February 28, 2014

In a withered desert town, he envisions an otherworldly hotel

Luis Ramallo, owner of Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, Calif., checks out aliens inside a "Back to the Future"-type car in front of his store. Ramallo wants to build a UFO-themed hotel to try to breathe some life back into the struggling desert town, whose biggest tourist attraction is a giant thermometer that's now gone dark. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times)

Rick Rojas
Los Angeles Times

BAKER, Calif. — On the aging main drag here just off the route to Las Vegas, Luis Ramallo ticks off the worn buildings of Baker Boulevard by what they used to be.

There's the old IHOP and the Starbucks. The Chinese restaurant with broken windows and a weed-filled parking lot. In front of the closed Bun Boy, Baker's onetime biggest attraction — the World's Tallest Thermometer — has gone dark but still, in a way, tells the temperature of a town withering under the desert sun.

Yet on this recent weekday afternoon, a stream of drivers pull into the dusty parking lot of Ramallo's store, Alien Fresh Jerky. Inside the stucco box with a UFO out front and a bug-eyed extraterrestrial dangling his legs off the roof, customers peruse walls covered in dozens of flavors of dehydrated meats.

Ramallo, 56, believes his pluck has allowed him to thrive in a place where bigger businesses have failed.

"They don't take care of business," he boasts with a grin. "We take care of business."

The Argentina-born electrical engineer's next venture could test that claim: Ramallo is planning a multimillion-dollar, 31-room hotel in the shape of a flying saucer that has hovered in his mind for a decade.

He hopes the hotel will inject new vigor into a community of about 730 people that doesn't have a pharmacy or grocery store.

"Sometimes I can see a business where other people don't see it," Ramallo says. "I want to make improvements and put Baker on the map again, and we will." In business, he says, "you have to believe in your idea, and — 200% — I believe in my idea."


In the back of the store, Ramallo pulls out rumpled folders filled with newspaper clippings, sketches and a Popular Mechanics with a UFO on the cover. He finds the stack of renderings, the many iterations the UFO hotel has taken since he first hired an architect in 2009.

One version looked like an oddly shaped office building with windows. "You want me to put in windows?" he says he told the architect. "There's nothing to see in Baker!"

In another, the hotel was a khaki-colored oval. "This is a glass hamburger!" he sneers. "Maybe for some people that can be a UFO, but not for me."

Ramallo's son, Martin, 32, walks into the office.

"He believes in it before seeing it," says Martin, who, like two of his sisters, works for his father. "That's the difference between visionaries and spectators. That's him. He's the visionary."

Ramallo had a business doing electrical work in Las Vegas before he started selling jerky.

He started selling outside Area 51 in Lincoln County, Nev. As an immigrant, he would joke: "I was actually the alien in Area 51!"

Ramallo said he decided to leave the roadside stand. But, as a family, they voted to stay in the jerky business and find a permanent location. They also thought the alien theme was one worth hanging on to.

In 2001, he passed through Baker and spotted the six-acre parcel with a little building that would become the first home of Alien Fresh Jerky. The family lived in a small home on the property.

The growing business eventually moved to the larger store it now occupies. In 2004, Ramallo closed his electrical business to focus on jerky.

Jacob Overson, general manager for the Baker Community Services District, recalls many people thinking he was just another outsider whose business would sputter after a few months.

"No one really had much faith in him," Overson says, "but he proved us all wrong."


Ramallo has long imagined the graphite saucer of a spacecraft, lined with circuits and tubes filled with blue light, landing in a haze, a few aliens wandering off into the desert.

Struggling to convey his vision, he traveled in 2012 to a convention of theme-park designers. He met David Weiss, a freelance creative director who has designed props and theme park attractions. Weiss eventually nailed it.

Ramallo hopes to begin construction over the summer. The project — which could cost close to $25 million, funded by Ramallo and a small group of investors — cleared its first hurdle in January when San Bernardino County officials approved the land-use plans.

A UFO hotel wouldn't have much competition.

Two motels have closed. Another, next door to Alien Fresh Jerky, has vacancies but isn't exactly a five-star stay. A for-sale sign hangs out front.

But some have hope Ramallo's project wouldn't meet a similar fate.

Nono Khasa, who manages gas stations and fast-food restaurants in Baker, says the town is a stopping point for families, film crews and other motorists traversing I-15 or exploring the Mojave Desert.

"They are always looking for a place to stay," she says. "If there's a decent hotel in town, I think it will work well."

Overson says if the hotel were successful, it would bring jobs and perhaps a renewed optimism.

But he acknowledges Ramallo's risk in investing so much in a place that others have fled.

"It's either going to make or break him," Overson said. "It's a hell of a gamble, but all of his friends say he likes taking those gambles."


Ramallo drives past the modest home where he lived with his family when they started and pulls up to a wrought-iron gate, a golden "R" affixed to it.

With "Rancho Ramallo" emblazoned on an outer wall, Ramallo's new home has a manicured garden and a portico stretching over the driveway. At two stories, he brags it's the tallest building in Baker.

"This is my house," he says, brimming with pride. "In Baker."

There's an eight-car garage, a swimming pool, a lawn as green as a golf course and a barbecue pit big enough to roast entire goats for his birthday, just like in Argentina.

He calls Baker "my place," and has already told his family: When he dies, he wants his ashes spread here.

"This city," he says, "has given us a future."

He gives little thought to the possibility of his long-dreamed-of hotel becoming yet another shuttered business on Baker Boulevard.

"If it fails, it fails," Ramallo says. "What are you going to do? I'm not going to kill myself."

He's built all this from the ground up once. If he has to, he figures, he can do it again.

February 26, 2014

Feds Declare 2 Endangered Death Valley National Park Plants Recovered

Eureka Valley evening primrose (USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke

Two plants found only in Death Valley National Park that have been on the Endangered list since 1978 have since recovered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is proposing to remove them from the list.

The Eureka Valley evening primrose and the Eureka dunegrass have been successfully protected, says USFWS, from the main threat that prompted their inclusion on the Endangered Species list 36 years ago: off-road vehicle riders trampling the Eureka Dunes. The plants are found only on those dunes, which have been part of Death Valley National Park since the passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994.

Though USFWS says the plants still face threats from climate change and from competition from exotic weeds, especially tumbleweeds, the agency says those threats aren't dire enough to keep the plants on the Endangered list, and is proposing to delist both species.

The proposal, which will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, follows a 2010 petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation that urged USFWS to remove the two species from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). (Both plants only grow in federally designated wilderness within Death Valley National Park, so the likely boon to PLF's conservative constituency in getting the plants delisted would seem purely symbolic.)

The biggest threat to the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera avita eurekensis) and the Eureka dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae), disturbance from off-road vehicle use and the associated campsites in the dunes, came to a halt even before the Eureka Valley was added to Death Valley National Park. The Bureau of Land Management declared the dunes and the surrounding area off-limits to off-road vehicles in 1976, in response to the proposed listing of both plants as endangered under ESA. In 1980, the BLM declared the Eureka Dunes area an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, an administrative designation that allows the BLM to better protect the landscape.

Soon after the dunes were transferred from the BLM to the National Park Service in 1994, the whole area was declared a federal wilderness area, permanently keeping vehicles off the dunes. An October 1997 article in Esquire on the new sport sandboarding identified the Eureka Dunes as a choice destination for the sport, raising concerns that boarders would crush plants. The Park Service prohibited the sport on the dunes in 2002.

The Park Service isn't as able to prohibit the spread of tumbleweeds, a.k.a Russian thistle (Salsola). The invasive plant has grown on the dunes since the 1970s, likely brought in by livestock in the north end of the valley. But while Salsola is a serious threat to other native plants throughout the west, the evening-primrose and the dune grass seem to do fine even in the presence of tumbleweeds.

Despite the symbolic victory for the anti-environmental Pacific Legal Foundation, environmental groups are applauding the proposed delisting as well. "These two unique California plants join the long list of species the Endangered Species Act has saved from extinction," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "From the blue whale to Eureka dune grass, this remarkably successful law has prevented the extinction of our country's most vulnerable wild heritage for 40 years now."

The USFWS delisting proposal now launches a 60-day public comment period.

February 23, 2014

Joint Effort Improves Desert Tortoise Research At Mojave National Preserve

National Parks Traveler

Desert tortoise research, and the researchers, at Mojave National Preserve in California have gotten a boost from Chevron Corp. and the National Park Trust.

The Trust acted as an intermediary in a deal that had Chevron build the Ivanpah Desert Tortoise Research Facility and transfer it to the National Park Service at Mojave.

Located on seven acres adjacent to the Preserve, the solar-powered facility and its outdoor dens are used to hatch, study and protect the threatened desert tortoise, according to a Trust release.

"The facility was constructed in 2011, but the National Park Service could not take ownership until extensive due diligence — and a boundary adjustment to the Preserve — were all completed," the release added. "But that delay risked two generations (cohorts) of desert tortoises that could otherwise be hatched and released at the facility. Officials at Mojave National Preserve asked if (the Trust) could help. In response, (the Trust) reached an agreement with Chevron that would allow the Trust to manage the facility as interim steward while researchers from the University of California, Davis and the Savannah River Ecology Lab (GA) conducted their research."

Chevron also has donated funds to NPT that are being used to fund tortoise research at the facility over several years.

“We are indebted to the National Park Trust for enabling this complex transaction. Without their help we would have been unable to accept the facility or maintain the research being conducted there. We look forward to working with the Trust in the future on desert tortoise recovery and our many other mutual interests,” said Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois.

A formal dedication of this facility is planned by the NPS in early September.

February 20, 2014

Jurassic age dinosaur tracks stolen from Moab trail

By Natalie Crofts

MOAB — A 190-million-year-old dinosaur track was reported stolen from a trail in Moab Wednesday, officials said.

The track was lifted out of Jurassic age Navajo sandstone in the Hell's Revenge area, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The missing track was noticed by a tour guide for Moab Cowboy Country Outdoor Adventures, who reported it to the BLM.

“You can’t assign a monetary value to it — they are priceless, they are one-of-a-kind, individual tracks that a dinosaur made 190-million years ago and they can’t be replaced once they’re gone and stolen," said BLM district paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster. "(Thieves) steal them scientifically from context, they steal them from the public from enjoying them and they steal them from all of us Americans who own them as federal property.”

Hunt-Foster said the incident is still under investigation, but that it appears the track block was lifted out. There are several other track blocks in the area.

The tracks were located next to a popular off-roading area, she said.

“A lot of the guides will pull off and show people the dinosaur tracks that are there on the cliff side so all of the public can enjoy them and unfortunately one of these guides who is very familiar with the tracks recognized that one of the blocks had been stolen and reported it to us," Hunt-Foster said.

Moab Cowboy Country Outdoor Adventures owner Kent Green was on a tour on the Hell's Revenge trail in the Sand Flats recreation area with a group from California when he noticed the dinosaur track was missing.

"I was showing them the tracks and explaining a little bit about them and walked over to show them this beautiful, definite track that I always liked to show and I discovered it was gone," he said. "It was just gone — I couldn't believe my eyes when I'd seen that."

The person responsible for the theft could face fines and a potential jail sentence of up to five years, Hunt-Foster said. A statement on the BLM website for Hell's Revenge asks for visitors to treat the tracks with care and says that disturbing the tracks or pouring anything in them to make a mold is forbidden.

"What a lot of people don’t understand or know is that these fossils are protected under federal law and so there are civil and criminal penalties associated with this theft," Hunt-Foster said.

She said the track block would have been difficult to carry because of its weight, but that the the spot is easy to access because it is on a designated jeep trail.

“People have often, unfortunately, been even parking on top of these things for years," Hunt-Foster said. "We’re in progress of trying to put up a barrier to keep people from parking on these tracks and to be more aware of them. The tracks are actually right on a cliff edge.”

Green takes people on tours of the area every day and said he was shocked and devastated when he discovered the track was gone. The last time he saw the track was at about 6:30 p.m. on Monday and when he returned Tuesday at around 3:30 p.m. it was no longer there.

"The feeling that I had inside was just like somebody had not only taken something from everybody else, but it almost felt like somebody had shot my uncle, believe it or not," he said. "It is really just a good attraction to be able to show folks who visit our area and the kids absolutely love them."

He said there is a fracture in the rock where the track used to be and some surrounding rocks look like they were broken up when someone tried to pry the rock up. The whole piece the dinosaur track was on was taken.

The BLM does not currently have any leads in the investigation. Anyone who would like to report suspicious activity can call 435-259-2100.

Opposition Mounts to Solar Project On Mojave Preserve Boundary

View of the North Array site's currently undisturbed desert tortoise habitat from the Soda Mountains. (Courtesy Basin and Range Watch)

by Chris Clarke

If discussion at a recent gathering of activists is any indication, a nearly 4,200-acre solar project for a valley adjoining National Park land in California's Mojave desert will encounter near-unanimous opposition from green groups.

The Soda Mountain Solar project, described earlier here at ReWire, would place 358 megawatts' worth of solar panels on 2,557 acres on either side of Interstate 15 between Baker and Barstow. The project would also include about 1,600 acres of support infrastructure, including roads, operations buildings, and an electrical substation. Depending on the plant's configuration, the project's East Array would be built as little as a quarter mile from the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre National Park Service unit, near Zzyzx, a former resort turned desert research center.

That perceived encroachment on the Preserve, along with the project's potential effects on desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife, prompted strong statements of opposition at a Sierra Club-sponsored meeting of California and Nevada desert activists over the weekend in Shoshone, a nearby community outside Death Valley National Park.

"This is just a bad project," David Lamfrom, California Desert Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the gathering on Saturday. "It's a dinosaur. There's no justification for building a solar power plant in this spot, where it will infringe on the Preserve and damage some of the best bighorn habitat in the Mojave."

Lamfrom's charges came during a presentation on the project at the February 15-16 meeting of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, which draws desert activists from a wide range of organizations and locales four times a year to discuss topics ranging from wilderness to landfill proposals.

Lamfrom told the group that activists had thought they'd killed a previous version of the project, proposed by the New York-based firm Caithness Energy. Facing opposition based on proximity to the Preserve and the project's likely effects on desert wildlife, as well as problems with selling the project's power based on insufficient transmission through the area, Caithness quietly backed off on Soda Mountain Solar. "But then Caithness sold the project to Bechtel," said Lamfrom. "Bechtel has deep enough pockets to risk pushing it through, so it came back to life."

The project would also abut the Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area (WSA), a haven for bighorn sheep. The corridor between Zzyzx in the Preserve and that WSA has long been one of the best places in the area for watching bighorn, who have so far escaped the outbreaks of pneumonia that have killed off sheep elsewhere in the Preserve. And according to comments submitted by Mojave National Preserve superintendent Stephanie Dubois during the project's scoping phase, a series of underpasses in the area serve as relatively safe and efficient wildlife crossings for the sheep. The project would block those crossings.

Other wildlife in the area include the federally Threatened desert tortoise, the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, burrowing owls, desert kit foxes, and golden eagles. Water use by the project for cleaning solar panels raises another concern: groundwater pumping will likely lower the local water table. If that pumping cut flows to springs in the Preserve, that might cause big problems for the federally Endangered Mohave tui chub, whose last wild population lives in a small spring downhill from the project site. (A few additional populations of the fish have been planted in other bodies of in the desert.)

Activists are gearing up to oppose the project with a unanimity not generally seen in opposition to other desert solar projects. Some green groups have been reluctant to stand in full-bore opposition to other desert solar proposals given the seriousness of the climate crisis the projects are intended to address. But the problems with the Bechtel project would seem to undo any benefit the solar energy might offer. Aside from the water and wildlife concerns, it may be that the project would be built to no actual end. No utility has agreed to buy a single megawatt of the 358 the project would generate at peak production.

Though two transmission lines cross the Soda Mountain Solar site, one -- the Eldorado-Kramer line operated by the California Independent System Operator (CaISO) -- is at capacity already, and would need expensive upgrades to carry more power. The other line, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Marketplace-Adelanto line, supplies power to municipal utilities in Southern California. None of those utilities have expressed public interest in buying Soda Mountain's power.

Given what they cast as the likely lack of compensating benefits from the project, groups ranging from NPCA to the national office of the Sierra Club have already gone on record as opposing the plant.

A public comment period on the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) draws to a close March 3. Many in attendance at the meeting in Shoshone said they were awaiting comments by the National Park Service on the Draft EIS, which are rumored to be blunt. With the close of comments on the Draft EIS, the Bureau of Land Management will begin drafting the project's Final EIS, which is likely to take several months.

One thing the BLM will need to address in that new document is a recent San Bernardino County ordinance that would seem to make the Soda Mountain project illegal as designed, by restricting solar development within two miles of National Parks in unincorporated sections of the county.

Some independent activists in attendance at Shoshone aren't waiting to go through the usual EIS process, and have crafted a Whitehouse.gov petition urging President Obama to make a decision up front denying Bechtel the right of way the project will need in order to go forward.

Barring that petition's success, the BLM's approach to the project in crafting the final EIS will likely ride on what the National Park Service's comments on the draft EIS say. The scoping comments mentioned above focused on impacts to bighorn as well as groundwater depletion and the site's top-notch desert tortoise habitat.

February 19, 2014

Pneumonia outbreak now called ‘worst case scenario’ for bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep are shown on the trail to Icebox Canyon in Red Rock Conservation Area. In what wildlife biologists are calling “a worst-case scenario,” bighorn sheep in four Southern Nevada mountain ranges have now tested positive for bacteria that causes deadly pneumonia, including one herd infected with two different strains. (Anton/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


In what wildlife biologists are calling “a worst-case scenario,” bighorn sheep in four Southern Nevada mountain ranges have now tested positive for bacteria that causes deadly pneumonia, including one herd infected with two different strains.

Nevada Department of Wildlife officials announced Wednesday that a bacterial pneumonia outbreak first discovered in the River Mountains between Henderson and Boulder City in August appears to have spread to sheep in the Eldorado, McCullough and Spring Mountains.

The herd in the Spring Mountains also has tested positive for a second strain of bacteria that may have spread north from an outbreak that swept through Mojave National Preserve in California.

Bighorn have no natural resistance to pneumonia and tend to die at a high rate. Those that survive become carriers, infecting and eventually killing newborn lambs in a cycle that can diminish a herd for up to a decade, if not kill it off altogether.

The widening outbreak also seriously complicates efforts to restore bighorn to its historic ranges throughout Nevada and the West, since many of the animals being relocated come from Southern Nevada.

“This is a worst case scenario,” wildlife biologist Pat Cummings said in a written statement. “Given the geography between the Spring Mountains and the outbreak area in California, we were concerned this might be possible, especially with the ability of bighorn rams to cover vast amounts of territory in their wanderings. There is no way to limit these animals’ movements.”

There also is no way to treat sick animals or vaccinate healthy ones against the illness, which does not pose a risk to humans.

“We’re almost at the mercy of Mother Nature,” said department of wildlife spokesman Doug Nielsen.

When the outbreak in California was discovered last spring, wildlife managers briefly considered — then decided against — the wholesale slaughter of bighorn sheep to stop the disease from spreading across the entire 1.6 million acre preserve and beyond.

Since then, more diseased bighorns were found in the preserve’s Marble range.

Wildlife officials don’t know for sure how many sheep have died of pneumonia or how many more will die, but population numbers appear to be down in the affected areas on both sides of the border, said Peregrine Wolff, the state wildlife veterinarian for Nevada.

The bacteria that causes pneumonia can linger in bighorn sheep herds and continue to kill off lambs “for years and years and years,” Wolff said. “Our concern is will these numbers ever recover or will they just continue to be depressed?”

Wildlife officials also worry the outbreak could jump to other herds, including one in the Muddy Mountains near Moapa Valley that ranks as the largest herd in Southern Nevada.

Wolff said “nothing really” can be done to stop it. Trying to kill sick animals or eliminate an infected herd to halt the spread of bacteria is “far from an exact science,” she said.

“We’re not going to go in and lay down every sheep. We’re not going to nuke them.”

Instead, wildlife officials are asking the public’s help to chart the course of the outbreak. Anyone who spots sick or dead bighorn sheep is asked to record it, preferably with a picture and GPS coordinates.

Reports can be made by calling the department of wildlife’s Las Vegas office at 702-486-5127 or sending an email to pcummings@ndow.org.

Wolff suspects the outbreak in Southern Nevada has been underway since 2012.

The latest discovery of infected animals came about through testing conducted by the Southern Nevada Bighorn Sheep Disease Investigation Project, a partnership involving the Department of Wildlife and two conservation and hunting organizations, the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn and the Wild Sheep Foundation.

In November, the partnership collected samples from a total of 33 bighorn, 10 each in the Eldorado and McCullough ranges and 13 in the Spring Mountains. In all but two cases, the sheep were tested and released unharmed.

Since September, wildlife officials have caught, killed and dissected one sick lamb from the Eldorado Mountains and one sick lamb from the River Mountains, both of which showed signs of pneumonia.

Bighorn sheep once roamed nearly every mountain range in Nevada, but unregulated hunting, habitat loss and disease spread by domestic livestock reduced the population to about 1,200 animals in a handful of areas, none of them north of Ely or west of Hawthorne.

Since 1967, wildlife officials have restored Nevada’s official animal to more than 60 mountain ranges and helped boost their total population to more than 11,000 adults, more than any other state. The River Mountains herd played a key role in the recovery, supplying more than a quarter of the nearly 2,900 sheep captured and relocated over the past 45 years. “That was our jewel,” Nielsen said.

Not anymore. Officials have put a stop to the relocation of bighorns from any herd showing signs of the bacteria. Wolff said the infected herds could be off limits for years, if not forever.

Government approves two more big solar projects for the East Mojave

Stateline and Silverstate South projects near existing BrightSource plant.
By David Danelski
Riverside Press-Enterprise

The area around Primm, Nevada, is about to become even more of a hotspot for solar energy.

The Obama administration has endorsed two big projects near the existing Ivanpah solar plant that went online in January. One of the new developments would be in San Bernardino County; the other would be east of Interstate 15 in Nevada, near a smaller plant in operation since 2012.

The approvals, announced Wednesday, Feb. 19, renewed concerns among some environmentalists about the potential loss of wildlife habitat, in view of the dozens of desert tortoises displaced by the Ivanpah project and continuing concern about bird deaths at solar plants.

The Stateline and Silverstate South projects are proposed by Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Inc. If both are built, solar energy plants would cover about 13 square miles of public land in the Ivanpah Valley.

Jim Hughes, First Solar chief executive officer, said in a statement that the approval followed five years of collaboration with federal, state and local agencies and other groups.

The two new projects are expected to supply 550 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power about 170,000 homes, using photovoltaic panel technology.

“This milestone validates the environmentally responsible development of utility-scale photovoltaic projects on federally managed lands to achieve federal and state carbon-reduction objectives,” Hughes’ statement said.

The approvals opened old wounds with environmental groups that had opposed the 5.6-square-mile Ivanpah plant.

The developments destroy habitat of the desert tortoise and other wildlife and compromise views from nearby Mojave National Preserve, part of the national parks system, said David Lamfrom, the California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Tortoises are protected as a species threatened with extinction.

The solar projects “disconnect two of the most important wildlife linkages in the Mojave,” Lamfrom said. “A swarm of development has amassed upon the Ivanpah Valley, and ill-sited planning continues near our national parks and precious desert landscapes such as the Soda Mountains, Silurian Valley and the Chuckwalla Valley.”

Two other groups — Western Watersheds Project and Defenders of Wildlife — also expressed dismay over the approvals, the Associated Press reported.

A Department of Interior statement said that both projects were reduced in size to lessen damage to desert tortoise habitat. The developer also must protect about 7,200 acres of desert tortoise habitat elsewhere and provide more than $7 million for desert tortoise study and protection efforts.

The Stateline project will cover 2.6 square miles on the California side of the border, near to the existing Ivanpah plant, which uses mirrors to focus energy onto boilers mounted on three, 460-foot towers to make electricity.

Silverstate South will use 3.8 square miles just east of Primm, on the Nevada side of the border and next to the existing Silverstate North, which occupies 600 acres.

February 16, 2014

Some fear federal control of Utah water

Starvation Dam overview. (Central Utah Water Conservancy District)
Caleb Warnock
Provo Daily Herald

State Senator Margaret Dayton is warning that Utah is gearing up to stave off yet another attempt to federalize one of the state's major water supplies.

An old agreement controlling which states get water from the Colorado River "is threatened with federal control again because of increasing demand and not increasing availability," she said. "Some western states are banding together to protect water from federal control. You are going to hear more about this in upcoming months."

Called the Colorado River Compact, the agreement is crucial to Utah's future, she said, and the federal government is now pushing to take control. She promised the state will fight all such efforts. The compact is a 92-year-old agreement between states, created specifically to prevent federal control of the Colorado River, which could effectively hand water to California.

Utah's future depends on the Colorado River Compact.

"It is terribly important," said Chris Finlinson of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, a federal agency which develops some of the CRC water for Utah. "That is what has prevented the Wasatch Front from seeing severe water restrictions. It is like the birthright for the state, and it is terribly important that we maintain and protect it."

But drought and a growing population have created immense pressure, said Finlinson. Should the federal government take over the decision of how to allocate the water, "nothing good would come of that for Utah."


Because Utah uses less of its allocation than other states. Utah will need this water in the future, but uses only 75 percent of its legal allocation today. But other states are desperate for more water right now.

"Everyone uses more than Utah," Finlinson said.

Many states use all of their CRC allocation, including Nevada and Arizona. However, most thirsty is California, which not only has been using its whole allocation, but extra too, because of negotiations with other states.

But even getting a full allocation may now be impossible, thanks to a drought that many people think is not a drought at all, but the end of an extended wet period.

Historically, the Colorado River hasn't had this much water to give, and the dry "normal" may be returning.

These parched states would love to get a permanent portion of Utah's allocation, if they could wrangle it, Finlinson said.

The compact divides water in the Colorado River among Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada. A 1944 addendum also gives Mexico a share of the water.

The federal government has made periodic attempts to take control of the compact as a way of settling perennial disagreements and lawsuits, and is now moving to do so again, said Dayton. But the agreement is between states, without federal interference, and must remain that way, she said.

The fate of the Colorado River's precious water has caught national attention in 2014. An article in the New York Times published in January said that water is "being sapped by 14 years of drought nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years." Reservoirs are half-empty, "but many experts believe the current drought is only the harbinger of a new, drier era in which the Colorado's flow will be substantially and permanently diminished. Faced with the shortage, federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream."

According to a National Geographic article published in January, "drought has gripped the Colorado River basin for 14 years, and reservoir operation rules that address dwindling water supply are being triggered. For the first time since the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, this year's water delivery from the Upper Basin states (CO, NM, UT, and WY) to the Lower Basin states (AZ, CA, and NV) will be reduced."

While there are always comments about the potential for the compact to fall apart, Finlinson said that she knows of no serious imminent threat that would force the Colorado River Compact to be re-opened for negotiation. Senator Dayton, working in the newly-opened legislative session, did not respond to interview requests.

Many residents may not realize that all water in Utah is owned by the state, Dayton said.

"You can have a right to use it, but not own it," she said.

By the early 1920s, Utah and neighboring states "feared California would establish priority rights to Colorado River water," according to the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center website.

"That California contributed the least amount of runoff to the river added gall to the situation. Concern turned to alarm" when a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court ruling paved the way for California to "establish priority use of Colorado River water to the extreme disadvantage of slower growing states in the upper basin."

Utah and its neighbors joined together over tense negotiations to create the compact as a way to protect states' rights. The states were "very wary, some even say paranoid, about federal involvement in state affairs and feared if the states did not get their houses in order the federal government would take charge, to the disadvantage of the states," according to the website.

February 13, 2014

Federal rules leave drought-stricken California high and dry

Endangered Species Act provides water for fish but not humans

By Damien Schiff and Julie MacDonald
Washington Times

"In this present crisis, government isn’t the solution. Government is the problem.”
With that famous phrase at his 1981 inauguration, Ronald Reagan called out the federal government for over-regulation that helped drive the economy into a ditch. For Californians today experiencing a severe drought, Reagan’s words should once again hit home.

Of course, the weather is the prime culprit. Until a desperately needed storm moved in this past weekend, it had been a dry winter, — and the storm hasn’t compensated for the months without rainfall.

However, the damaging effects have been magnified by destructive regulations. Federal policies under the Endangered Species Act are making things worse, not better.

The scale of “this present crisis” — what Gov. Gov. Jerry Brown warned could be a “mega-drought” — can be seen in some compelling numbers. Seventeen rural communities were put on a watch list for severe water shortages, and for the first time, water agencies serving 25 million people were told they won’t receive any of their allocation from state-run reservoirs.

This past week’s rainfall will help, “but we need more,” as a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services told the San Jose Mercury News.

It’s not surprising that President Obama has scheduled a visit to Fresno this Friday for a firsthand evaluation.

While rationing has been promoted in many communities, and vast areas of farmland have been removed from production, people ought to be asking: Where is the water that should have been saved for a non-rainy day?

Answer: Millions of gallons were diverted from human use because of federal regulations intended to help a tiny fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the delta smelt.

The smelt is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the feds claim it benefits if less water is available to be pumped south to the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego.

For example, from December 2012 to February 2013 alone, more than 800,000 acre-feet of water that could have been conserved behind dams was allowed to flow to the sea. That water could have provided for the needs of 800,000 families. It could have irrigated 200,000 acres of cropland.

This flushing of torrents of water to the sea is a new practice in California, threatening to make not just the current drought, but every future one, far more painful than necessary.

The trigger for this destructive new policy was the feds’ 2008 “biological opinion” for the smelt, which essentially said people’s needs for water may not even be considered.

Result: The state’s water “treasuries” were raided.

In the era before the Endangered Species Act was controlling California’s water supply, management formulas were calibrated to ensure water for dry times. Like money in the bank, water was husbanded, and deliveries to users were based on fall and winter rainfall and storage from previous years.

Even in what the media calls “the great drought of 1977,” San Joaquin Valley farmers still received a water allocation of 25 percent. Why? Because reservoirs had been used for one of their intended purposes — to capture water that might be needed in the future.

Now, after one dry year, 2012-13, and the current year that’s shaping up as critical unless we get many more storms like this past weekend’s, water users have been told to brace for no deliveries — thanks in significant part to federal biologists pulling the plug on California’s traditional water-storage practices.

The smelt regulations have also been imposing significant taxes on urban users. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which gets much of its water from the delta, raised charges on its scores of member cities and water districts by 20 percent after the smelt biological opinion was first issued.

“The [feds’] environmental decision has impacted the flow of water to Southern California by approximately 35 percent,” a water manager in the Orange County city of Garden Grove told the Orange County Register in 2009. Remember — that was five years before the current drought.

Ironically, while the harms for cities and farms are real, the benefits for the smelt are speculative — as the “biological opinion” concedes. Numerous factors have contributed to the species’ long decline, and holding back water from people has not reversed it.

Let’s not water down the truth: California has suffered not just from a lack of rain, but also from a drought of common sense among federal bureaucrats. Congress is also on the hook for giving Endangered Species Act officials too much leeway, allowing the ignorant or ideological to push destructive agendas.

In a wrongheaded environmental strategy that harms humans without helping the environment, they opened California’s rainy-day reservoirs and deliberately let the precious contents spill away.

Damien Schiff is a principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. Julie MacDonald is a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the U.S. Interior Department.

A Huge Solar Plant Opens, Facing Doubts About Its Future

A field of mirrors at the Ivanpah power plant in California. The plant took almost four years to complete and stretches over more than five square miles of the Mojave Desert. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

New York Times

NIPTON, Calif. — The Ivanpah solar power plant stretches over more than five square miles of the Mojave Desert. Almost 350,000 mirrors the size of garage doors tilt toward the sun with an ability to energize 140,000 homes. The plant, which took almost four years and thousands of workers assembling millions of parts to complete, officially opened on Thursday, the first electric generator of its kind.

It could also be the last.

Since the project began, the price of rival technologies has plummeted, incentives have begun to disappear and the appetite among investors for mammoth solar farms has waned. Although several large, new projects have been coming online in recent months — many in the last quarter of 2013 — experts say fewer are beginning construction and not all of those under development will be completed.

“I don’t think that we’re going to see large-scale solar thermal plants popping up, five at a time, every year in the U.S. in the long-term — it’s just not the way it’s going to work,” said Matthew Feinstein, a senior analyst at Lux Research.

“Companies that are supplying these systems have questionable futures. There’s other prospects for renewables and for solar that look a lot better than this particular solution,” he said, including rooftop solar systems that are being installed one by one on businesses and homes.

Executives involved in Ivanpah — a venture among BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google — say that once the facility proves that the technology can work, it will become easier to finance others, especially as repetition brings the cost down.

When BrightSource and other companies asked NRG to invest in a second thermal project, said David Crane, NRG’s chief, he responded: “We’ve got $300 million invested in Ivanpah — let me see that work for a few months and then we’ll decide whether we want to be involved in more.”

At the same time, BrightSource has shifted its focus, pursuing markets overseas like China, South Africa and the Middle East and designing smaller plants involving one tower rather than Ivanpah’s three.

Addressing a tent full of officials and industry executives, including those from the construction giant Bechtel, the engineering and building contractor on the project, David Ramm, BrightSource’s chief executive, acknowledged the risk at the dedication ceremony about 50 miles south of Las Vegas.

“We will have failed as a company if the last project we built was at Ivanpah,” he said. “The challenge for BrightSource going forward, and hopefully some of the partners who worked with us here, is to enable this technology commercially and in multiple locations around the world.”

It is a daunting challenge. The Ivanpah project was conceived in the early days of the Obama administration, when dreams of creating a thriving renewable energy industry were backed by the federal government’s financial support. Ivanpah received a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee, without which it would not have gone forward, the developers said.

Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, toured a tower and said the plant was an example of how the loan program — which set off a political maelstrom after the prominent failure of one of its borrowers, the solar panel maker Solyndra — was supposed to work.

“Our job is to kick-start the demonstration of these different technologies to have them available to the private sector,” he told reporters, standing on a tower platform, soaring above a dry lake bed, two huge boilers atop the other towers glowing in the distance like something out of a clean-tech version of “The Lord of the Rings.”

But he acknowledged that solar thermal technology only worked at large scale and in certain locations.

The loan program that financed Ivanpah has now ended, and the underlying economics shifted during its construction as the price of conventional solar panels dropped. It’s a familiar story in government-sponsored energy projects, going back to efforts to make gasoline from coal in the late 1970s, which were doomed by the retreat of oil prices.

And as federal support has waned, so, too, has demand for similar large-scale projects. What’s more, an important tax credit worth 30 percent of the cost is set to decline after 2016.

“There have been some big changes in both the market and policy dynamics since we made our investment that, I think, on balance, are not terribly positive for BrightSource,” said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford. Mr. Reicher oversaw an early investment in BrightSource in 2008 when he was director of climate and energy initiatives at Google. (The company went on to invest $168 million in Ivanpah.)

“Clean tech investing is way off,” he said.

Still, experts say, BrightSource’s solar thermal technology — which focuses sunlight from mirrors onto 2,200-ton boilers 339 feet in the air to make steam that drives turbines to produce electricity — may have an advantage over conventional panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The increase in renewable sources of energy, which produce intermittently, coming into the grid, has also increased the need for other services crucial to reliable operation, services that solar thermal plants could provide. Those needs include the ability to start and stop quickly, at any season or hour, when human operators give the order.

Utilities pay power plants for some of those jobs, and some conventional generating stations earn a significant income, in addition to what they receive for producing energy. Around the country, coal plants — of which there are fewer and fewer — were well suited to that work. And government regulators can simply require utilities operating on the grid to show that they have the ability to accomplish some of those jobs, which industry executives call “ancillary services.”

“In the future, there will be money to be made from technologies and systems that contribute to integrating and balancing renewables on the grid,” said Samuel Thernstrom, the executive director of the Energy Innovation Reform Project, a nonprofit in Washington that evaluates electricity policy. “That’s going to be an increasing issue as the percentage of renewables on the grid increases.”

Ivanpah could stabilize voltage but has little storage, though it does have natural gas backup. At the dedication, Mr. Ramm said that in the future, BrightSource’s boilers would use molten salt to store the heat longer. Last year, Arizona Public Service opened a solar thermal plant, Solana, that lets customers brew their morning coffee with the previous afternoon’s sunshine.

At the California Independent System Operator, the company that manages the grid on a moment-to-moment basis, Stephen Berberich, the president and chief executive, said that “on an apples-to-apples basis, it is more expensive than photovoltaic, but it has a heck of a lot more capabilities than photovoltaic does.”

Another expert, Ron Binz, an energy consultant based in Denver and the former chairman of the Colorado public service commission, said that storage would indeed be needed as intermittent renewables grew. But solar thermal plants were not the only way to meet that need, he said, and a competition would follow. “You can’t look at any element of this without looking at all the others,” he said.

As for the federal loan guarantee program, the government has already changed its approach, looking to emphasize a range of cleaner technologies, especially in fossil fuels and nuclear power.

To that end, Mr. Moniz encouraged the crowd of industry executives to pursue new projects that would qualify for the loan guarantees. “Bring them on,” he said. “We’re ready.”

February 6, 2014

Arizona drought forcing ranchers to sell cattle

Clay Parsons with Marana Stockyards says, "We can't feed our cattle year round hay. It's too expensive. We have to sell the cows."

by John Patrick

TUCSON - Ongoing drought conditions are forcing cattle ranchers to sell off part of their herds early.

Nearly one million head of cattle in Arizona makes for big business, especially in Pinal County, one of the top counties in the U.S. when it comes to cattle sales.

A normal cattle auction in February at the Marana Stockyards sells off around 500 head of cattle, but due to drought conditions they've seen nearly double that number.

Ruben Rivera, a cattle rancher from Globe, Arizona, was one of the many in town Thursday to unload cattle to be auctioned off. He says the lack of water on his land is making it hard to keep his herd healthy.

"I think it's going to become a problem not only for us but for everyone up there. Everyone is running dry right now," explains Rivera.

As drought conditions drag on the natural pasture that cattlemen depend on is unavailable forcing them to supplement with expensive feed. Clay Parsons with Marana Stockyards says this is one of the main reasons he has seen an increase in numbers at his auctions.

Parsons says, "We can't feed our cattle year round hay. It's too expensive and too cost prohibitive. We have to sell the cows."

According to Parsons, Central Arizona ranchers are selling off about 20% of their herds, but if it doesn't rain soon they will be forced to sell even more.

"We're preparing to have to sell off within the next 60 days. So right now we're looking at a 60 day window. Normally it rains at the golf tournament and the rodeo so we're praying for that," says Parsons.

The nation's cattle population is at a 61 year low so the billion dollar industry is preparing for the long haul when it comes to the drought.

"The drought in Arizona is not only drastic for us now but the future. When you sell of your cow herd you can't just rebuild it in one year," explains Parsons.

It can take years for the animals to breed and grow so in the meantime rancher's trim costs and hope conditions improve.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture the price of choice-graded beef has hit an all-time high but Parsons says if the drought persists the market price of beef may rise another 20%.

February 5, 2014

A roaring triumph for public access

Fabio Manno's buggy runs the course of the 4 Wheel Parts Time Trials on Tuesday, February 4, 2014. King of the Hammers event, an off-road race that combines desert racing and rock crawling on Means Dry Lake at Johnson Valley. A last-minute compromise last year saved this event after the military pushed to take this land for training. (KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Riverside Press-Enterprise

JOHNSON VALLEY -- They crawled up almost-vertical boulder piles. They floored it across the flats. Some of them flipped, and at least one rolled and bounced across the desert floor before settling in a burst of flames.

They are competitors in King of the Hammers 2014, an extreme off-road race in the San Bernardino County desert in which rugged terrain is the worthiest adversary. But this year’s event in Johnson Valley is much more than a week-long contest of machines, drivers and nerves — it is a triumph for public access.

More than four years ago, the world’s most formidable force — the U.S. military — announced plans to take over this off-roading mecca as part of a 424,000-acre expansion of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

The same remote valleys and peaks that make for a challenging race course are a perfect venue for live-fire training exercises for tank battalions, the Marines said.

Many figured the base expansion was a foregone conclusion to be made in the interest of national security. And it would be tough luck for some 200,000 people who hauled their motorcycles, jeeps and four-wheelers each year to Johnson Valley, a designated off-roading area southeast of Barstow and north of the San Bernardino Mountains.

But the off-roaders rallied in force. They signed petitions, attended public meetings, submitted written comments and gained support from elected officials. Environmentalists also wanted the off-road area to stay open, so fewer off-roaders would be tempted to disturb sensitive wildlife habitat elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.

The Department of Defense agreed to a compromise.

Under a law approved by Congress in late December, 99,870 acres will remain part of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, open to the public and under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Marines can use about 56,000 acres of the valley for training twice a year, for a total of 60 days.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, the victory meant that 7,000 people could be there to witness qualifying rounds for the 100-mile-plus King of the Hammers. Organizers expected the crowds to swell beyond 40,000 for the final race on Friday.

VIDEO: Car crashes, flips at King of the Hammers

“It’s just great,” said John Miller, 62, of Running Springs, standing at his dusty campsite with the race roaring in the background. “I am not against the military, but there is a lot of land where they can do their stuff.”

“We’re just getting ready to head up there and watch,” he added. “We have one, two, three generations here,” he added, pointing to himself, his son, Trevor, 38, and his grandson, John, 11, who sat on a 65cc Kawasaki mini-motorcycle.

Trevor Miller said he and his son get to Johnson Valley at least two or three times a year. “It’s always families out here,” he said.

A short ride away, Raul Vega, 33, of Orange, sipped beer from a can as he watched one driver after another attempt to climb a rock-face peak dubbed “The Waterfall.”

“We are happy to see it stay here,” Vega said of the Hammers event. “I took my vacation time to be here. This is one thing I plan for all year.”

His friend Kurtis Magargee, 22, of Yorba Linda, added that participants take care to leave the valley as they found it. Many will spend Saturday, the day after the races, picking up cans and trash. Race organizers have shovel-equipped vehicles ready to scoop up motor oil if it should spill, he added.

Magargee and hundreds of other spectators cheered as one driver attempted to power up The Waterfall, only to slowly roll upside down. It took two vehicles with winches to right the buggy so the trials could resume.

Racer Kevin Sacalas and his co-pilot, Tim Carlson, both of Riverside, had one of the more spectacular crashes. After bumping down a steep hill, they were picking up speed across the flats when their buggy flew out of control and flipped end over end five times before landing in a brief spout of fire. Sacalas wasn’t hurt, and Carlson had only scratches, according to Sacalas’ brother, Robert.

The vehicle, the “Big Ugly,” was a total loss, Robert Sacalas said.

Racers can spend as much as $250,000 to build one of the specialized machines from the ground up, explained driver Crystal Crowder, of Ridgefield, Wash., who was watching this year because her rig needs work.

Just being there was a big win, she said.

“Public land should stay public,” she said. “And this ultimate off-road race is the best in the United States.”

OFF ROADING: Pact mostly preserves Johnson Valley for recreational use

February 4, 2014

Iconic Mojave Joshua trees in race against extinction

Researcher Chris Smith checks blooms to see if field assistant Candace Fallon will be able to introduce Yucca moths to blooms on Joshua trees in the Mojave desert during research on Apr. 07, 2011. The iconic plant of the Mojave Desert also provides a perfect example of what scientists call coevolution. The Joshua Tree and the Yucca moth have developed together and now they depend on each other for reproduction. (JESSICA EBELHAR/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL)


A century from now, the Mojave Desert’s iconic plant could be pushing its way into new territory or teetering on the brink of extinction.

This spring, a pair of researchers will go looking for clues to the Joshua tree’s fate in a lonesome valley 140 miles north of Las Vegas. And they’re inviting interested “citizen scientists” to join them in their search.

Henderson-based ecologist Todd Esque, from the U.S. Geological Survey, and evolutionary biologist Chris Smith, from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., are offering a four-day course in March called “The Race North: Population Ecology of Joshua Trees In an Era of Climate Change.”

The class will unfold in Tikaboo Valley, near the Lincoln County town of Rachel, where Smith said Joshua trees seem to be “experiencing something of a population boom” at the northern limit of their current range, possibly in response to increasingly warmer, drier conditions to the south.

Such research matters, Esque said, because it could help scientists predict how much of a challenge climate change will pose for Joshua trees and for people. “We’re all in this together,” he said.

“Any time these large climatic events occur, some things blink out and some things survive and create new species,” he said. “If Joshua trees can respond quickly enough and spread their seeds far enough with each jump, they will continue to thrive out there.”

“It’s a population on the move as far as I’m concerned.”

Some computer models predict the Joshua tree could disappear from much of the Mojave Desert, as average temperatures rise and droughts grow longer and more frequent.

Smith said scientists have found evidence that the trees are already fading from parts of Joshua Tree National Park at the southern end of its range.

Tikaboo Valley serves as an ideal “natural laboratory” for studying the species because that’s where the two main varieties of Joshua tree — one from the east, the other from the west — come together and mix.

“It is possible to do a side-by-side comparison of which of the two plants are likely to win ‘The Race North,’ and how the reliance on specialized pollinators might limit their capacity to escape changing climate,” Smith said in an email.

This is his area of expertise. Smith has spent the past decade studying the highly specialized evolutionary bond between the Joshua tree and the tiny moth that pollinates it.

Each spring, yucca moths emerge from the ground to mate and lay eggs in the flowers of Joshua trees in Nevada, California and Arizona. But unlike bees and other insects that inadvertently spread pollen from flower to flower, these moths appear to deliberately pollinate Joshua trees so that the plants will produce seeds that eventually will feed the moth’s caterpillars when they hatch.

Simply put, the Joshua tree would not exist without the plain-looking moth about the length of a pencil eraser, and the moth would not exist without the tree.

Smith is studying how natural selection is involved in shaping this tight relationship between plant and insect — and whether their bond can live through climate change and the tree’s own race for survival. Last year, he received a prestigious, $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue his research for the next five years at least.

For his part, Esque has spent 10 years trying to produce the first comprehensive understanding of the tree’s life history. Along the way, he has amassed one of the most complete sets of data about where the trees occur and co-authored a study showing that only the largest, oldest Joshuas tend to survive wildfires — a finding Smith called “worrying” since fires have become more common in the Mojave Desert.

This marks the second time Smith has hosted a citizen science expedition to the Tikaboo Valley. He offered a similar class last year, minus the emphasis on climate change.

Registration is now underway for the course, which is being sponsored by the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park in California. It takes place March 21-24 and costs $260, not including food, lodging, supplies and transportation to and from Tikaboo Valley.

Esque said the class will begin with a lecture on “why are we here and why does it matter.” Then the group will divide up into teams and walk the valley with GPS units, measuring trees and collecting genetic samples.

On the final day, Smith, Esque and their students will discuss what the collected data might tell them about the Joshua tree’s march north through Nevada and whether the species can survive long enough to get wherever it’s going.

February 1, 2014

Renewable energy policy enters final act


Soda Mountains Solar project map. (BLM)
Written by David Lamfrom
Desert Sun

The renewable energy policy world is filled with government agencies, corporations, conservation groups — and a tyranny of intimidating acronyms. The California desert continues to serve as a petri dish for renewable energy development, which has produced both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde results, thus far. The stage is set for the next phase in renewable energy planning, and we can’t afford another failed experiment.

The goal of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), shaped by the state of California, the Department of Interior and dozens of important landowners and stakeholders, is to strike balance between protecting species and spaces, while appropriately furthering renewable energy, including solar, wind and geothermal development.

The DRECP builds upon the massive Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, (Solar PEIS), which set policy for six western states including California; created solar zones like Riverside East (the country’s largest); and, smartly, reduced the western federal lands open to solar development from 100 million acres to 20 million acres.

It also clarified where projects should be sited and supported planning to protect diverse and, in some cases, endangered species and resources. It eliminated the proposed Iron Mountain solar zone nearby to Joshua Tree National Park, which would have disconnected critical wildlife corridors between that park and protected mountain ranges north.

The DRECP process will refine the Solar PEIS, with a lens on the California desert. While the DRECP is on a larger scale, it is similar to the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Plan, in its mission to protect critical species and habitats. If approved, the DRECP will be the dominant solar energy guide for at least the next 25-40 years. In short: It’s a big deal that we all need to pay attention to.

At last count, the California desert alone has more than 1 million acres of disturbed lands or previously developed lands that may be more appropriate for solar panels and associated development. Although even on disturbed lands, thoughtful decision-making is still necessary, particularly where species and cultural conflicts lie. Protecting places that neighbor our national parks and other wildlife-rich lands that infuse billions of dollars into our local economies is of utmost importance. We urge Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to take thoughtful action on this landscape-level conservation plan.

A conservation legacy that fosters recreation and tourism has bloomed over the past 20 years in the California desert. Thoughtful planning is crucial to ensuring its longevity. The draft DRECP is expected to be released for public comment in May.

While conversations between the plan authors and many concerned parties including the National Parks Conservation Association is leading to improvements, poorly sited projects that would harm our national parks and negatively impact desert communities that financially rely on them continue to be considered.

An Eagle Crest pumped storage proposal slurps critical water, is a net energy loser and threatens Joshua Tree National Park. Bechtel’s Soda Mountain solar proposal is a quarter-mile from Mojave National Preserve. Iberdrola’s poorly sited wind and solar proposal would sit on the Old Spanish Trail, just south of Death Valley National Park. And First Solar is seeking approval for yet another poorly sited project in the now infamous Ivanpah Valley.

Dramatic negative impacts to desert tortoises and to Mojave National Preserve through projects like Ivanpah Solar gave a black eye to the renewable energy industry. The DRECP must avoid harmful projects that erode public trust and counter the plan’s purpose. Only by doing so can we ensure a future that we can all take pride in.

David Lamfrom is the senior desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Email him at dlamfrom@npca.org

Solar plant powers up, turns on desert show

BrightSource Tower surrounded by mirrors near Ivanpah Dry Lake.
By David Danelski
Orange County Register

Without fanfare, one of the biggest and most controversial solar developments in California has gone online in northeast San Bernardino County, creating a visual spectacle for travelers heading across the Nevada border on Interstate 15.

Meret Uteregges stood at the edge of the Ivanpah Valley early Wednesday afternoon and marveled at the sight below her.

Three arrays of thousands of mirrors blanket more than 5 square miles of the Mojave Desert landscape and focus sunshine on the tops of three towers, each taller than the length of a football field.

The mirror fields and the tower tops, glowing with an intensely bright white light, are proving to be a traffic stopper that dominates the landscape for miles.

“It is like science fiction,” said Uteregges, from Zurich, who stopped on the shoulder of Nipton Road, a few miles south of the solar field, to get a good look. “It is fascinating. I saw it being built a few years ago but didn't know it would be so big.”

The Ivanpah solar energy project was developed by BrightSource Energy Co. – which owns the plants, along with NRG Energy and Google – and now is operated by NRG Solar. It has been operating since the beginning of the year, according to officials with the California Energy Commission.

NRG spokesman Jeff Holland declined to provide details of the startup, saying only that the company in mid-February would publicize its electricity-production debut.

Monthly status reports available on the state Energy Commission's website said that one of the towers went into commercial operation Dec. 30. And a commission spokesman said the other two towers also have been producing power since that date.

The $2.1 billion project is expected to provide enough carbon-free electricity for 140,000 homes through contracts with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric. It was supported with some $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees and has been hailed by President Barack Obama.

Despite the benefits of clean energy, the project drew protests from some environmental and Native American groups. Native Americans said the project disturbed sacred ground in the Ivanpah Valley.

Environmentalists objected because the development consumed 5.6 square miles of desert tortoise habitat, displacing dozens of the reptiles, which have been relocated or are confined to holding pens. Tortoises are listed as a species threatened with extinction.

BrightSource's environmental reviews predicted that about 17 of the reptiles would be displaced. But after construction started in fall 2010, about 125 were captured on the site.

To make up for the lost habitat, BrightSource funded California's acquisition of about 7,200 acres elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.

When operators started testing the towers last year, a new concern emerged: Birds that flew into the heat zones around the towers died from burns. Federal fish and wildlife officials are tracking the bird deaths and taking possession of the carcasses, according to monthly status reports filed with the Energy Commission.

Some passers-by said it makes sense to take advantage of the desert's abundant sunlight.

Mark Tworek of Calgary, Alberta, said he saw the bright solar towers as he crested a hill in Nevada while riding his motorcycle on Nipton Road, southeast of the project.

“It is pretty amazing to see it in operation,” he said, sipping a soda at the Nipton Trading Post.

“With all the sunshine around here, it is a no-brainer.”