BLM Rebuffs Conservation Groups, Approves California Solar Project

Published January 10, 2013

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a final Environmental Impact Statement approving the development of 1,044 acres of desert tortoise habitat adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California for the construction of a large-scale solar power project.

BLM’s decision rebuffs conservation groups such as the Western Lands Project and the Wildlands Conservancy that seek to preserve desert tortoise habitat.

Dislodging Threatened Tortoises

The Desert Harvest solar power project, proposed by EDF Renewable Energy in San Diego, will produce as much power as a small conventional power plant during daylight hours when the sun is not obscured by clouds.

Conservationists point out the project will be prominently visible from many mountain ranges in Joshua Tree National Park. The power project will also dislodge and potentially cause the death of bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, which are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. 

“We are opposed to the Obama administration’s policy to site large, damaging, remote solar plants on public lands, where they destroy habitat and ecosystem function and require large transmission lines [and] corridors to get the power to urban centers,” Janine Blaeloch, director of Western Lands Project, said. 

Western Lands Project, along with Basin and Range Watch and Solar Done Right, filed a protest against the project with BLM. 

Developing Pristine Lands

Conservation groups generally support renewable power but say the industry should be able to produce power without destroying pristine lands harboring valuable plant and animal species.

“We don’t oppose solar energy, and we are not climate change skeptics,” said Kevin Emmerich, spokesperson for Basin and Range Watch. “We would just like to see solar energy built in a way that does not replace undeveloped land, wildlife habitat, and ancient Native American sites with solar panels.” 

Emmerich said the Desert Harvest project is especially troublesome because it would be located between two important wildlife conservation areas and Joshua Tree National Park. The site is known for important microphyll woodlands, which provide habitat for several bird species, said Emmerich. 

Other Lands Available

The Desert Harvest project will be near another large-scale solar project now under construction, the Desert Sunlight Project. Emmerich said construction of the Desert Sunlight Project is already creating negative environmental impacts for the local region, such as degraded air quality due to dust storms. 
Emmerich said the Desert Harvest project could be moved to “degraded lands,” land already developed, damaged, or contaminated.  

“The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 15 million acres of brownfields or degraded lands that would be suitable for renewable energy,” said Emmerich.  

Blaeloch agreed with Emmerich on the siting of solar power projects.

“We are pushing for siting solar generating facilities and rooftop arrays in the built environment, on damaged land, and on the millions of acres of brownfields, degraded lands, landfills, etc., the EPA has identified as suitable for that purpose,” said Blaeloch.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.