What do many proposed energy projects and priceless historic resources have in common? They occupy the same fragile sites.
In the Mojave Desert, the sun rises like a bare bulb and glares across a blank, cloudless sky all day. Its scorching yellow-white brilliance seems brighter in this land of sand dunes and Joshua tree forests, more searing, and the temperature soars as the sun crawls across the sky—a welder’s torch aimed relentlessly at the desert floor.
That dazzling sunlight is what makes the eastern end of the Mojave an ideal place for harnessing solar energy and an area of burning interest for Americans struggling to promote energy independence. But it’s also raising the collective temperature of many preservationists, who point to the countless historic and cultural resources in the desert, and worry that the treasures could be lost in the scramble to build plants producing renewable energy.
“It’s where preservation gets kind of tricky,” says Brian Turner, regional attorney with the Western office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “and our position is often misunderstood. Preservation doesn’t necessarily entail avoiding all impacts. But it does involve looking at a project site and applying some creative energy … Our interest isn’t in stopping projects. Our interest is in finding ways to locate and design them so they will cause the least harm to cultural resources.”
The question of where renewable energy plants can and should go has prompted debate across the West, in New England (where the Cape Wind installation on Nantucket Sound elicited vocal opposition from the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, among others) and in numerous other parts of the country. What makes the debate so heated is that it forces people to reconcile two imperatives: developing sources of alternative energy to reduce dependence on foreign oil and slow climate change, and supporting preservation—whether of a Civil War battlefield, an endangered species’ habitat, or a sacred Native American burial site.
The controversy is intensified because of the scale and imposing impact of the proposed projects. They are, in a word, gargantuan. Proposed solar arrays in California and Arizona would stretch over thousands of acres, with as many as 30,000 or more solar dishes (each one some 45-plus feet tall and 30 feet wide) turning in unison to track the sun and concentrate their brilliant reflections, creating temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The Imperial Valley Solar Project near the California-Mexico border would sprawl over nearly 6,500 acres. That’s bigger than the Gettysburg National Military Park.
“It boggles the mind,” says Milford Wayne Donaldson, California’s State Historic Preservation Officer and chairman of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “If you’re on a freeway driving 65 miles an hour, and you drive 10 minutes at that speed—now you’ve got one side of this solar farm. The scope is so large and incredible, we’ve never seen anything like it.”
Wind installations can be just as massive. The fan blades of a single wind turbine can stretch the length of a football field or more, tip to tip. The uprights stand as tall as the Washington Monument. You could easily lay the Statue of Liberty in the space between the turbines without her toes or torch touching; the rows line up as much as a mile apart. From a distance they look like a giant picket fence, running mile upon mile as far as the eye can see.
“We don’t contest the ideals,” Turner says. “But we’re seeing landscape-level changes in a way that this country has not seen since the development of the Interstate Highway System, and before that, the great rush to dam the rivers to generate energy.”
Spring Valley sits outside Ely, Nev., just west of the Snake Range and north of the snow-covered summit of Wheeler Peak, a few miles from the Nevada-Utah border. The wind blows powerfully as it rushes over the bristlecone pines, where Pattern Energy wants to place 75 turbines, each 262 feet tall with 158-foot blades, just outside the Swamp Cedar Natural Area in the Bureau of Land Management’s Ely District.
After the BLM approved the site for turbine construction, a coalition of environmental groups and Native Americans from three reservations in the area challenged the decision in court. The site and its surroundings, they contended, include or abut the area of the massacres known as the Goshute War of 1863, in which U.S. cavalry forces avenged attacks on white settlers, killing scores of braves.
“The Western Shoshone hold the cedar trees sacred,” attorney Kristin Ruether wrote in the complaint. “The Tribes believe that for every person who was massacred around the Swamp Cedar area, a cedar tree grew in their place.”
Pattern Energy insists that the wind installation will not disturb the sacred site, and after almost two months of negotiations the tribes dropped their complaint. “We’re actually a few miles south,” says John Calaway, director of wind development for Pattern Energy. “So we’re not going to impact it … As a matter of fact, we’re not going to cut down a single swamp cedar tree.”
That still left the environmental concerns. During the annual fall migration, as many as a million Mexican free-tailed bats from eight states roost in the Rose Guano Cave in cliffs above Spring Valley. They fly out of the cave at night and head to agricultural fields in the area, where they consume as much as their body weight in insects. The flight pattern, environmentalists argue, takes the bats near the deadly turbine blades.
Pattern responded with promises of multiple technological innovations that would protect the bats, including radar systems and infrared cameras. Nonetheless, the environmentalists continued their fight. Calaway took it in stride. “If the only place we built was where there was no controversy, we wouldn’t build anything,” he says.
As the Nevada controversy demonstrates, one of the challenges of renewable energy is that you can’t just put it anywhere. Dams have to go where the river is. Solar arrays and wind installations have similar constraints. But the unique characteristics of each site create myriad issues, each as individual as its location.
North of the California-Mexico border, the proposed Silurian Valley Wind Project may collide with the winding vestiges of the Old Spanish Trail, once a vital trade route stretching 1,120 miles between Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M. Sections of the trail remain much as they were when a regular stream of mule caravans traveled back and forth during the first half of the 19th century, and the historic trail is part of the National Trails System. Now, though, developer Iberdrola Renewables wants to install more than 60 turbines on an active recreation area site straddling the trail between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.
“There are relatively few vistas where one can really experience the character of the Old Spanish Trail as it once was, with its setting and surrounding landscape intact,” Brian Turner says. “This installation as proposed in the Silurian Valley would clearly take away that opportunity.”
It takes a moment to picture what he means, until you realize that the stretch of sandy desert floor dotted with clumps of creosote bush—imagine just about every Western movie you’ve ever seen—would suddenly sprout with wind towers staggered across hundreds of acres, jutting 40 stories into the air. Jan Johnson of Iberdrola Renewables says scientists are “just now starting archaeological surveys. Until we get reports in, we couldn’t speculate on cultural resources that may or may not be present on the 23,000 acres [under study].” But preliminary documents submitted to BLM by the applicant indicate that turbines would be located within a few hundred feet of the trail—drastically compromising the integrity of the landscape.
According to Rebecca Schwendler, public lands advocate for the National Trust, developers such as Iberdrola do hire archaeologists “to walk the site of a proposed project, and identify all the archaeological resources they can find, but the developers don’t really consider the landscape itself—the setting, the viewshed, the context.” That’s vital where national historic trails are concerned, she says. “To preserve their historic qualities you really need to have a view that’s unencumbered, especially along specific segments that are well preserved. If you start building wind towers right next to the trail, suddenly it’s not preserving that historic context.”
There is a practical solution. Instead of conducting surveys late in the process and moving turbines ever so slightly so that they don’t stand directly on top of historic resources, Schwendler says, “why not consider the entire landscape up front and determine the most appropriate place to build? Using that approach, developers could simply avoid areas rich in historic resources and do their intensive work elsewhere.” Sites would be preserved, developers would not have to make expensive last-minute changes, and precious public lands would not end up looking “like a Swiss cheese landscape whose setting is completely destroyed.”
No one understands the emotional power of place more than Cory J. Briggs, attorney for a group of Native Americans who have sued to block construction of six solar arrays located in the Mojave and near Interstate 10, just west of the California-Arizona border. His clients contend that the six sites contain burial areas and religious artifacts, and form portions of ritual access routes that are as important to the tribes as any temple, church, or mosque. Still, the arrays appear on BLM’s list of Approved Renewable Energy Projects.
The day I reached Briggs, he had just returned from visiting the sites. “On one side of the freeway you see a state prison, you see transmission lines, you see truck stops, and you see a bunch of open fields with ruts on them because of motorcycles and dune buggies. But you look across the street, where everything is open and undeveloped and undisturbed and that’s where the grading has started? Why not build where nobody cares? What’s the difference as far as the government is concerned?”
He’s not the only one posing that question. To avoid conflicts and damage, many preservationists and environmentalists now advocate placing renewable energy projects on lands already altered permanently by agriculture, recreation, or development. “If I was planning to build solar arrays, and I was going to use federal land, I would look at existing bases that we have—Air Force bases, military bases,” says Milford Wayne Donaldson. (In fact, the U.S. Navy recently decided to erect solar panels on Hawaii’s Ford Island, centerpiece of the Pearl Harbor National Historic District. They opted to place them on the historic naval air station runway, where they will have minimal impact on the site—a decision the National Trust strongly supported.)
Another option would be to delineate specific areas for development, an approach embraced by the Department of the Interior, which hopes to identify “solar development zones” presenting few or no environmental, historical, or cultural issues. “You’re not always going to be able to avoid every resource conflict,” says BLM energy team leader Ray Brady. But the development zones, covering some 670,000 square miles, could smooth out a lot of that. “We’re currently involved in a public comment process, to try to sort out those areas [and determine] the areas that might be the best siting opportunities.”
This represents a huge turnaround, according to Greg Seymour, a professional archaeologist, National Trust advisor, and self-described advocate for smart renewable energy. “The tide is turning,” he says. “Government agencies are talking about doing the right thing from the beginning. And the reason is simple: Because preservationists and conservationists are getting past the ubiquitous statements of ‘no’ to renewable development. Instead, we’re now saying ‘yes—but how can we do it better? How can we do it right from the get-go?'”
As the nation confronts higher fuel prices and ever-increasing demand, the ultimate answer to this challenge may lie not in the decisions we make about using our land, but in the ones we make about using energy.
“The paradigm shift is not about renewables. The paradigm shift is how we actually live on this planet—how we conserve resources,” says Donaldson. “How many red lights are on when you turn your lights off and go to sleep at night? We’re all sucking energy of some sort. And that’s where we really need to focus because, even doing the renewables, looking 20 to 30 years out, we’re still going to be heavily dependent upon oil.”
In the end, the solutions to our energy problems seem sure to require a combination of multiple technologies as well as reduced consumption, careful choices, and difficult sacrifices.
“We know we have to do all we can to develop new sources of renewable energy,” says Barbara Pahl, regional director of the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains office. “The good news is that developing renewables and preserving cultural resources are not mutually exclusive. They are compatible—as long as the location and significance of historic sites inform our decisions about development.”
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