Highlighting the environmental pitfalls of harnessing "green" energy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's push to import nonpolluting power to Los Angeles could require building power lines and transmission towers through a national forest, two desert wildlife preserves and a rustic hamlet used in countless westerns.
According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the 85-mile-long "Green Path" energy corridor designed to bring solar, geothermal and nuclear power from southeastern California and Arizona would slice across the Big Morongo Wildlife Preserve north of Palm Springs, Pioneertown near Yucca Valley, Pipes Canyon Wilderness Preserve and a corner of the San Bernardino National Forest before crossing over the Cajon Pass and connecting with existing power lines in Hesperia.
More than a dozen preservation and community groups have condemned the mayor and DWP for a plan that they say would destroy priceless vistas, natural areas and wildlife corridors.
"Not only is such energy consumption not 'green,' it is unacceptable under any name.... The ends cannot justify the means," Justin Augustine of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a letter to Villaraigosa last week.
City officials are up against tough new state laws and self-imposed deadlines to replace highly polluting coal-fired power with renewable energy produced by geothermal, wind and solar generators in the Imperial Valley, the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County and elsewhere.
Villaraigosa did not return calls for comment. DWP commission President David Nahai insisted that no final decisions on a route had been made.
"This project is very much environmentally at its beginning stages," Nahai said.
The anger over the proposed route underscores challenges nationwide over how to ship wind, sun and steam power from remote rural reaches to booming urban centers.
"People do not like the way power lines look," said George Douglas, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.
He said vast amounts of renewable resources exist across the country. Enough wind turbines could be built in North Dakota to power Chicago. One hundred square miles of desert solar panels in California, Nevada or New Mexico could power most of the United States.
But, Douglas said, "the chances it's going to happen are zero, because nobody's going to build the transmission lines. They're great big things that cost a lot of money, and people don't like them. They are unsightly -- there's no two ways about it -- and when you build them, they definitely disturb the land."
In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa said last year that he wanted to make the sprawling metropolis "the greenest city and cleanest city in America" and was pushing aggressively for 20% of the city's power to be renewable by 2010. Officials also chose not to renew a contract with a Utah coal plant that provides more than 40% of the city's power. That pact will expire in 2023.
The proposed Green Path is a key piece of the mayor's strategy. High-voltage lines in the transmission corridor would ship 800 megawatts of geothermal and solar power from near the Salton Sea and 400 megawatts of nuclear power from Arizona -- enough to meet 10% of the city's current energy needs.
DWP officials said they decided on a "preferred alternative" in December after studying possible routes for more than a year. They said the route they chose would be the least intrusive to existing homes, tribal lands, national parks and wilderness areas.
Environmentalists scoffed at that claim. "We were just shocked," preservationist David Myers said of his reaction after looking at a map of the route.
Myers is head of The Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit group that has spent $50 million assembling private wildlife corridors and preserves close to Joshua Tree National Park, the San Bernardino National Forest and elsewhere, including Pipes Canyon.
Myers accused city officials of secretly planning the route, saying that conservationists learned about it two weeks ago from a staff member of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Nahai said there was no attempt at secrecy but acknowledged that Myers had a point. "I think we need to do a better job of outreach and a better job of communication," he said. "This is a new, environmentally committed administration. What we're trying to do is to diversify away from filthy coal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and do it in a way that is environmentally protective."
The DWP staff members said that there would be extensive public hearings before a final decision was made, and that they might "tweak" the map to try to move it away from the Pipes Canyon preserve, Pioneertown and the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains, which provided the backdrop for "The Cisco Kid" and many other western television shows and movies.
But Nahai added that no matter what route was chosen, there would be some environmental damage caused by the project. He said the priority was obtaining clean, renewable energy on a citywide basis to reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollution, as well as meeting power needs.
"Failure is not an option," he said. "What I can commit is that the department will do its utmost to minimize adverse environmental effects."