March 6, 2014

Silver State South and Stateline Solar are not the kind of wildlife-friendly renewable energy projects we need

As you drive on Interstate Highway 15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and look across the Ivanpah Valley, you can see the small town of Primm, a golf course, some power lines and a massive solar project, the Brightsource Ivanpah project. But, it’s what you can’t see from the highway that makes the Ivanpah Valley so significant—thousands of desert tortoises hunkered down in their burrows, or slowly making their way along washes in search of food or a friend.

Back in November, we wrote about the cumulative impacts of energy development and infrastructure projects on sensitive desert ecosystems in the Mojave. California and Nevada’s Ivanpah Valley is one of the most important areas of suitable habitat in the Mojave desert for the beleaguered and threatened desert tortoise. It has also gradually become a hotbed for solar energy development, so much so that the region’s ability to support wildlife is being compromised. This is especially problematic for tortoises which depend on the valley as a critical link between conservation and recovery areas. Unfortunately, the tortoises’ future here and throughout the Northeastern Recovery Unit (a designated tortoise recovery area which contains the Ivanpah Valley) is in jeopardy.

Desert tortoise, © Beth Jackson/FWS

Planning ahead for solar energy development in the desert Southwest can allow us to develop solar projects in the right places while protecting essential habitat for the Desert tortoise.

Just a little more than two weeks ago, Brightsource “turned on” their Ivanpah Solar Project with great fanfare. This project destroyed more than 3,500 acres – nearly 5 ½ square miles – of desert tortoise habitat. And, while the Brightsource Solar project had significant negative impacts on desert tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley, it seems the worst may be yet to come. Last week the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved two large, utility-scale solar projects that would destroy more than 4,000 more acres of desert tortoise habitat in the valley. Despite Defenders’ recommendations and cautions about the environmental impacts of the Silver State and Stateline Solar projects, the BLM ignored our – and others’ – protests and decided instead to roll the dice on the fate of the tortoise.

The combined Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects are examples of the kind of renewable energy development that does not take wildlife into account, or properly plan to have the least impact possible on imperiled wildlife; they are a body blow to the threatened tortoises and habitat in the region. The Stateline Solar Project is located immediately adjacent to the Brightsource Solar Project, and the Silver State South Solar Project is located just up the highway in Nevada, beside yet another project, the Silver State North Solar Project. When these two projects are added to those that already exist, the result will essentially be an impenetrable wall of development cutting across the heart of the Ivanapah Valley.

Because the Ivanpah Valley is largely isolated from other recovery units in the region, it is critical that tortoise populations in the northern part of the Ivanpah Valley are able to reach those in the southern part, and that landscape-scale habitat linkages connecting to the other recovery units are not jeopardized. The locations of Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects would interrupt these linkages, degrade and fragment habitat, and displace or kill up to 2,115 tortoises. Especially problematic in this case is the fact that these projects are planned in an area known to be particularly vibrant habitat with healthy tortoises. Despite Defenders’ repeated communications to the developer, First Solar, about the impacts of these projects on the tortoise and other wildlife, the developers failed to relocate the projects to lands already degraded or less critical to the animals.

Solar facility, © NREL

Silver State South and Stateline Solar would destroy over 4,000 more acres of habitat critical to the survival of the desert tortoise.

And so, Defenders has now had no choice but to turn to the courts to reject the BLM’s approvals of these projects because they violate the protections given to tortoises under the Endangered Species Act. That is, no project should be approved if it is going to compromise the future of a threatened species.

While these projects most definitely directly impact a species that has been identified as threatened and is dependent on the habitat where they would be built, Silver State South and Stateline’s approval is most troubling for a bigger reason. You see, this isn’t just an issue for the Ivanpah Valley. Developers and agencies need to be conscious of how and where they plan energy projects all across the country. They need to look at renewable energy planning with a landscape-wide lens, understanding that building in the right places and making an effort to minimize environmental impacts from the start are essential.

Defenders of Wildlife supports renewable energy development and believes that we have a real opportunity to develop clean, sustainable sources like solar and wind – but we mustn’t do it at the cost of our treasured lands and wildlife. As our Director of California Programs Kim Delfino said, “we don’t have to choose between protecting imperiled wildlife and encouraging clean, renewable energy. All we have to do is plan smart from the start and move proposed projects to low-conflict areas, something the BLM and the Service failed to do when they approved the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley.”

Courtney Sexton is a Communications Associate for Defenders of Wildlife

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