in February, the desert wildflowers have begun to bloom.   I find the best source for updates on the status of the bloom is the Desert USA website , which posts photos and information submitted by readers who are fanning out across the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  The updates are organized by region and park, although some areas are not updated as frequently as others. You can also visit the Anza Borrego blog for updates on widlflower blooms in the vicinity of Anza Borrego State Park.  Apparently there are some great blooms in the Sonoran Desert, and the blog has some amazing photos to back it up.  Throughout the California deserts, the lower elevation areas are probably the best bet for a fuller bloom right now.  High elevation deserts might need some more time to catch up.   Stay tuned... Close-up photo of what I believe may be sand verbena.  Amboy Crater in 2008     Another flower

Mark Your Calendars...

A few opportunities coming up to enjoy the splendors of the outdoors or speak up for wise desert land use: Mojave Desert Land Trust service events : Either one of these events would be a great excuse to get out to the desert, see some spring wildflower blooms, camp, and volunteer! The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) asks that you pre-register by sending an email to Mizuki Seita at  You can find more details at the MDLT website . On 26 March , Saturday, you can volunteer to restore desert habitat in Lanfair, in the Mojave National Preserve. On 23 April , Saturday, you can help with cleanup and restoration work at the Trust's recently acquired Quail Mountain property just next to Joshua Tree National Park. Sierra Club Cactus Count: The Desert Protective Council wants to remind you that there are in fact Saguaro cactus in California.  Many folks are used to seeing the various cholla cactus and barrel cactus in California's deserts, but few realize tha

Victorville Chases Fool's Gold

The City of Victorville, one of the largest population centers in the western Mojave Desert, is nearing insolvency under nearly $500 million of debt, according to the Wall Street Journal.   Victorville has mishandled millions of dollars of bonds accounts and shifted funds without city council authorization.   The city has already slashed many of its employees from the payroll, and many citizens complain of deteriorating infrastructure and crime.  Nevertheless, Victorville is still investing in ambitious and unnecessary plans, such as a 32 square mile expansion and the High Desert Corridor (E-220) , a new highway connecting Lancaster and Victorville.   Most residents probably would prefer the City reinvest in existing infrastructure and open up a new east-west route within the city (the Nisqualli overpass) to alleviate burdensome traffic before expanding the city limits and building an unwanted highway. Victorville officials ran up some of the 500 million in debt when consultants pro

Distributed Generation Can Save the Desert

According to an interview of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) president Michael Peevey by , the State of California supports distributed solar generation (such as rooftop solar) and is in favor of policy changes that makes it easier for taxpayers and businesses to benefit from distributed generation.  The State's support for distributed generation is critical to the preservation of desert wildlands, since solar installations in our cities and on our rooftops are far more efficient and economical than massive facilities in the middle of the desert. Clearing the Way for Distributed Generation According to CPUC president Peevey, he is staunchly in favor of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), which allows a homeowner to finance a rooftop solar installation over time through their property tax.   Rooftop solar generally increases property values, and cuts down electricity costs over time.   Peevey criticized the Federal Housing Finance Administra

Update on Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard

The US Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) decision not to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as an endangered species has been posted online, and a PDF copy is available below via scribd.  The lizard inhabits sandy hardpan or gravel flats in the Coachella Valley and Sonoran Desert, which lies south of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. The assessment confirms that the Coachella Valley population of the flat-tailed horned lizard will likely see significant threats within the foreseeable future, and admits that the Coachella Valley Habitat Conservation Plan has not yet preserved the lizard's last remaining habitat in the area.   Nonetheless, because of conservation and land management efforts throughout the rest of its range, the USFWS believes the species remains viable and does not warrant endangered status. FTHL ruling FWS-R8-ES-2010-0008-0042

US Rules Not to Protect Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard

According to the Los Angeles Times, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided not to list the Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard on the Endangered Species list after reviewing the proposal since last year.  The lizard has been relegated to a fraction of its former range--which used to span the Sonoran Desert--but the USFWS assessed that inter-agency and local conservation efforts have set aside sufficient land to keep the species viable. Despite the ruling, the lizard still faces a slew of threats from illegal off-highway vehicle use, solar energy facilities, new transmission lines, and urban growth, which continue to constrain its remaining habitat.  One massive solar facility--the Imperial Valley Solar power project--would deprive the flat-tailed horned lizard of nearly 9.6 square miles of habitat.  USFWS acknowledges that some threats from energy development persists, but judges that the energy applications do not threaten the designated management areas. Regarding urban encroachm

Research Highlights Deserts' Role in Sequestering Carbon

New research by the University of California suggests we should take a harder look at the potential carbon sequestration capacity of America's deserts.  According to the study, disturbing approximately 11 square miles of desert habitat could release 6,000 metric tons of carbon per year.  That is roughly the equivalent of putting a fleet of 5,300 SUVs on the road, each traveling 120 miles per month.  Desert plants and soil organisms take in and store tons of carbon each year.   When the desert habitat is destroyed, not only does it lose its ability to capture and store carbon, but carbon locked into the soils is likely to be released. According to the study: When desert plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbons (C), as sugars, move into the roots and soil organisms.  Carbon dioxide is respired back into the soil, part of which reacts with calcium (Ca) in the soil to form calcium carbonate.  This is how our deserts sequester large amounts of C and thus function to r

DC Favors Joshua Tree National Park, but Leaves Butterfly Hanging

In late February, the Department of Interior reversed its longstanding position in favor of a landfill just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.  For 24 years the Department of Interior supported legal efforts by a company to establish the world's largest landfill just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where several square miles of canyons would have been filled with 20,000 tons of garbage each day.  The trash, and 24 hour dumping operations would have brought air pollution and subsidized predators that threaten the protected ecosystems that provide peace to many visitors each year.  Over 1.4 million Americans visited Joshua Tree National Park last year, and they came to see beautiful desert vistas, wildlife, and wildflowers, not trash. The efforts to reverse Department of Interior's position were spearheaded by two citizens concerned about misguided policy in California's deserts--Donna and Larry Charpied.  At issue is the landfill company's proposed land sw

A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California

I just finished reading A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham.  The author uses her experience as a biologist and artist to reconstruct ecosystems and interactions of California's past using what we know of nature today.  You do not need to be a biologist to appreciate this experience. The book will take you to California's shoreline, oak savannas,  a pristine Delta ecosystem, and deserts, allowing you to observe the interactions among plant and wildlife as it existed in the past.  But this is not just a history book, either.  The author uses her field work observing relict or remaining populations of natural life to reconstruct the past and explain how these landscapes continue to evolve today.  For example, she vividly describes and sketches the majestic California condor and how it behaves with other birds based on hours of her own studies, and recounts her observation of elk herds being stalked by wolves in Yellowstone, where the two spe

BrightSource Energy Mitigation Plan Falls Short

Basin and Range Watch posted a review of the proposed desert tortoise habitat mitigation plan being considered by BrightSource Energy LLC.  The company's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System is being built on 5.6 square miles of public land, and has already displaced as many as 50 endangered desert tortoises.   As part of it's agreement allowing the company to bulldoze and operate on public land, the company must purchase several thousand acres of privately held desert as mitigation -- the land must serve as good quality desert tortoise habitat and habitat for other special status species affected by the massive solar project. The mitigation land under consideration near the Castle Peaks in the northeastern Mojave Desert is mostly at an elevation higher than 4,000 feet, which is above the average range of the desert tortoise.  The proposed site also does not host many of the rare plants that will be destroyed by the Ivanpah solar project Desert experts have raised seri