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Solar standoff in the Mojave

Native American objects threaten completion of the Genesis solar facility near the Colorado River. To avoid a lawsuit that could cripple the project, the two sides should negotiate a solution — and officials should begin talks with other tribes about projects planned for their areas.

May 01, 2012
  • A cross marks the site where ancient human remains were found near the $1-billion Genesis solar energy project 200 miles east of Los Angeles.
A cross marks the site where ancient human remains were found near the $1-billion… (Los Angeles Times )

Developers in the Mojave Desert last month were so keen on going forward with their project that they didn't consult with Native Americans about the ancient objects that might lie underground or conduct the required archaeological work in a thorough way. This has happened before: It happened most recently in downtown Los Angeles last year at the site of one of the area's oldest burial grounds. Now it's happening again 200 miles east, in the desert.

But there's a key difference between the two. In the case of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the new cultural center honoring Mexican and Mexican American history in L.A., there was little legitimate reason to rush the job once remains from a 19th century cemetery were discovered. In the desert near Blythe, similar discoveries — charred bones, grinding stones and charcoal, possible indicators of an early cremation site — threaten the vast Genesis solar project that has been fast-tracked by the U.S. government to generate needed energy.

Maybe a little too fast-tracked.

Government and company officials did an inadequate job of addressing the concerns of the local Native American tribe, and a less-than-thorough survey before the fact failed to detect any evidence that this was a site of archaeological significance. Once winds uncovered the first items, Genesis officials called those a minor scattering.

Such scenarios have played out many times in California and elsewhere. This time, using laws aimed at protecting Native American heritage, the Indians are threatening to sue. And though it is uncertain if they'll win, they could delay Genesis to the point of being financially unfeasible.

It can be hard to find that delicate balance between Indians' concerns about their cultural heritage and the forward-looking plans of modern society. In this case, the tilt should be toward the project. Solar power is a vital part of the move to clean, renewable energy as well as greater independence from foreign oil. The Genesis project should not be held up for years; the two sides should negotiate to keep this from going to court.

That doesn't mean ignoring Native Americans. Genesis got off on a bad foot with them, but at this point, rather than dismissing the finds, it should be talking to the Colorado River Indian Tribes about how to resolve their objections. Government officials should be launching early talks with other tribes about energy projects planned for their areas. Tribal leaders should come up with reasonable proposals — in the case of the Genesis project, perhaps, a special space for the reburial of remains and artifacts and an independent archaeological team to ensure that important finds are treated carefully. But rerouting transmission lines which are not within the boundary of the bones, as some have suggested, is not acceptable. Nor is banning solar panels on large tracts or redesigning the project altogether. Our energy future is too important.

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