Desert Issues

Desert Survivors Issues Report, October 6, 2009


On Tuesday, September 29, 2009, a federal court agreed with Desert Survivors’ claim that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had written a faulty management plan for the Western Mojave Desert. In August 2006 , the BLM’s West Mojave (“WEMO”) Plan was challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity for a number of deficiencies. The Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Desert Survivors joined in the lawsuit. The Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco agreed with our claims. This is a great victory for correct management of the desert.

To quote from the Center’s press release announcing the decision:

“The court ruled that the BLM’s West Mojave Plan violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act by favoring off-road vehicle use over protection of sensitive desert resources such as endangered species and archeological sites. The court’s decision takes the BLM to task for designating thousands of off-road vehicle routes while ignoring the significant damage these vehicles cause to our public lands and the wildlife that depend on these lands for their survival.”

In its rejected plan, the BLM ignored many important considerations in devising management scenarios. It failed to take into account legal requirements that mandate the minimization of routes to limit damage in sensitive areas. The plan also failed to analyze alternatives that would reduce miles traveled. It ignored air quality as a significant planning goal. It minimized consideration for riparian areas, unusual plant assemblages, and sensitive species like the Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard. The impact of cattle grazing on sensitive desert soils was also minimized.

The BLM’s designation of ORV routes in 2003, a cornerstone of the Plan, was a main bone of contention. It was this that the court keyed in on in its decision. Unfortunately, the court found that a review of the Plan’s impacts on critical desert tortoise habitat produced by the BLM’s companion agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, did comply with the Endangered Species Act. We still think it doesn’t, but we’ll keep working on that issue. Even so, putting ORV’s under some modicum of control can’t help but improve the chances of the desert tortoise.

This impressive victory should have wide-ranging effects on other management plans the BLM and other agencies have written or are about to write. It has the potential for making our life a lot easier as we comment on these plans in the future. Perhaps our comments will be taken seriously from now on. The most extensive damage to public lands that we see these days is done by irresponsible off-rod vehicle enthusiasts.



By Steve Tabor

Bright Source Energy has quietly dropped its plan to build a solar electric facility near Broadwell Lake and Sleeping Beauty Valley in the Mojave Desert. The plant would have been built on 5,130 acres (eight square miles) just north of the town of Ludlow on Interstate-40. This is good news for Desert Survivors. We have visited the valley several times, passing right over the site on a memorable trip in the rain during the wet El Nino season of 1993.

The reason given was the site’s location on acreage in a proposed national monument to be called “The Mother Road”. The reference is to Route 66, which is just south. Though the actual elements of the legislation are shrouded in secrecy and desert activists are being kept in the dark about details, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has pledged to create the new national monument to protect lands left out of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act from development of “renewable energy”. Power companies and the Obama Administration (formerly the Bush Administration) have created an 640,000-acre industrial zone in the desert where public lands will be up for grabs in a Nineteenth Century-style gold rush (or “sun rush”).

Much of the territory claimed by Obama is former railroad land that had been donated to the Department of Interior for conservation. The Wildlands Conservancy, which raised $40 million to buy the old railroad lands to protect them from development, has objected strongly to the land give-away. David Myers, its executive director, has been very vocal against it. Environmental celebrity Robert Kennedy Jr. is a senior advisor at Vantage Point Venture Partners, which raised $160 million for Oakland-based Bright Source. He has been openly advocating for the giveaway. He has been joined in support for big solar by the National Offices of the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and other well-known foundation-funded lobby groups.

Broadwell Dry Lake is surrounded by the Kelso Dunes Wilderness and the Bristol Mountains Wilderness on the east and the Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area on the west. The desert is still being studied, and plants and reptiles adapted to desert conditions are still being discovered. One newspaper article on the controversy reports a species of lupine not seen before and dark lizards that are genetically adapted to dark volcanic rocks in the area. Bighorn sheep are known to inhabit all of the surrounding ranges. The State Fish & Game Department has built water catchments in these ranges to build up the herd. Bighorns cross Broadwell and its valley to get from one range to the other.

Nineteen solar projects have already been proposed to the Bureau of Land Management within the desert region. Bright Source's project is the type that depends on an array of mirrors to focus the sun’s heat on a central tower 200 feet high, an experimental design that has definite efficiency drawbacks. High pressure steam would run turbines to product the electricity. Steam plants take huge amounts of water, and water would be needed to clean the mirrors on a regular schedule to keep off dust. News reports do not identify where the water would come from.

Bright Source has applied to the BLM for permission to build an even larger solar facility in Ivanpah Valley, near the Nevada state line. Construction may start in March. Though the company has touted Senator Feinstein’s plans as the death knell of its Broadwell venture, other factors may also be working. The state of the economy has been hard on massive structure constructions, even those with a government green light and a 30% subsidy on sales. Water is also a problem for all of these facilities; the clear-sky mecca with the hot sun doesn’t have any water for the boilers. “Renewable energy” contraptions need fossil fuel plants to run the factories where they’re constructed; increasing (real) energy costs may be pricing out their inefficient technologies.

Hype rules all in the U.S.A., and its hype-happiness may be catching up with the solar boom before it gets off the ground. Desert lovers are happy with this development and hope that it continues. $160 million is a lot of money for what serious energy advocates refer to as “flea power”, but the real financial cost is likely much greater. Cost-benefit analysis is sorely lacking when it comes to “renewables”.

Reference: “Solar Energy Firm Drops Plan for Project in Mojave Desert”, Louis Sahagun, The Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2009,0,1844073.story




By Steve Tabor

In July 2009, Desert Survivors dropped out of the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit against the Obama Administration’s “West-Wide Power Corridor” plan. The plan, originally devised by the Bush Administration in 2008, promotes a wide-ranging change to public lands, especially the desert: miles of powerlines criss-crossing the West lands, all with the goal of moving electricity around from one side of the nation to the other. The plan would preempt other values like wildlife, ecosystems, peace and quiet, open space and freedom of movement to facilitate more industrial development on Western public lands and nationwide. Our deserts and mountains would be impacted by many new powerline corridors a mile wide in an orgy of new construction.

Desert Survivors had earlier expressed an interest in signing on with the multi-group lawsuit on the West-Wide Energy Corridors, as did many other environmental organizations. We had standing to sue because of the comment on the plan that we filed in 2008. But when I saw the press release that was to be issued with the complaint, I pulled Desert Survivors’ name off of it. The lawsuit was originally touted as a try at protecting public and private lands from damage caused by powerlines. The press release converted it into an effort to instead re-route the lines away from coal and natural gas fields so as to destroy more public land with "renewable energy" projects of dubious utility. These "renewables" will be even more harmful than the powerlines. They and the powerlines they require will do more damage to the desert and to public lands generally than the fossil fuel plants that most of the plaintiffs are trying to eliminate.

Before making my decision, I searched the complaint and found that only 78 lines in it (3 of its 53 pages) relate to the "expedite renewables" issue, but the press release sent out to the public when filing was almost entirely filled with the standard "renewables" line. Public lands have been forgotten, and there is only one paragraph in the release that even hints at damage to public land, the original reason given for the lawsuit. The entire emphasis is to have more powerlines somewhere else to expedite solar and wind. The core issue has been lost. In these kinds of advocacy, public perception is everything. The legal action had morphed into a stunt to hype the “renewables” industry. Oil man and wind advocate T. Boone Pickens would never be able to say it better. Solar advocate and currency manipulator George Soros would sign up right away.

As in any other environmental issue these days, powerline proliferation has been hijacked by the "global warming"/"climate change" crowd. All other considerations with regard to our public lands or anything else have been pushed aside. We are being buried in an avalanche of hype on this. All of our other efforts based on any other value are being disregarded. Nothing else matters. It's a crazy way to promote public lands protection.

In addition, in reading the complaint, its basic schizophrenia was obvious. There is much language about damage that will be done to public land (assumed to be bad), but also a bare few paragraphs about how the corridors have to be expedited to suit governors who want more power plants (assumed to be good). You can't have it both ways. The land doesn't care if the electrons come from photons and sea breezes or from dead plants and animals. The damage is the same.

We have worked on many issues down through the years with the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and many of the other dozen groups who signed on to the lawsuit. This work has been valuable. All of the major proponents have national offices in Washington DC where they are actively lobbying for and against various policies and plans. All of the majors have foundation funding, which impacts their goals and efforts. And today, many now feel the rush of power that comes from a federal administration and a Congress on the “right side” of many of their issues. Some are now cultivating relationships with corporations and financial operators in and out of the various entities comprising the “renewable energy sector”. We are starting to see the kind of collusion that coopted other social movements in the past. Environmentalism is changing. “Green is the new Brown”, the saying goes. Can this be true?

In this case, any efforts that we make to protect Western lands from powerlines will be lost in the "renewables" hype. We'll still have destructive powerlines, just with a different alignment (and probably more of them). The nation’s sorry financial condition may yet doom the solar and wind hype, but it’s a shame that public land protection is already a casualty of this hype, a trend that is very disturbing..

Euphoria induced by our recent “regime change” in Washington is quickly wearing off, and the sooner the better. The corporate masters have changed parties, but the old “divide and conquer” strategy coupled with liberal quantities of “grease” has not changed. Consider that the next time you see a new set of powerlines plowed across the desert to God knows where.