Coalition urges BLM to protect desert targeted for large project

By Scott Streater | 04/20/2015 12:56 PM EDT

A group of former Interior Department officials, conservationists, scientists, and local business and government leaders is asking the Bureau of Land Management to reject a controversial proposed solar power project near the Mojave National Preserve in the Southern California desert.

Instead, the diverse group wrote in a petition letter delivered late Friday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that they want BLM to permanently protect the area where the agency is considering approval of the 358-megawatt Soda Mountain Solar Project, which would sit on 2,500 acres of federal land in San Bernardino County.

The photovoltaic solar project has drawn heavy fire from conservation groups and some federal and state agencies because of its location adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve and its potential impacts on sensitive wildlife species and habitat. BLM is expected in the coming weeks to issue a final environmental impact statement (EIS) that could advance the project.

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The letter to Jewell — signed by 120 individuals, including three former Mojave National Preserve superintendents — asks that BLM designate the proposed site of the solar plant, as well as additional areas among the North and South Soda Mountains, as a formal area of critical environmental concern (ACEC). They want it off-limits to a commercial-scale solar project due to sensitive habitat for a host of species, including bighorn sheep, kit fox, burrowing owl and the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise.

The letter follows the submittal last month by the National Parks Conservation Association of a formal petition to designate the site as an ACEC.

"As evidenced by this letter, there is widespread, broad based support for the protection of this unique area and its resources," the letter says. "Please act immediately and designate the Soda Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern."

Until the area is designated as an ACEC, the group urged Interior to choose the "no action" alternative in the final EIS. The project cannot be reconfigured at its proposed location near the national preserve without harming wildlife, groundwater quality and other natural resources, they say.

"Specifically, the Bureau of Land Management should not authorize a right-of-way grant for the project," the letter says.

Martha Maciel, a BLM spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif., said in an email that the agency continues to evaluate the Soda Mountain project and that officials are "working on the final EIS to address concerns."

Maciel said BLM does not have a "publishing date on the final EIS."

The letter is the latest in an increasingly tense debate over the location of the Soda Mountain solar project, as well as the Soda Mountain and Cady Mountains wilderness study areas.

There are also concerns about BLM authorizing groundwater wells that would allow the project proponent to pump millions of gallons of water in the arid desert to wash solar panels and perform other maintenance tasks.

BLM California’s Desert District Advisory Council (DAC), whose members are appointed by the Interior secretary to help guide the agency on land-use and natural resource issues, last month formally submitted a letter to BLM California State Director Jim Kenna asking him not to approve the Soda Mountain project.

Kenna told E&ENews PM last month that BLM is doing a thorough job analyzing the project and said the DAC should have allowed the agency to update its members on the project review before sending him the letter (E&ENews PM, March 6).

But BLM’s review of the project has received some unusually harsh criticism.

Stephanie Dubois, who until retiring in January was the superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, sent a letter last year to BLM ripping the agency for doing what she described as a poor job evaluating the environmental impacts of the project in a draft EIS. Dubois wrote that the project’s proposed location on the northwest corner of the national preserve is a poorly chosen site and not suitable for a commercial-scale solar project (Greenwire, March 13, 2014).

Nothing that has been released to date by BLM has done anything to change that view among critics of the proposed project, said Seth Shteir, a DAC member and the California desert field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, Calif.

"It is obvious to everyone, including the BLM’s own advisers, that this project should be moved and that this special place should be protected as an ACEC due to its known important resources," Shteir said.

Ernie Quintana, former superintendent of the nearby Joshua Tree National Park, said he signed the petition letter to Jewell on behalf of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees because the group is "deeply concerned" about the location of the Soda Mountain project.

Quintana said an ACEC is the best way to "protect wildlife habitat and provide for connectivity among the existing BLM Soda Mountain Wilderness, the Cady Mountain Wilderness and the National Park Service, Mojave National Preserve."

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