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BLM Nixes Solar Apps

Soon we may see new wind turbines and solar power plants spring up across the California Desert like Spring wildflowers.  Applications for new alternate energy production facilities have inundated staff throughout the Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District.

BLM Solar Energy Project Applications According to reports available on the BLM web site, through February 2008 the Desert District received some 95 applications for new solar energy projects totaling more than 875,000 acres, and approximately 70 applications for new wind energy projects totaling more than 450,000 acres.  Combined, some 165 applications were submitted covering over 1.3 million acres, nearly one-eighth of the 10.7 million acres managed by the BLM's California Desert District.

In January 2008 the BLM's Ridgecrest Field Office rejected eight of the thirteen applications it received for solar energy projects, seven of which were denied because the proposed sites were within the newly created Mojave Ground Squirrel Habitat Conservation Area.

The West Mojave Plan, implemented by the BLM in March 2006, established a 1.3 million acre Mojave Ground Squirrel HCA predominantly in the Ridgecrest Resource Area. During the 30-year life of the West Mojave Plan no more than one percent of new ground disturbance can occur within the HCA.  The eight rejected projects would have amounted to more than forty percent of this allotment within just the first few years of the plan.

Of special interest to solar energy developers is the area known as Freeman Junction and Little Dixie Wash, near the junction of Highways 14 and 178 to Lake Isabella.  This area is reported to have the highest solarity index in North America, which favors high elevation, little to no slope, and the most sunny days – the most important factors in siting a solar energy production facility.  Four applications were submitted for this key area, and all four were rejected due to their being in the Mojave Ground Squirrel HCA.

Other sites that were rejected because of their location within the Mojave Ground Squirrel HCA were:  a 5,000 acre site near Cuddeback Lake, east of Highway 395; a 7,200 acre site at Kramer Junction near the intersection of Highways 395 and 58; and an 11,520 acre site at Teagle Wash near the Trona Pinnacles.  An eighth application for an 8,000 acre solar site near Red Rock Canyon off of Highway 14 was rejected due to non-response by the applicant.

The BLM Ridgecrest Field Office in July 2007 rejected an application for an 8,000 acre solar site in the Rand Mountains - Fremont Valley area near Randsburg due to its location with a Desert Tortoise Desert Wildlife Management Area, which was also established by the 2004 West Mojave Plan.  In August 2007 a solar energy application was withdrawn for a 16,000 acre site in Panamint Valley near Wildrose Canyon Road.

There remain at least three additional solor energy applications still to be acted upon by the BLM's Ridgecrest Field Office:  a 6,000 acre site and a 1,920 acre site both located near Mojave between Highway 14 and the Los Angeles aqueducts; and an 11,000 acre site south of Ridgecrest near Jacks Ranch Road.

In March 2007 the BLM's Needles Field Office rejected four solar energy applications out of some thirty that were submitted due to their location within a Desert Tortoise Desert Wildlife Management Area.  The four applications were for sites totaling more than 68,500 acres, one of which was over 30,000 acres.  The BLM's Palm Springs Field Office closed one solar application due to a lack of diligence by the applicant.

There still remain at least eighty solar energy project applications in the hopper within the BLM's California Desert District.  For the Barstow Field Office, these sites in the Death Valley area are proposed:  along Highway 40 near Pisgah, Hector and Troy Dry Lake; near Baker, and in the Silurian Valley, including near Salt Hills; Broadwell Dry Lake, Crucero, Soda Mountains and the Bristol Range; and in Lucerne Valley (click here to download a PDF map of solar energy applications; click here for a list of solar energy applications).

Several solar sites proposed for Imperial County are within the El Centro Resource Area.  The Needles Field Office also has many solar energy application pending for sites such as:  Ivanpah, Mesquite Hills, New York Mountains, Amboy, Ward Valley, East Bagdad, Cadiz Lake, north of 29 Palms, and along Kelbaker Road near the West Mojave National Preserve.

BLM Wind Energy Project Applications Of the nearly 70 wind energy applications submitted in the BLM's California Desert District, a few have been withdrawn but none have yet to be acted on by the BLM.  Proposed wind energy sites in the Barstow Resource Area include:  Granite Mountains, north Apple Valley, Daggett, Mud Hills, Iron Mountain, Waterman Hills, Stoddard Mountains, Fry Mountains, Rodman Mountains, Silurian Hills, and the Calico Mountains.

The BLM's El Centro and Palm Springs field office are each fielding wind energy applications for a half dozen sites.  The Ridgecrest Field Office is processing some fifteen wind energy applications for sites including:  Mojave, Tehachapi, Solidad Mountain, Rand Mountains, Fossil Falls and Rose Valley, Bird Springs, Inyokern, and even on Laurel and El Paso Peaks in the El Paso Mountains.

The Needles Field Office has ten wind energy applications to review for sites that include Bristol Mountains, Mountain Pass, Homer Mountain, Ludlow, Amboy and in the Castle Mountains on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve  (click here to download a PDF map of wind energy applications; click here for a list of wind energy applications).

Surprising to some, many environmental activists are highly critical of the the alternative energy industry for their focus on the fragile California desert, and warn of negative consequences to sensitive habitats and plant life communities resulting from such large-acreage projects.  Throw into the mix the growing opposition of environmentalists, and even the general public, to massive new and upgraded power corridors that will cross hundreds of miles of public lands including National and State Parks and National Forests.

Many environmental activists now tout the need to develop alternate energy closer to the urban areas that actually consume the power, such as affordable roof top solar systems and back yard wind turbines.  However, alternative energy industry officials are quick to point out that there are not sufficient winds and sunlight where the power is needed to produce the amount of energy that is needed.  They argue that wind energy can be developed only in locations where there is reliable wind, and solar energy only where there is reliable sun light.  Such resources exist where they are, and not necessary where the public would prefer them to be.

Recreation advocates have expressed concerns that large scale alternative energy projects will continue to displace outdoor enthusiasts, particularly motorized users who are already facing significant reductions in accessible public lands.  Recreationists are lobbying for creative mitigation strategies that will help accommodate the current extraordinary growth in motorized recreation, for example, setting aside more open OHV areas.

As California continues to grow, there will be only more pressure put on the desert backcountry to meet the alternative energy needs of our urban areas. Dedicating enormous parcels of public lands to energy development will make it more difficult for the BLM to manage the land for multiple-uses.