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Desert Issues

Desert Survivors Issues Report, July 25, 2009

COMMENT LETTER SEEKS TO RESTORE BIGHORN SHEEP HABITAT

On March 6, Desert Survivors joined with six other groups in urging the new Obama Administration to restore Critical Habitat for the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep (Ovis Canadensis nelsoni). The Peninsular Bighorn, a relative of the Nelson Bighorn usually inhabiting the desert, is found only in the Peninsular Range of Southern California. Desert Survivors and other activist groups got its major habitat protected as “Critical” some years back but the outgoing Bush Administration reduced the original agreed-upon acreage from 844,897 to 420,650, a reduction of more than 50%. The letter we joined in sending seeks to restore all of that.

Agreeing with us were the Center for Biological Diversity (the originator of the letter), the Sierra Club Desert Committee, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), The San Bernardino County Audubon Society, the Desert Protective Council (DPC) and the Western Watersheds Project. We have joined with all of these groups on other issues.

“Critical Habitat” is what the name implies, a large enough range for the animal to prosper, not just hang on. Key factors are reproductive safety, range of food sources in all seasons, room for migration, escape from predators (including human), connectivity between isolated populations, and a wide enough area to ensure population integration for genetic diversity. The reduced habitat interferes with all of these factors and leaves out known Bighorn populations that must be included.

The letter was addressed to Ken Salazar, the new Secretary of the Interior. Receiving it may have been his first act in office. It’s a great way to get the new Secretary off to a good start. The environmental community put a lot of effort into electing the new Democratic Congress and Administration. Groups like ours will want results. We will be watching this one closely, as we will all of the other issues covered in this Issues Digest.

 

SURVIVORS OPPOSES PAHRUMP VALLEY AIRPORT

On April 19, 2009, Desert Survivors wrote a letter answering a request for scoping issues concerning a proposed “airport land lease and airport construction” for a brand new Pahrump Valley General Aviation Airport in the town of Pahrump, Nevada. This $33.7 million project would be funded 90% by federal money. Pahrump is a small town of 5,000 people in a valley adjacent to Las Vegas, which has its own large jet port, so the utility of this new airport is dubious to say the least, especially when both the federal government and the Nevada state government are bankrupt. This idea was stressed in our comment, but we raised other issues.

We asked for a full environmental impact statement for several reasons. The airport will damage one square mile of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public land, resulting in excessive noise, toxic pollution (from jet exhaust and ground support services), light pollution, and visual impairment. The land will be leased, not purchased from the federal government, so it will become the government’s job to reclaim it and clean up pollutants when the airport is obsolete. The parcel chosen is right on the California state line, immediately adjacent to the BLM’s Nopah Range Wilderness Area, which was established in 1994 by the U.S. Congress. The entire valley is home to the desert tortoise, a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Millions of dollars have been spent to protect the tortoise, yet this airport is planned for known tortoise habitat.

In the notice, the agency responsible for the parcel, the Bureau of Land Management, is not even mentioned. The issue is being handled by the Federal Aviation Administration in Burlingame, California. “Purpose and Need” for the project, a standard category usually detailed at the top of the notice in such proposals, is nowhere to be found, so one has no idea why such a facility would ever be proposed in a such a remote rural area, unless it is just an excuse to spend federal money. The airport is planned to accommodate airplanes with fifty-four-foot wing spans, and will have thirty hangers. That’s $1,123,334.40 per hanger.

No alternative except putting the thing one mile east of the preferred site is mentioned. Expansion of the Calvada Meadows airstrip north of town is not considered. Public testimony in the town itself was mixed, with town fathers for it and many residents against, complaining about the misuse of their local tax money (which would comprise only 10% of the cost).

The Wilderness issue may not fly, since the California Desert Protection Act specifically states that nothing in that Act shall imply a buffer zone from development around Wilderness boundaries. The money angle may get it, however. Pahrump is a town that turned down a municipal sewer system a few years back. There are 5,000 wells and 5,000 septic tanks in the valley, many of them in close proximity. Of course the project may become part of a Democratic-Republican “stimulus package”. Hold onto your wallet whenever you hear that one!

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE OFFICER WARNS OF SOLAR WATER WASTE

In an April letter to the Nevada State Director of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service Regional Director Jonathan Jarvis has criticized the rush to build large-scale solar power plants on public lands and urged caution in making plans to do so.

Jarvis' letter said the National Park Service supports BLM efforts to promote renewable energy. But he added, "The NPS asserts that it is not in the public interest for the BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of Southern Nevada."
Solar power plants using water-cooled technology would use large amounts of water, Jarvis wrote. He urged the encouragement of air-cooling and photo-voltaic technology. Areas with high solar energy potential also are areas of scarce water resources.

Jarvis asked the BLM to consider regional impacts of large-scale solar projects on National Park Service facilities like Devil's Hole, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Mojave National Preserve. Effects that should be evaluated include water availability, degradation of visual resources like the night sky, air quality impacts from construction and operations, sound impacts if turbines or cooling towers are used, and interruption of wildlife habitat.
"Depending on the location of these projects, large-scale concentrating solar energy projects in Southern Nevada that require large amounts of water potentially face several water rights-related obstacles in obtaining the necessary water for their projects," Jarvis said. "These obstacles are based around several rulings and orders that the Nevada State Engineer's office has issued in recent years." In particular he referred to Amargosa Valley, where the state engineer ruled the basin is over-appropriated by 18,000 acre-feet per year and applications for new water rights will be denied.

Jarvis was immediately countered by Nevada State Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, who supported the transfer of water rights for the plants, despite a ruling by the State Engineer's that precludes moving water away from Devil's Hole, a protected National Park unit that is home to an endangered pupfish.

Goedhart said a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed the construction of 2,000 megawatts of solar power plants in Nevada would create $500 million in taxes, 5,900 construction jobs for six years and 1,200 full-time operation and maintenance jobs. Issuing a strong threat, Goedhart came out solidly for the solar push: "Any, and I repeat any attempt to override Nevada water law and compromise its sovereignty over the waters of the state of Nevada will be vigorously opposed," he wrote.

[Source of quotes and text: Mark White, reporting in the Pahrump Valley Times, May 15, 2009]

DESERT SURVIVORS JOINS IN LETTER TO CONGRESS ON SOLAR

On May 20, 2009, Desert Survivors joined in a group letter to the U.S. Congress Natural Resources Committee opposing the use of undisturbed desert lands for industrial-scale solar and other “renewable” energy constructions. The letter was initiated by Great Basin Watch, a watchdog group out of Beatty NV. Fellow signatories include the Desert Protective Council (DPC), the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Protect Our Communities Foundation, Citizens for the Chuckwalla Valley, and several individuals. The impetus for the letter was alarm sown by Congress’ and the President’s rush to open up undeveloped desert lands to “Scrape and Scar Solar”, the transformation of pristine desert land into industrial sacrifice zones for the dubious benefit of solar electricity generation.

The letter supports the use of distributed generation and conservation, including residential solar funding plans such as California’s AB811 loan program and building-integrated solar on new housing and commercial properties. The letter disputes reported cost-savings from large plants in remote desert by calling attention to the need for huge new and upgraded transmission lines which will add billions of dollars to construction costs of remote solar and wind energy projects. [Estimates for powerlines just to carry wind-generated electricity from the Midwest to both coasts are around $80 billion; that’s with wind as a 20% component of the electric mix.] Solar companies will be receiving 30% federal grants to cover construction costs of plants, and similar grants could be put toward local distributed generation plans.

The letter opposes the scraping of vegetation and soils that will be needed to build solar thermal power plants over thousands of acres, and the destruction of critical habitat for Desert tortoises and other wildlife and rare plants. The letter expresses doubts that damage to desert land and wildlife can ever be mitigated. Both will be forever lost.

Also called into question is the allegation that water resources will not be depleted. There will never be enough water to service all of the acreage of solar collectors that will be needed. Water in thermal reflector plants is wasted in washing solar panels every day to keep off dust. Water used in these plants is not recycled. Diesel trucks and other fossil-fuel powered equipment are used to transport and direct the water, causing a waste of energy and a release of greenhouse gasses that nullifies any savings and offsets that are expected from using the power of the sun. The solar plant ends up providing no net gain from its construction and can even be a loser, due to the low efficiency of solar collectors to begin with.

Finally, the authors are concerned about the streamlining and accelerating of the environmental review process for siting solar projects on public lands. The public’s will is being disregarded in a headlong “Gold Rush” based on fear. Our country’s national heritage of federal lands in the desert with their rich fauna and flora, history, and recreation use is being undermined, and decades of environmental protection and review processes have been discarded in the confused push to meet “renewable energy” goals

Significantly, the collection of mostly local and regional groups as signatories reminds us that the mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council and others are joining the industry in promoting this mad rush and the “global warming” hype. Attempts to get them on board in defense of the desert have failed. Readers should note this when considering renewing their membership.

DESERT SURVIVORS COMMENTS ON PARAMOUNT MINE DRILLING

In May 2009, Desert Survivors wrote a comment to the Bishop Bureau of Land Management Office on the Cougar Gold Paramount Mine Exploration Proposal Environmental Assessment (EA) in the Bodie Hills (DOI-BLM-CAC070-2009-0017-EA). We protested the drill program on several grounds:

1. The EA is incomplete because it does not give the public information to make informed decisions on several issues: sage grouse, wetlands, the Bodie Hills antelope herd, mule deer and American pika populations, rare plants and the degradation of wilderness values in the Bodie Hills Wilderness Study Area. We require a full Environmental Impact Statement to address these broad concerns.

2. Much drilling at the proposed mine site has already been done in years past. The EA does not explain why results from prior drilling are not adequate for Cougar Gold to assess the value of the ore.

Sage grouse are known at the site, and the Bishop BLM Management Plan already acknowledges that grouse require seasonal protection within two miles to enable nesting and overwintering. We demand a change in the drill program to accommodate this. Also there should be no drilling in the southwest part of the area where grouse are known to nest. Other mitigation should be pursued if drilling is allowed: the elimination of grazing and the closing of cherrystem roads.

Wetlands (streams, seeps and springs) must be avoided during drilling, based on mapping by a qualified expert. This is required under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Mule Deer populations and migration patterns in the area have not been studied. The American pika is now up for designation as an endangered species in the Bodie Hills. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed with this petition. Pika in the Bodie Hills are known to be in decline. We also demand that bird nesting season (mid-May to mid-August) be avoided under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Desert Survivors has a particular interest in the Bodie Hills, having led fourteen trips there. We plan a Labor Day Carcamp to the Bodie Hills on September 5-7 to visit the mine site and some of the wetlands that may be impacted. In our comment we invited the BLM to join us. To date, we have received no reply. Members interested in protecting the Bodie Hills from damage are urged to join us on this carcamp.

We expect our comment to result in significant changes to the drill program.

PRESIDENT SPEAKS IN SACRAMENTO AGAINST STATE PARK CLOSURES

On Tuesday, June 2, President Steve Tabor spoke before the California State Legislature Budget Conference Committee against the Governor’s proposal to close 220 California State Parks to save money. The closures were widely viewed as a grandstand play by the Governor to focus attention on the state budget crisis, and perhaps to punish the population for its rejection of his election initiatives to circumvent previous state propositions. More than one hundred speakers crowded the late afternoon session to voice their concerns.

Most of the speakers were volunteers at various Parks. There was a smattering of environmental groups as well. Speakers urged that all Parks be kept open, and for their own Parks in particular. It was important to get a word in about desert Parks since most of the pressure on legislators will be on saving the “water Parks”: beaches and lakes. In his comments, spoken and written, Tabor made sure to mention desert Parks by name, especially Anza-Borrego, Red Rock Canyon and Picacho State Recreation Area, where we’ve led recent trips. Other Parks in the desert include: the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Bodie State Historic Park, Indio Hills Palms, Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, Providence Mountains (Mitchell Caverns), Saddleback Butte State Park and the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

Speakers mentioned their concerns about vandalism, theft of resources (including priceless historic sites), arson or accidental fires, visitor liability, losing valuable rangers and support staff due to layoffs, and the deterioration of physical plant with no maintenance. In the desert, off-road vehicle damage without ranger presence is a special concern. Tabor mentioned this in his comments.
It is ironic that Parks bring in $30 million in fees per year, which partially offsets the $100 million they get from the general fund. The actual shortfall is peanuts compared to the state’s $45 billion deficit. But the Governor may get increased fees for Parks out of his threats, one of his stated goals in the past.