March 14, 2009

Group sees 'violation of trust'

WILDLANDS CONSERVANCY: It brokered a BLM deal to protect the desert acres that are now being opened to development.

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, says he thought the Mojave Desert’s open spaces would be preserved after the conservancy brokered a deal to sell thousands of acres to the Bureau of Land Management. Proposed renewable energy projects will ruin the view from mountains such as Sheephole, Old Woman and Turtle, Myers says. 2004/The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

A land conservancy from Oak Glen spent years amassing $45 million in private donations and negotiating the purchase of more than a half-million unspoiled acres in the California desert so it could be turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for protection.

Now, the BLM is considering applications for wind turbines and solar-energy arrays on thousands of those acres.

The proposals on the donated Mojave Desert parcels have riled residents, visitors and members of The Wildlands Conservancy, which orchestrated the land deals involving a broad scattering of parcels in eastern San Bernardino County.

"It's a violation of trust, not only for Wildlands, but for the public. That's part of how we got so much diverse support, including hunters and off-roaders, because this was about public access and enjoying the Mojave Desert," said April Sall, manager of the conservancy's Pioneertown Mountain Preserve near Joshua Tree.

Steve Borchard, the BLM's district manager, said his agency did not commit to preserving land donated by The Wildlands Conservancy.

The BLM has to balance multiple missions on public land, including energy, oil, gas and coal development, livestock grazing, habitat management, and recreational opportunities, he said.

"That is land that belongs to the American people that has been designated by Congress for multiple use by the American people," including renewable energy generation, Borchard said.

Renewable energy now provides about 12 percent of the state's energy needs.

By 2020, state law requires that investor-owned utilities get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy, a move to reduce dependence on foreign oil and ease climate change caused in part by traditional coal-fired plants.

The BLM is considering 162 applications for large-scale solar and wind projects on more than a million acres in its California Desert District.

When the conservancy-government land deal concluded in 2004, no one saw the renewable energy rush coming, Borchard said.

The land transfer was the largest of its kind in state history.

It involved 160-acre parcels laid out like a checkerboard along either side of the railroad tracks from Barstow to the Colorado River, the result of a grant from the government in the 1800s to spur development.

If the land had been sold to private parties, access to hundreds of miles of roads and public lands could have been restricted.

Conflicting Uses

The conservancy's purchase from Catellus Development Corp., a spinoff of the Santa Fe Railway, tapped $18 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, intended to preserve and develop access to outdoor recreation facilities, a congressional report says.

Now conservancy leaders are lobbying for a Mother Road National Monument south of the Mojave National Preserve to protect the lands from development, a 10- year-old idea that became more urgent with the "feeding frenzy" of energy applications, Sall said.

After The Wildlands Conservancy donated the land to the government for public use, the BLM dubbed the parcels "some of the most pristine and scenic areas in the California desert," valuable for their sand dunes, cinder cones and habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and bighorn sheep.

The land is also "some of the most valuable for solar development on earth," Borchard said recently.

The BLM already has pre-empted from energy development more than 8 million acres of wilderness and critical habitat, he said.

A 40-mile stretch of Route 66 near Amboy also has been deemed too historically valuable to build on, he said.

Borchard said wind and solar projects under consideration cover only 19,546 acres, or 8 percent, of the donated Catellus land.

More than half the projects probably will never be built, he said.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was instrumental in the Catellus land deal, vowed this week to ensure that the federal government honors its commitment to protect the property.

Conservationists said they don't oppose renewable energy, but they prefer rooftop solar units, or larger projects on land that already has been disturbed, such as abandoned farms.

They say transmission lines needed to carry the energy through the desert should be along existing corridors, such as Interstate 10.

Gary Thomas, of Upland, a board member of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, said he fears the effects of widespread desert development on the habitat of the 3,000 or so bighorn sheep in the greater Mojave.

His group builds and maintains watering holes for large game in the desert.

Habitat corridors linking open space are needed to preserve the genetic viability of sheep populations; without such diversity, the populations could die off in 60 years, Thomas said.

"Those (energy) farms are nothing more than an open pit mine without a pit," he said. "They are going to go in and clean everything out to bare dirt, then they fence them and everything that was living in that place will be gone."

The BLM's Borchard said conservationists are overstating the habitat-corridor issue. Bighorn sheep travel miles, not tens of miles, he said, and applying the issue of connectivity on such a large scale is "bunk."

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, has vowed to maintain the Mojave's wide open spaces, a job he thought had been taken care of with the Catellus deal.

The renewable energy projects will ruin the view from mountains such as Sheephole, Old Woman and Turtle.

"You would climb a peak in an island in the sand to have this vista, and the higher you climb, the more industry you would see," he said.

Land In Question

592,847 acres of former railroad land donated to the government

19,446 acres of those proposed for wind and solar-energy development