Imagine you’re just sitting around minding your own business and out of the blue a helicopter starts dropping sections of pipe onto your land. Imagine too that, without as much as a by your leave, the invasion was authorized by the very people who manage the land on your behalf and that your acreage has been leased at a peppercorn rent to speculators.
That’s exactly what happened in July 2011 in bucolic Pipes Canyon, California when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leased Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa to Oregon-based Element Power, and granted a permit for the company to erect a total of four masts to test wind speeds. Their ultimate aim – to cover these signature buttes, located in southern San Bernardino County near Pioneertown, with 400-foot-tall wind turbines.
Cherry Good and Jon Nolte live at the foot of Black Lava Butte and were the first locals to be made aware of what was happening. Cherry immediately rallied residents and what resulted was a grassroots protest group, Save Our Desert, also known as SOD. And, yes, a pun, perhaps best appreciated by British nationals, was absolutely intended. (Cherry is British and in the U.K. “sod” can describe both the earth and also a cranky individual who won’t back down.)
Not that the Element Power project is an isolated incident. The desert is about to be covered with ill-considered alternative energy projects, many of which make use of the generous federal subsidies (and dollar-per-acre-per-year leases) that have been made available where public land is used.
But for local residents it was a particularly bitter blow after barely recovering from the battle to prevent the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s (LADWP) Green Path North project from running transmission lines across the same terrain. That campaign culminated in March 2010 with the withdrawal of LADWP’s application and a collective sigh of relief in this part of the Mojave Desert.
Many locals believed the end of Green Path North meant that no further threats to the area would be contemplated. Unfortunately, however, the Obama administration’s fixation on covering the desert with solar and wind projects had ramped up in the meantime.
While it would be no exaggeration to say that the community was caught unaware by this latest attempt to destroy pristine habitat, the community is united and prepared to take on what may be a very tough fight. And that fight has drawn generous support not only from Pipes Canyon residents but also the Homestead Valley communities that line Highway 247 as far as Lucerne Valley, areas that will be impacted by the Element project and, as was recently revealed, a mammoth solar project proposed by BrightSource Energy for Johnson Valley.
Right now Element only has permission to test the wind speeds on top of the buttes. That permit expires in September 2013. However, Element could apply for a permit to implement a full-scale project at any time. The company will then be required to conduct an environmental impact study that has to be much more comprehensive than the one that was carried out to get the test permit. The preliminary study Element conducted concluded there was nothing of any significance on top of the buttes that would be impacted by the presence of 400-foot-high wind turbines. SOD believes that study was deeply flawed by virtue of its superficiality and contends that the buttes are home to desert tortoises, golden eagles – and most significantly, perhaps, a substantial number of Native American archaeological sites. SOD is currently engaged in identifying and recording those sites, with the help of volunteer archaeologists. Flora and fauna experts are helping to identify habitat.
SOD is also trying to raise consciousness. We know many people think that wind is natural and clean and so it must be good. The reality is that wind is a wasteful way to generate energy. Proximity to the turbines themselves makes people sick. Birds and bats are killed in huge numbers.
We also dismiss the argument that most of the downside to industrial scale wind projects can be mitigated. Moving tortoises and killing them in the process is not mitigation.
Although the immediate task at hand is the defeat of the Element project, SOD’s mission statement reflects our long-term consciousness raising goals. Namely, we must discourage utility-scale energy projects on unspoiled desert land and ensure that alternative energy sources are appropriately placed, preferably on residential and commercial rooftops.
To that end, SOD volunteers run a stall at the Joshua Tree farmers market every Saturday. Passersby are engaged in discussion about the Element project and are asked to sign protest petitions and letters. (Our volunteers must be pretty persuasive as thousands of protest letters have gone out to everyone from President Obama to local supervisor Neil Derry.)
While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent declaration that the Department of the Interior is the new Department of Energy is dismaying, SOD does see glimmers of hope for the future. One of those, perhaps, may be BLM’s proposal that federal lands should not go to any qualified entity that makes an application and that instead a competitive bidding process should be instituted that would generate fair market value for the land (and thereby hopefully encourage a more responsible and much less speculative approach by developers.)
Another potential positive is that before competitive leasing for wind project sites can begin, the agency intends to designate wind development zones, something that could force the kind of clear-headed thinking about the siting of wind projects that, to date, SOD believes has been sorely lacking. In that regard, one of the issues SOD feels particularly strongly about is the use of unspoiled land for projects that may be more than a little experimental and thus run a substantial risk of abandonment.
In the end, SOD hopes to contribute to the development of a coherent energy policy through education and outreach. We hope to persuade people of the problems inherent in siting industrial-scale projects in the desert – namely that the ecosystem is so delicate that much of the damage caused by blasting and clearing of the land is permanent. Our mission statement makes it clear that our purpose is to preserve this land for future generations. And the incontrovertible fact is there are simply better ways to promote clean energy than by destroying our desert heritage.
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