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THE SOLAR DESERT

Environmentalists feeling burned by rush to build solar projects

Local activists say national groups, focused on renewable energy, ignore projects' threat to the Mojave.

April 06, 2012|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • Ileene Anderson, left, of the Center for Biological Diversity and April Sall of the Wildlands Conservancy, standing in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley, are worried about solar projects’ effect on local ecosystems.
Ileene Anderson, left, of the Center for Biological Diversity and April… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Calif. — April Sall gazed out at the Mojave Desert flashing past the car window and unreeled a story of frustration and backroom dealings.

Her small California group, the Wildlands Conservancy, wanted to preserve 600,000 acres of the Mojave. The group raised $45 million, bought the land and deeded it to the federal government.

The conservancy intended that the land be protected forever. Instead, 12 years after accepting the largest land gift in American history, the federal government is on the verge of opening 50,000 acres of that bequest to solar development.

Even worse, in Sall's view, the nation's largest environmental organizations are scarcely voicing opposition. Their silence leaves the conservancy and a smattering of other small environmental organizations nearly alone in opposing energy development across 33,000 square miles of desert land.

"We got dragged into this because the big groups were standing on the sidelines and we were watching this big conservation legacy practically go under a bulldozer," said Sall, the organization's conservation director. "We said, 'We can't be silent anymore.' "

Similar stories can be heard across the desert Southwest. Small environmental groups are fighting utility-scale solar projects without the support of what they refer to as "Gang Green," the nation's big environmental players.

Local activists accuse the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and other venerable environmental groups of acquiescing to the industrialization of the desert because they believe large-scale solar power is essential to slowing climate change.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, a small public lands watchdog group, said Gang Green's members are compliant in order to make themselves more inviting to major foundations. In recent years, grants for projects focusing on climate change and energy have become the two top-funded issues in environmental philanthropy. Foundations have awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups that make renewable energy a top priority.

"It's not that they solely and directly make decisions based on funding, but they keep their eyes open to what foundations want," Blaeloch said.

As a result, "you've got enviros exactly where industry wanted them to be," she said.

Big environmental organizations say they have agonized over how to approach the issue. They acknowledge that development can have irreversible effects on ecosystems. But they are reluctant to stand in the way of renewable energy projects they regard as a vital response to climate change, which they consider the nation's most serious environmental challenge.

The Sierra Club, NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit last week to stop the troubled Calico solar project northeast of Los Angeles. But for the most part the big players have embraced solar development.

Instead of following the old adversarial formula of saying no to everything, they have adopted an approach they call, "Getting to yes."

'Green halo' effect

Grass-roots groups say that strategy has failed to protect the desert. What's worse, they say, is that the imprimatur of such groups as the Sierra Club has provided a '"green halo" to energy companies and the government — making it easy for them to ignore local environmental concerns.

Two major projects underway in the Mojave illustrate the divide between local and national groups.

Desert activists vigorously oppose the BrightSource Energy project in the east Mojave's Ivanpah Valley and NextEra's Genesis solar plant 20 miles west of Blythe. National groups have not mounted a strong challenge to either project.

When BrightSource was planning the Ivanpah installation, the big environmental players urged the firm to move the bulk of the project closer to Interstate 5 to avoid prime habitat for the desert tortoise, a protected species. The company responded by reducing its total footprint by 12%, which didn't solve the problem.

After construction began, large numbers of desert tortoises were discovered. According to federal biologists, BrightSource is now responsible for relocating and caring for 95% of all the tortoises expected to be found on all solar project sites in the Mojave.

Some rank-and-file Sierra Club members had wanted to sue to stop the project altogether, but the group's national board of directors vetoed that proposal in favor of a more neutral approach.

Separately, the Sierra Club has scolded some in the Southern California desert chapters for opposing solar projects. The national office issued a 42-page directive laying out the organization's policy regarding renewable energy and instructed local chapters to fall in line.

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