We face tough choices on this road to balancing the environment and economy. Here's one: As stated below, "two important environmental imperatives, ecosystem protection and renewable energy development, square off in the Soda Mountains"...
As reported on one of our recent episodes, the Dept of Interior has opened up millions of acres of desert land in CA to clean energy projects. Generally, we think this is a great idea as we put this preserved land, keeping all the environmental protections in place, back into the economy.
Yet, adversely impacting migratory patterns is needlessly dangerous. There's many other sites being opened up to developers. Can't we, as suggested by Mr. Lovejoy and Wilson, shift the site away from the Soda Mountains if we put wildlife in jeopardy?
We don't want to lose a 264-megawatt clean power plant, that is for certain. We hope to see a speedy resolution that allows for this power to come on line.
A Mojave Solar Project in the Bighorns’ Way
The area is home to a resurgent population of bighorn sheep, declining numbers of desert tortoises and other creatures adapted to survive in what seems, on the surface, to be a bleak and unforgiving environment.
It is also where the Bechtel Corporation is seeking to build a 264-megawatt photovoltaic facility on about 1,900 acres of federal land along Interstate 15 near Baker, Calif., less than a mile from the Mojave National Preserve. The plant would convert the sun’s energy into electricity to power 79,000 homes without generating the greenhouse gases that are heating up our planet.
We’re all for solar projects. We need more of them. But not in this place.
The project threatens to disturb the migration of bighorn sheep in a region already fragmented by highways. As the biologists John D. Wehausen and Clinton W. Epps warned earlier this year in an article in the Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., this project “would likely add another nail in the coffin of these sheep by precluding the re-establishment of a critical migration corridor across Interstate 15 that could reconnect bighorn sheep populations on either side.”
Since then, under pressure from environmental and tribal groups, Bechtel has agreed to downsize the project from its original 2,500 acres. In particular, the company agreed to remove a solar array north of the highway that was seen as particularly problematic for the sheep. But the point is, even this smaller project, in the view of some biologists, may not avoid the disruptions to the bighorns, which depend on these migration routes to maintain genetic diversity among isolated populations.
Unfortunately, we should not be surprised by this dispute. As we spread out, the world becomes tighter. This controversy underscores the complexity of ecological communities and the importance of looking at landscapes in larger and more integrated ways.
Migrations of animals often transcend our own, self-imposed borders or boundaries. Landscapes must be managed so species can move. This will become increasingly important as climate change alters environments and forces birds, animals and plants to find more suitable surroundings.
Maintaining natural connections in landscapes was not considered of conservation importance before the 1970s because the consequences of chopping up natural habitats with development were not immediate. But we began to understand the implications as biologists explored the mystery of what determines the number of species on islands, where populations and gene pools are often isolated.
These ruminations about island biogeography, as the new science would be called, raised similar questions about fragmented habitats, which essentially are islands in transformed landscapes.
We both did experiments: one breaking up mangrove islands into smaller ones and the other (now in its 36th year) dividing Amazon forest into fragments, an effort in which the Smithsonian was a partner. The results were unequivocal: Habitat fragments lose species after they are isolated because these islands are no longer part of a larger natural system. For instance, Yellowstone National Park, large as it is, was already showing species loss in the 1970s because it was not sufficiently connected to surrounding nature.
What we learned was that conservation depends not only on protection but also on connection.
The recolonization of the Soda Mountains by bighorn sheep shows how important these natural connections are and how resilient nature can be when given a chance. The neighboring Mojave Desert, along with the Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, constitute glories of the Southwest. They should be managed in perpetuity, not chipped away and degraded.
There is an opportunity to move beyond the current plan. The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the land the project would be built on, is now reviewing formal protests to its decision to amend the land use plan for the area to allow the project. Bechtel had planned to sell much of its electricity to Los Angeles. But city officials, citing concerns about the costs of the electricity and the project’s impact on bighorn sheep and other species, announced this past summer that the city would not buy power from the solar plant.
The B.L.M. should not approve this project for environmental reasons. Instead, Bechtel should be encouraged to pursue another solar project in a more suitable location.
If it does, and we hope it will, we should all be mindful of the lessons of this experience: Projects like this, indeed development generally, must be considered in the context of the needs of overall ecosystems and not as isolated patches of land.
Such landscape planning will minimize the sorts of conflicts that have come to symbolize the Soda Mountain Solar project. Fifty-five solar, wind and geothermal utility-scale energy projects have been authorized on B.L.M. lands since 2009, according to the agency. We need more of them. But not in the Soda Mountains.