Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du vacated the federal permits for construction of the Searchlight Wind Project in Southern Nevada. Judge Du found that environmental analyses prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) inadequately evaluated the dangers that the industrial-scale wind project would pose to desert wildlife. She cited data missing from the agency surveys, inadequate assessment of potential threats to golden eagles, desert tortoises, and bats, and the need for additional explanation of the agencies’ conclusions. If the developer, Apex Clean Energy, wants to proceed with the project, the BLM would need to prepare a new Environmental Impact Statement to address the deficiencies she identified. The USFWS would also have to prepare a new Biological Opinion. This important decision will protect eagles nesting near the project site, the highest-density desert tortoise habitat in Nevada, the viewshed from adjacent parks and tribal sacred areas, as well as property values, recreation, and tourism near the town of Searchlight.
Basin & Range Watch, a grass roots group which works for desert protection and renewable energy alternatives such as rooftop solar, and one of the conservationist plaintiffs, called for the Searchlight area to be a solar and wind energy exclusion zone in their comments on the Bureau of Land Management Southern Nevada Resource Management Plan revision, which is still in the environmental review process.
In March 2013, the BLM issued a Record of Decision approving construction of the Searchlight Wind Energy Project in which Apex Clean Energy would have sited 87 industrial scale wind turbines over 400 feet tall, about the height of the Palms Hotel, on the ridges and uplands next to Searchlight, Nevada and bordering the scenic Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
On February 3, 2015, Judge Du had ordered BLM to prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on eagles due to inadequate surveys. In 2011, surveys funded by BLM found twenty-eight golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site, many more than the three nests the developer reported in its flawed avian surveys. However, the 2011 surveys were not included in the BLM’s original environmental study.
Judge Du also ordered BLM and USFWS to address their inadequate analyses of the density of desert tortoises in the project area, the adverse effects on desert tortoise habitat due to noise, the remuneration fee that the developer would have to pay as compensation for harming tortoises, blasting mitigation measures, the status of USFWS’s recommendations regarding eagle take permitting and an Eagle Conservation Plan, the conclusions about risks to bald eagles, protocols for golden eagle surveys, and risks and mitigation measures for bat species.
On October 30, 2015, Judge Du clarified her February ruling. She determined that the BLM and USFWS had not fully explained certain conclusions that appear in the Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement and the Biological Opinion, and vacated and remanded the analyses to the agencies. Vacatur of the three documents, including the rights of way authorizing the project’s construction and operation, effectively requires Apex Clean Energy and the agencies to go back to the drawing board if Apex chooses to pursue the project.
“The high desert surrounding Searchlight supports a high diversity of flora and fauna including rich avian fauna and very old Joshua tree forests. The location’s close proximity to the Colorado River allows it to have a large number of terrestrial and avian species deserving of protection” said Kevin Emmerich, Co-founder of Basin and Range Watch. “The Searchlight area is a very scenic region that has a great potential to expand its tourism economy. The area should be managed to maintain open space. There are limitless opportunities for birdwatching, hiking, backcountry 4 wheel driving, wildlife viewing, boating, rock hounding and photography. The Bureau of Land Management has a unique opportunity to manage the area for its scenic, cultural, wildlife and recreational values. Rooftop solar and other distributed generation alternatives should be considered as a more environmentally friendly clean energy alternative.”
Co-plaintiff and Searchlight Resident Judy Bundorf said, “The Searchlight area merits preservation from large-scale industrial development. The historic town is the ‘Gateway to Lake Mohave’ and Cottonwood Cove in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and is surrounded by beautiful Joshua trees and abundant wildlife. The project would have been visible from the proposed Castle Mountains National Monument in neighboring California and from Spirit Mountain in Nevada, a site sacred to many of the Tribes in the region. Thousands of tourists visit each year, and enjoy the wide-open vistas and unspoiled Mojave Desert scenery. Allowing a 9,000 acre, 14 square mile industrial wind energy project around the town would be a death knell for tourism, and for the rural lifestyle of people who call the little community home.”
Basin and Range Watch is a grass roots organization of people who live in the deserts of Nevada and California, working to stop the destruction of our desert homeland. Industrial renewable energy companies are seeking to develop millions of acres of unspoiled habitat in our region. Our goal is to identify the problems of energy sprawl and find solutions that will preserve our natural ecosystems and open spaces.
For more information see: http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/SearchlightUpdates.html
And Judge Du’s February 3, 2015 Order: http://leagle.com/decision/In%20FDCO%2020150204G40.xml/Bundorf%20v.%20S.M.R.%20Jewell
Judge Du’s October 30, 2015 order can be viewed here: http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/Searchlight-Order-Granting-Vacatu-10-30-15.pdf
The plaintiffs are represented by Dave Becker, an environmental lawyer from Portland, Oregon, and Jim Boyle of Holley, Driggs, Walch, Fine, Wray, Puzey & Thompson in Las Vegas.