January 15, 2011

Unfettered vistas restored in remote valley

This is one of the massive pits left behind after years of gold mining at the Hart mining area. Those pits will remain amid other reclamation efforts. Several new uses for the land have been suggested.

The Press-Enterprise

As road graders moved earth for a huge solar power array in northeastern San Bernardino County, the reverse occurred in a remote, nameless desert valley about 30 miles way.

There, utility crews removed the 18 miles of power lines, leaving the lush stretch of the Mojave Desert more like it was in 1900, before gold was discovered in the hills.

Finishing the job in early January, the crew used a crane to hoist 5,000-pound bundles of wire onto a flatbed truck bound for a Las Vegas scrap yard. They also hauled away piles of creosote-soaked utility poles. The work is part of a reclamation effort by Castle Mountain Venture, which is cleaning up after a decade of open-pit mining.

Returning land to a wilder state bucks the trend in Southern California's deserts, where energy developers are in a rush to tap the vast spaces and ample sunshine and wind to help meet the nation's clean energy needs. If all the pending applications were approved, wind and solar projects would cover as much as 880 square miles of public land.

Yet the valley's fate is far from clear.

Conservationists and at least one legislator want it added to the Mojave National Preserve, which surrounds it. An energy developer wants to buy the former mining land to conserve as wildlife habitat -- compensating for habitat destruction elsewhere. And a wind energy company wants to build wind turbines there and erect new power poles along the same route where workers just finished taking the old ones down.

David Lamfrom, California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, has been monitoring the power line removal with great interest.

Earlier this month, after the poles were down, he drove the 140 miles from his home in Barstow to the no-name valley.

Pivoting full circle, he saw only grassland, Joshua trees, hills, mountain ranges and sky -- no buildings, fences, wires or pavement. Inspiring, he said.

"This is one of the few places left where you can see as far as 25 miles without seeing the hand of man," he said.

The 18 miles of electrical lines had paralleled a dirt road for 20 years, carrying power to the open-pit mine in the Castle Mountains near the Nevada border. Gold was discovered there in 1907.

The modern-day mine produced 1.34 million ounces of gold and about 400,000 ounces of silver in about 12 years, according to the mine manager. The digging stopped in 2001.

In addition to removing the utility poles and wires, Castle Mountain Venture also has shaped the spent ore into contours that mimic the landscape and re-established native plants. The huge open pits will remain.

Coveted Land

Lamfrom wants to see the whole area -- the 7,600 acres owned or claimed by Castle Mountain Venture and more than 21,000 acres of public land surrounding it -- added to the Mojave National Preserve.

Adding the land to the preserve is one of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's legislative goals. A bill introduced last year by the California Democrat to create two desert monuments included provisions to add the Castle Mountains area to the preserve. She said she plans to reintroduce the proposals this year.

When Congress created the preserve in 1994, the area was excluded because of active mining operations.

A boost to preservation efforts could come from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Co., which is building a 5.6-square-mile solar energy project in the Ivanpah Valley off Interstate 15 near Primm, Nev. Construction is under way for the first array of mirrors that will focus sunlight on a tower, where steam will generate electricity.

The energy company wants to buy 7,600 acres from Castle Mountain Venture to make up for desert tortoise habitat lost to the Ivanpah development. The first phase of the BrightSource project already has displaced 23 tortoises, a species threatened with extinction.

Such a deal would prohibit future mining, making the land an even stronger candidate for inclusion in the national preserve.

BrightSource's land-acquisition proposal is under review by the state energy commission, the BLM, California Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unanswered Questions

Complicating efforts to restore the valley to a wilder state are the pending wind development application and questions about whether tortoises actually would live in the area, as BrightSource envisions.

Oak Creek Energy Co., which has wind farms in the Tehachapi area, filed an application with the U.S. Bureau Land Management to develop wind turbines on thousands of acres of public land near the mine.

Ed Duggan, the company's executive vice president, said wind energy can be developed there in conjunction with conservation efforts. The company would mostly use existing roads and other disturbed areas, he said.

If the various agencies approve BrightSource's plan to buy the former mining land, it might not benefit tortoises much, according to some observers.

"It's pretty poor habitat," said Mike Conner, California director of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group that has followed efforts to bring large energy developments to the desert.

A wildlife survey of the mining area done last March found tortoise burrows but no live animals, and Juan Hernandez, a biologist retained by the mining partnership.

Replacement habitat should be of equal or better quality than the habitat destroyed, and the proposed replacement land just isn't as good for tortoises, Conner said.

U.S. Geological Survey scientist Kristin Berry, who has studied the animals since the 1970s, said tortoises are found only occasionally at elevations above 4,000 feet. The land BrightSource wants to buy ranges from 4,100 to 5,200 feet.

Hernandez said about 3,200 acres of the land under consideration has plants that tortoises eat, including desert dandelion, lotus and notched phacelia.

Mick Lynch, the mine manager, said tortoises were fenced out of the mining area about 20 years ago, but those fences have since been removed so the animals can return.

In addition, tortoises are expected to migrate to higher elevations as the globe warms, according to the land-buy proposal BrightSource submitted to the California Energy Commission and other agencies.

Bighorns At Play

Lamfrom and Hernandez said protecting the land around the mine would have conservation benefits beyond providing habitat for tortoises.

The area includes a rare ecosystem of native bunch grasses and a forest of full-sized Joshua trees.

Adding the area to the preserve could allow for reintroduction of antelope-like pronghorn, which are second only to the cheetah in running speed. The grazers are believed to have been hunted out by gold miners in the early 20th century.

The area also is a route for bighorn sheep making their way between the Piute and New York mountain ranges. Lynch said he often has seen bighorns running up and down the steep slopes of mine pits. "They are like kids at a playground," he said.

Lamfrom is hopeful that the deal will win approval and the land can become part of the Mojave National Preserve. "This could be the finest example of high desert grasslands in California," he said.