Unlikely Allies: Trump Administration Joins Enviros to Plan Solar Project on Prime Tortoise Habitat

The Trump Administration this month released an assessment that concludes that a solar developer can crush and mow vegetation across several square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat, and still consider those lands as viable habitat for the species.  The silence of some national-level environmental groups regarding the unconventional and unscientific conclusion appears to signal their comfort taking risks with a species already facing significant peril, as well as these groups' inability to champion more sustainable locations to generate clean energy in Nevada.

The biological opinion released by the Trump Administration constitutes the official position of the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the impacts of the proposed Gemini Solar project; its curious willingness to declare heavily disturbed lands as viable tortoise habitat was necessary for the project's approval because the project would be built on lands that have been identified as a vital habitat linkage sustaining the species.

The Trump Administration's pending approval of the Gemini Solar project will substantially expand the type of activity considered acceptable on desert tortoise habitat, contradict factors considered in the tortoises' original endangered species listing, and ignore previous scientific findings.  All at a time when multiple studies indicate that the desert tortoise continues to experience sharp population declines and may be headed toward extinction.

The Gemini Solar project would cover nearly 11 square miles of desert tortoise habitat that the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified as a high priority for conservation efforts. According to the biological opinion, the Department of Interior expects that at least 270 adult and sub-adult tortoises will be displaced from their habitat, and hundreds of juvenile tortoises - which are too small to detect - will be killed during construction.  The project is expected to result in a pinch point that will constrain genetic exchange across its range and further undermine the species' long-term resilience.

An Unlikely Alliance

The Gemini Solar project is benefiting from a Trump Administration approach to public lands that tosses aside science-based findings and landscape-level planning in favor of rampant development. The Gemini Solar project has exposed a double standard among some environmental groups that appear content to let scientific standards slide for the sake of renewable energy, although they continue to challenge the same faults in how the Department of Interior approves fossil fuel development or off-road vehicle activity.

Specifically, environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club have argued in court that off-road vehicle activity in desert wildlands degrades the quality of the habitat for desert tortoises. They have argued that when vehicles crush vegetation, compact the soil and introduce non-native plant species, the tortoise loses.  But these groups have been silent on the Gemini Solar proposal and its portrayal of mowing and crushing vegetation as tortoise-friendly.

Threecorner milkvetch.  Photo by Dianne Bangle
Similarly, the project is expected to significantly impact the state-listed threecorner milkvetch.  This plant is considered critically endangered by the State of Nevada, and the Department of Interior acknowledged in its environmental assessment that the Gemini Solar project would destroy or disturb 25% of the plant's remaining habitat on public lands.  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." Elsewhere in southern Nevada, environmental groups are purposefully seeking protections for rare plants as a way to stymie urban sprawl, mining, and fossil fuel development.  But national-level groups have not spoken up about the potential for the threecorner milkvetch to lose a quarter of its habitat.

It is not clear if the silent environmental groups stand to gain monetarily from their acquiescence to the Gemini Solar developers. The project will also impact historic and cultural resources on public lands, and the solar developer has sought to purchase the silence of other groups.  The Old Spanish Trail Association reportedly accepted a donation of 1.4 million dollars from the Gemini developers. It is not uncommon for potential opponents to receive payments in quid pro quo for not challenging the project in court. One of the anticipated impacts of the Gemini project is that it will disturb or destroy a high potential route segment of the Old Spanish Trail National Historic Trail, a Congressionally designated trail of historic significance. The silence of the Old Spanish Trail Association would be valuable to the Gemini developers.

On the other hand, the National Parks Conservation Association submitted a letter of concern regarding the impacts of the project, citing the harm the project will cause to the desert tortoise, the Old Spanish Trail, and Salt Song trail. According to the NPCA:
"The technology proposed for generating and storing power at Gemini, photovoltaic panels and battery storage, can be deployed in alternative locations with far less habitat value, such as urban spaces developed on lands disposed by the BLM under the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998."
Similarly, Basin and Range Watch has vocally opposed building the project on a location of critical importance to the desert tortoise, as well as the endangered three corner milkvetch.  They have routinely raised concerns about the project to reporters seeking comment on the Gemini project, and have learned that national-level environmental groups simply declined to give comments to the same reporters when asked.

Endangered Species Take a Back Seat 

A recent study (Allison and McLuckie, 2018) found that severe and ongoing decline in desert tortoise populations in four of five critical habitat units demonstrate the species is headed to extinction, which may be attributed to insufficient implementation of recovery actions, slow response to implemented actions intended to increase populations or restore habitat, or insufficient mitigation of ongoing and new impacts resulting from human activities and land uses.  The Desert Tortoise Council and Defenders of Wildlife submitted a letter to FWS earlier this year raising alarm about the preponderance of evidence that the tortoise is in dire trouble.

So it is even more appalling that the Trump Administration would not only approve an 11 square mile solar project on important desert tortoise habitat, but that the approval would also lower the standards for development across the species' range.  When the Department of Interior established Solar Energy Zones in 2012, it also identified lands considered to be high priority for conservation efforts because they served as important habitat linkages for the desert tortoise.  Protecting these lands would help ensure the resilience of the desert tortoise and allow for genetic exchange.  The Gemini Solar project will essentially form a fence across one of these linkages and substantially impede habitat connectivity in the region, as seen in the map below.

A map shows the Gemini Solar project site (outlined in red), FWS-identified desert tortoise priority 1 linkage habitat (yellow shading), and priority 2 linkage habitat (orange shading).  As measured from the boundary of the mowed project site, there would be less than a mile of viable habitat remaining to provide connectivity for the desert tortoise.

The biological opinion claims that the pinch point is wider than a mile because it counts part of the solar project site as viable desert tortoise habitat.  This is fuzzy math that assumes that tortoises will thrive on lands that have been traversed by heavy construction equipment, and where plants will be mowed and soils compacted.  This assessment sharply contradicts the original Fish and Wildlife Service listing of the desert tortoise as endangered, which had this to say about vehicle impacts on the quality of tortoise habitat decades ago:
"...studies demonstrate that operation of off-highway vehicles has a negative effect on reptiles, mammals, and birds in creosote shrub and desert wash habitats. Impacts include loss of the vegetation required by tortoises for forage and cover, collapse of tortoise burrows, soil compaction which reduces surface water penetration and seed germination, and crushing tortoises. Quantifiable reductions in tortoise numbers have been documented through field research (NERC 1990). Several decades may be needed for these disturbed areas to recover."
The solar developers plan to use a vehicle like the one below to mow down all plants on the project site to as low as 18 inches.  Heavy equipment will then be used to dig trenches, access roads, and install mounting poles for solar panels.  Yet, the biological opinion somehow determines that the habitat qualities that tortoises require will be maintained.  According to the biological opinion for the Gemini Solar project:
"Mowed areas are those where the vegetation and soils/substrates will be maintained, albeit somewhat altered, during Project construction and operation by using methods such as mowing shrubs to 18 to 24 inches in height and using low-impact vehicles to minimize vegetation crushing. "
So you can drive a tractor like the one pictured below across several square miles of important tortoise habitat, mow and crush vegetation, and the Trump Administration will consider that habitat to be well "maintained."

This is the type of mulching equipment that would be used to mow vegetation across much of the project site.  The biological assessment describes this as a "low impact vehicle."

The mulching equipment like the one above exerts similar, if not greater ground pressure than the OHV vehicles that have been prohibited from riding off designated roads in tortoise habitat (prohibited for good reason).   According to the Gemini Solar project environmental assessment, “a flail-type mower mounted on skids that are mounted on a low-ground pressure tractor, approximately 5 to 6 pounds per square inch (psi) (34 to 41 kilopascals), is an example of” the type of equipment that would be used for mowing.  However, available information indicates that the average wheeled OHV exerts 2 psi (13.8kpa) of ground pressure; less than the pressure of the equipment proposed for construction of the Gemini Solar project.  So the biological opinion essentially erodes years of scientific study concluding that soil compaction and vegetation crushing by vehicles and other human disturbance negatively impacts the desert tortoise.

Cutting Fossil Fuels, Not Our Wildlands

There is no doubt that we need to rapidly expand our generation of clean energy and eliminate fossil fuel emissions. This is a moral imperative to solve a problem that we brought about. But we do not need to continue to sacrifice wildlife and wildlands to fix this problem. We have the technology to generate clean energy in our cities and on already-disturbed lands.  The Gemini Solar project is not a bold step toward clean energy but a demonstration of how low we have set our standards.  Bold action means demanding a clean energy transition that puts sustainability of the natural world over the sustainability of investors' profits.  Bold action means transforming our electrical grid into one that future generations can take pride in, and not regret.

Photo: USAF/Lou Hernandez
Technology at our disposal today can network thousands of distributed energy resources and energy efficiency gains to offset the need for new centralized power plant construction.  Studies have also identified hundreds of square miles of places in our country like retired farmlands and mine sites that could serve as locations for utility-scale renewable energy projects.   There is absolutely no reason why the Gemini Solar project has to be built in a location that has such significant impacts on wildlife.

The desert tortoise and other wildlife should not face double jeopardy for mistakes we humans have made.  We deprive them of habitat, alter the climate, and then destroy more of their habitat to fix what we did to the climate.  But climate change is not the only cause of extinction.  Activist Greta Thunberg often recognizes more than one crisis in her speeches and statements. “We are now facing an existential crisis, the climate crisis, and ecological crisis, which have never been treated as crises before,” she remarked in a speech earlier this year. "They have been ignored for decades, and for way too long, the politicians and the people in power have gotten away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and the ecological crisis. We will make sure that politicians will not get away with it for any longer.”

Ms. Thunberg is right to call them out as distinct but related crises. The sixth mass extinction began long before parts per million of CO2 began to significantly alter weather events and average temperatures.  But climate change will only make it worse for species on the brink.  Racing to solve one crisis but not the other will only bring us back to where we started.  Many activists are catching on to this.  But in Nevada, and much of the US southwest, it appears that we are going to ignore the extinction crisis a little longer and let energy companies decide which species are acceptable sacrifices to their shareholders.


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