September 16, 2009

Monument plan creates rift

MOJAVE DESERT: The Schwarzenegger administration fears the preserve may interfere with energy projects.

The Press-Enterprise

A plan to create a national monument across a large corner of the Mojave Desert threatens to "halt all current planned renewable energy projects" there, the Schwarzenegger administration said in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The senator has not yet introduced the legislation, but advocates of a bill to create the monument have said it could cover much of the public land in southeast San Bernardino County, between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

One supporter said Tuesday that the senator now is working on a more modest plan than initially discussed.

The Aug. 28 letter, signed by state Natural Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman and released Tuesday, said Feinstein's California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act "must not" interfere with renewable energy projects. Schwarzenegger has made renewable energy a priority, and the state has aggressive standards requiring utilities to rely increasingly on solar, wind and other alternative sources.

Feinstein and a spokesman for Chrisman's office both said Tuesday that the legislation is still being shaped. And both said they want to conserve pristine lands while allowing development of solar and other renewable energy.

"We have mutual goals," Chrisman spokesman Sandy Cooney said in a telephone interview.

Feinstein released a prepared statement Tuesday.

"The vast majority of proposed large wind and solar projects on both public and private lands fall outside the boundaries under consideration for the monument," she said.

Earlier this year, preservationists said they sought Feinstein's support to create a 2.4 million-acre preserve to protect public land from military use and energy development. The area would be called the "Mother Road National Monument" because it would include 70 miles of historic Route 66.


Included in the monument would be about 600,000 acres of former railroad land purchased with $40 million in donations raised by The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen, along with $18 million appropriated by Congress. Although the land was turned over to the federal government for conservation, about 15 energy projects have been proposed on some of the acreage, according to a Wildlands Conservancy official.

Protecting that land was part of the impetus for Feinstein's move to create a monument.

David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy, said Tuesday that when he and his group donated the land, the Clinton administration assured them that the property would be conserved. The Bush administration later allowed energy applications targeting the acreage.

Myers said representatives of several energy companies have told him they are willing to build their projects outside the monument area. But not all are willing, he said.

One company, BrightSource Energy, wants to develop a solar project that involves some of the donated land, near Broadwell Dry Lake, east of Barstow.

Keely Wachs, a spokesman for BrightSource, said the company plans to build there and has been working with Feinstein's office on legislation that would balance conservation needs and energy development.


Elden Hughes, a member of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee and a Joshua Tree resident, said Feinstein is crafting legislation for a smaller monument than envisioned earlier by conservationists.

He said he hopes the Schwarzenegger administration doesn't stop Feinstein's effort, because a monument designation would protect corridors for wildlife to move between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve. Such swaths of undisturbed land will be especially important as global warming changes habitat, he said.

"Severing the desert would be a huge mistake," Hughes said. "We need the wildlife and plant corridors to remain open."

Chrisman's letter said Feinstein intended to introduce the monument legislation this month along with another bill support renewable energy projects.

Staff writer Jim Miller contributed to this report.

Reach David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or


After this story was posted, a BrightSource Energy spokesman clarified that while the company has filed an application with the federal Bureau and Land Management for a solar development on public land near Broadwell Dry Lake, it will not move forward until questions are resolved about whether land would be included in a national monument. The company spokesman, Keely Wachs, also said Wednesday that BrightSource is considering alternative sites.