Feinstein: Solar energy could destroy the Mojave Desert
Muriel Kane
Published: Sunday March 22, 2009

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Increasing the nation's use of wind and solar power has been seen as an ideal way to protect the environment against pollution, oil spills, and nuclear waste. Now, however, fears are rising that the pressure to quickly ramp up large-scale production of alternative energy may in itself become a threat to fragile ecosystems.

That is the concern of Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA, who announced last week that she intends to introduce legislation to declare part of the Mojave Desert a national monument, closed to further development.

The area in question is a 500,000 acre parcel, once owned by the railroads and known as the former Catellus lands, which conservationists acquired between 1999 and 2004 and handed over to the federal government.

The Bureau of Land Management has made the land available for any purpose except mining. Fourteen solar energy projects and five wind energy projects have now submitted applications to build there, though all the applications are years away from being approved.

"This is unacceptable," Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose."

Feinstein emphasizes that she is not opposed to all solar and wind development but is primarily worried about the projects splitting up habitats in a particularly remote area between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

"Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert," she wrote to Salazar.

There are already several solar energy plants in the Mojave, which is considered particularly suitable for the purpose because it receives a high amount of solar radiation and is located close to major urban areas.

Developers believe, in the words of a 2005 Wired article, that "the barren deserts of Southern California are known for relentless sunshine and miles of empty space -- the perfect combination for the world's most ambitious solar-energy projects."

For conservationists, however, the desert is neither barren nor empty -- and its inhabitants are threatened by deals like the one recently entered into by Southern California Edison, which would install "seven immense arrays of mirrors, towers and turbines," along with over 200 miles of transmission lines.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, which helped arrange for the purchase of the land in question before turning it over to the BLM for public use, warns that the solar projects "would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem."

"It's a violation of trust, not only for Wildlands, but for the public," notes the Conservancy's April Sall. That's part of how we got so much diverse support, including hunters and off-roaders, because this was about public access and enjoying the Mojave Desert."

Gary Thomas, a board member of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, charges that "those (energy) farms are nothing more than an open pit mine without a pit. They are going to go in and clean everything out to bare dirt, then they fence them and everything that was living in that place will be gone."

Many conservationists would like to see the promotion of individual rooftop solar energy collectors rather than massive energy farms, but that seems unlikely to happen. For example, California law requires that by 2020, investor-owned utilities must get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted last year to pooh-pooh environmental concerns, saying, "If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it." Now, however, the governor's office says it should be possible to address both sets of concerns through careful planning.

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