To the consternation of some environmentalists, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced Friday it had eliminated a quarter of the proposed Soda Mountain Solar project but will allow most of its construction on nearly 2,000 acres near Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.
“This is just the wrong place for a project like this,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The smaller Soda Mountain project, if ultimately approved, is expected to generate enough electricity to power more than 79,000 homes, “helping to meet the President’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 megawatts derived from renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020,” a BLM statement said Friday.
The project is in an area where such development would be prohibited under the proposed Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which was heralded as a milestone in cooperative planning by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell when its draft was unveiled in September 2014.
The DRECP involves about 22.5 million acres of federal and non-federal California desert land.
Jewell was on a wind farm in north Palm Springs to release the draft document and to celebrate it as a conservation milestone as well as underscore the importance of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.
“The federal government is pimping out public lands,” said Ruth Nolan, a professor of English and Creative Writing at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, responding to the announcement.
Nolan has been actively following “green energy” projects in the California Desert for about five years.
Jim Kenna, the California BLM director, said that by eliminating an array of solar panels originally planned for a site north of Interstate 15, protects scenic vistas and ensures that the project will not be seen from most parts of the nearby Mojave National Preserve, which is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states.
The smaller footprint also takes into account concerns about the project’s potential impacts to bighorn sheep movement.
“The smaller project footprint reduces potential interference with future efforts re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway,” the BLM’s statement said Friday.
“They listened to what we were saying,” said John Wahausen, of the BLM decision to scrap the northern array.
A doctorate level wildlife biologist, Wahuasen has studied bighorn sheep for 40 years.
Eliminating the northern array of solar panels leaves open the possibility of joining gene pools from bighorns across a wide expanse of the California desert, he said.
However, in a statement, the Sierra Club said the project “would jeopardize years of progress by scientists to protect these (bighorn sheep) migration corridors and prevent future efforts in the region.”
Ed LaRue, a Wrightwood resident who is a board member of the Desert Tortoise Council, said there is good tortoise habitat on both sides of Interstate 15.
“This is counter-intuitive to me,” he said. Most of the desert tortoise population is south of I-15, he said.
The project is less than a quarter of a mile from the Mojave National Preserve, Lamfrom said.
The Soda Mountain Solar Project would be developed by a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp., one of the world’s largest engineering, project management and construction companies.
When asked why the BLM approved most of a project in an area where the draft DRECP would have prohibited such an effort, Kenna said a solar power plant was first proposed for the site in 2007.
And since that time there have been many people working on the project and years of study, he said.
Kenna takes issue with environmentalists who call the area pristine.
He said the there are two large transmission lines going through the area, two petroleum pipelines and two major fiber optic lines and the proposed California High Speed Rail would travel through the area.
Lamfrom said those power lines — the only really visible man-made structure in the project area — are only marginally visible through much of the project area.
Illene Anderson, chief scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said she believes the south side of the project will be visible from the Kelso Dunes, one of the top attractions in the Mojave National Preserve which drew more than 550,000 visitors in 2014, who spent more than $31 million in nearby communities.
Since 2010, the BLM has approved 19 solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands in California.
“I have deep concerns about the ‘solar gold rush’ in California and how wildland treasures are being chipped away and turned into profitable industrial zones,” Nolan said.
The DRECP involved what officials called an “unprecedented collaborative effort” between the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the federal BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The plan focuses on desert regions and adjacent lands of seven California counties: San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside, Imperial, Inyo, Kern and San Diego.