A new kind of gold rush is going on in the Mojave Desert, according to county Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt. The sought-after objects are sunshine and wind.
More than 100 wind farms and solar-energy installations are proposed, enough to cover 1,300 square miles.
The rush has raised alarms among residents and local officials who fear the stark beauty of the desert could be destroyed.
They need only look as far as Palm Springs to see what their future could look like: rugged mountains and sandy desert floor obscured by a forest of 400-foot tall turbine towers visible from a busy interstate.
Officials and residents are also concerned about the projects’ impact on wildlife, particularly birds which are killed by the thousands in collisions with wind turbine blades.
The alternative-energy projects seemed poised to spring up with virtually no public notice or input, under the jurisdiction of the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Fortunately, Mitzelfelt took steps to make sure the county and its citizens have a voice in the process. Under an agreement reached last month, the county and the federal agency will jointly review proposals.
Mitzelfelt would like to go further. He’d like a moratorium on applications until the county can determine where in the High Desert such projects should be allowed.
He wants them built away from scenic highways such as Interstate 15, homes and towns, so their unsightliness won’t detract from people’s enjoyment.
But visual blight isn’t the only concern.
In a recent public hearing, people in Apple Valley recently said they’re concerned a proposed wind farm on nearby Granite Mountain would damage their property values.
Apple Valley Councilman Scott Nassif said his town’s ordinances restrict what can be built on hillsides and ridgelines. But they can’t stop the 27 turbines proposed for the Granite Mountain ridgelines.
The towers’ effect on the view is “really somewhat subjective,” said Gill Howard, project manager for Granite Wind LLC. Some people see them as tall, elegant symbols of renewable, nonpolluting energy, she said, adding that the $130 million project would bring $6.5 million in sales tax during construction and $500,000 a year in property tax to the county.
But outdoor enthusiast Gary Hatfield, of Redlands, fears the project and the roads to serve it would destroy the serene and fragile habitat of the chukar, a pheasant he likes to hunt.
The San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society finds itself torn on the issue.
It supports renewable energy, having sued the county for failing to have a plan to reduce global warming. But experience has shown that wind turbines kill bats, owls, hawks and other birds by the thousands, said President Drew Feldmann.
“We don’t want to destroy the environment to save it,” he told the county and BLM in a letter.
New wind farms have towers spaced much farther apart and the blades move much more slowly, reducing bird kill dramatically, said Larry LaPre, BLM wildlife biologist.
Mitzelfelt and Nassif are concerned that the desert is being asked to bear the brunt of reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. While alternative energy is needed, they want it to be pursued carefully to avoid these damaging side effects.
31 March 2008
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