September 22, 2009

Desert monument idea is starting to shine

The Press-Enterprise

Land around the Old Woman Mountains is part of the area supporters want considered for a monument. (Rodrigo Peña / The Press-Enterprise)

Efforts to establish a national monument in southeastern San Bernardino County appear to be gaining momentum as some solar-energy developers drop plans to build on land targeted for protection.

Oakland-based BrightSource Energy announced late last week that it has stopped pursuing development of a solar plant on about 5,100 acres near Broadwell Dry Lake, east of Barstow, because the land there is being sought for a national monument.

"BrightSource Energy has ceased development activity at the Broadwell site in light of the proposed monument and is looking at other sites within California and out of state," John Woolard, the company's president and CEO, said in a statement.

And an official with Stirling Energy Systems, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that also has an application to build a solar plant near the dry lake, said Tuesday that the company will put its primary focus on projects outside the monument area.

"We want to a find a solution that will be agreeable to everyone concerned," said Sean Gallagher, Stirling's vice president of marketing strategy and regulatory affairs.

The companies' apparent willingness to avoid some areas in the eastern Mojave Desert has bolstered the hopes of monument backers

"It is very good news," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen. Myers' organization is dedicated to protecting natural places in the desert and elsewhere.

As the energy companies reconsider their plans, the monument idea has been gaining support among some of the nation's leading environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both groups said they support renewable energy development to combat global warming, but they have agreed with monument supporters that wild areas should be protected.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said last spring that she plans to introduce a bill to create a national monument in the Mojave Desert. She noted her intention to protect thousands of acres of formerly private land that was purchased in the 1990s, largely through the fundraising efforts of The Wildlands Conservancy, and given to the government.

Myers has said he believed the land was to be protected, but the federal government accepted applications from companies that wanted to build solar plants on some of the acreage.

Feinstein has not yet introduced the legislation, but monument advocates said it could cover much of the public land between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve and include a 70-mile stretch of Historic Route 66. The name "Mother Road National Monument" has been suggested in honor of the highway.

Efforts to protect public land in the area are running up against state and federal efforts to encourage alternative-energy development to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Last month, the Schwarzenegger administration wrote Feinstein, saying a monument "must not" interfere with renewable energy projects.

But monument supporters, including Feinstein, say the desert has room for energy projects that don't destroy what they see as the pristine public lands.

The BrightSource project at Broadwell Dry Lake would have ruined one of the more striking valleys sought for the monument, said Elden Hughes, an environmental activist in Joshua Tree.

"It is really one of the most beautiful vistas in the desert," Hughes said. "I have seen yellow flowers there that went all the way to the horizon."

Hughes said he is encouraged. "This monument is getting much closer," he said.

But 30-year Yucca Valley resident Mike Hawkins opposes the monument idea. It would force energy developers and military base expansions to use land needed for off-road recreation, he said. The monument also would take land that has mining potential.

"We don't need more land locked away," Hawkins said.