Green Groups Silent as Solar Company Plans Destruction of Mojave Wildlands

The Department of Interior in early June released its draft environmental review indicating that plans to replace 11 square miles of intact desert wildlands in southern Nevada with the Gemini Solar project would result in significant impacts on wildlife and outdoor recreation.   The project proposed by Arevia Power would install photovoltaic solar panels on land that is currently home to rare plants, desert kit fox, tortoises and other wildlife.  Photovoltaic solar panels are just as easily installed on rooftops, parking lot canopies, and on already-disturbed lands, calling in to question the need to sacrifice desert wildlands to generate electricity. (California has installed over 8,000 megawatts of distributed solar generation with relatively modest policy incentives.)

Arevia Power's plans to destroy these Mojave wildlands will displace or kill nearly at least 260 desert tortoises, and dozens of kit foxes and burrowing owls, according to the draft environmental impact statement.  The area is also home to rare plants, including the beleaguered threecorner milkvetch.  According to the Department of Interior report, "[m]itigating for threecorner milkvetch habitat loss is no longer possible. Habitat conservation is the method needed to ensure the long-term survival of this species. Threecorner milkvetch is currently state-listed as critically endangered."  The project would also disrupt the Congressionally-designated Old Spanish National Historic Trail.

Despite Arevia Power's plans to destroy an area of wildlands half the size of Manhattan, environmental groups have largely been silent on the project.  Clean energy is indeed the answer to cutting our dependency on fossil fuels, but many environmental organizations have yet to build the intellectual courage necessary to consistently inject nuance into national discourse on the deployment of renewable energy and define a sustainable path for our clean energy transition.   Some major environmental organizations submitted scoping letters* to the Department of Interior earlier in the environmental review process, but none have come forward with public statements regarding the Gemini Solar project.  Only in Nevada can you plan to mow down an area nearly twice the size of Yosemite Valley and fail to draw a public voice of dissent sufficient to fill a letter to the editor (although I concede that southern Nevada's largest newspaper is owned by a major donor to President Trump).

Screenshot from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement shows

 (*Scoping Comments were submitted by Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Wilderness Society to the Department of Interior, although these groups have not issued public statements.  The Wilderness Society urged politicians to bulldoze more of our public lands for clean energy in a blog post that ironically notes that "we have barely scratched the surface: less than 5% of the nation’s renewable power comes from public lands." The Wilderness Society urging the sacrifice of wildlands to combat climate change would be like the ACLU advocating warrantless searches and wiretaps in response to a terrorist attack.  The Sierra Club did not submit comments. Smaller, grassroots organizations have submitted letters and have been more vocal, including Basin & Range Watch and the Desert Tortoise Council.)

Clean energy may reduce carbon emissions, but it can still be disastrous for biodiversity; scientists have regularly identified habitat conservation as the key to preventing extinction and improving the resilience of species already under pressure by the effects of climate change.  Famed scientist E.O. Wilson wrote in a 2016 New York Times editorial that:
"The disappearance of natural habitat is the primary cause of biological diversity loss at every level — ecosystems, species and genes, all of them. Only by the preservation of much more natural habitat than previously envisioned can extinction be brought close to a sustainable level."
Compounding the problems surrounding Arevia Power's plans to destroy desert wildlands is that the Department of Interior decided not to update its Resource Management Plan in southern Nevada.  The result is a relative free-for-all on public lands: the Federal stewards of our public lands have not decided through a recent public process what we as a society want to protect or exploit.  This gives developers of all varieties an advantage because "multiple use" is the default on most public lands that are not protected.  Multiple use, however, is a misnomer because once a developer builds an open-pit mine, solar power project, or natural gas well pad on public lands, it severely limits the number of species that can benefit from that land.  The loss of that land to a developer also means that we humans cannot enjoy that land for a vast number of other uses, including camping, hiking, wildlife watching, etc.

By the end of this year, the Department of Interior could issue a final decision approving Arevia Power's plans to wipe out 11 square miles of wildlands, and that would only be the latest in the ever-exploding sprawl of southern Nevada.  The public can submit comments on this project through the difficult-to-navigate Department of Interior website, but ultimately the silence of nature's advocates and local elected officials will determine whether this sacrifice is permitted or not.  If it is built, we will be able to power our televisions and refrigerators with supposedly guilt-free clean energy, and some seemingly anonymous* investors will profit greatly.  We will lose thousands of acres of Mojave plant life and critters that have survived for millennia on those lands. But we have only barely scratched the surface, right?

(Arevia Power's website lists 1044 10th Avenue, Redwood City, California as its contact address.  That address resolves to a $1.2 million, two-bedroom home.  As of 2019, it did not have any rooftop solar panels.)


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