Whistleblower alleges gag order kept state park employees from revealing harm to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park from proposed Ocotillo Express wind project
The former Superintendent of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP) has contacted East County Magazine to allege a cover-up by the State Parks Department and the Governor of serious impacts that the proposed Ocotillo Express wind project would have on our largest state park and its natural resources. The proposed wind project shares a five-mile border with ABSP and if approved, would erect up to 155 wind turbines each 456 feet tall—some just yards from the park.
“Now here is a proposal to destroy 13,000 acres of our public lands for a private industrial investment zone. This site will be desecrated, but so will hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding lands with their viewshed qualities destroyed,” Mark Jorgensen, who retired as Superintendent of ABDSP in 2009, wrote in an e-mail sent to ECM yesterday.
Despite visual impacts and blade flicker that will overshadow the park itself, as well as serious impacts on wildlife including bighorn sheep, eagles and burrowing owls, the Park service astoundingly issued no comments in the project’s final EIR on how the wind project would impact the largest state park in the lower 48 states.
Jorgensen says that staff at ABDSP spent two months preparing a comment to submit for the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that detailed many serious concerns. But no comment was submitted or included in the final EIR.
When he inquired about the missing letter of comment from State Parks, Jorgensen states that “I was told that they had been ordered by the Governor’s Office to NOT comment. I was told this order came by phone and happened the day before comments to BLM were due.” Additional concerns of his are detailed in a letter sent September 22, 2011 to Cedric Perry, project manager with the BLM two weeks before the deadline for comments on the EIR.
ECM called Governor Jerry Brown’s press office. We also called the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and sent-an e-mail to current Superintendent Kathy Dice seeking comment on this matter.
Late today, we received the follow response from Richard Stapler, Deputy Secretary for Communications, California Natural Resources Agency.
“Per your inquiries to the Governor’s Office and State Parks. These allegations are not true. No such directive came from the Governor’s Office or the California Natural Resources Agency saying that State Parks could not comment on the Ocotillo Wind Express Project.” He attached a 14-page comment on the EIR from the California Department of Fish & Game and the US. Fish & Wildlife Service.
No comments from the State Parks were provided, however– a glaring omission.
The comments by the state and federal wildlife agencies were limited to impacts on wildlife and plants, including potentially serious impacts on bighorn sheep.
But they failed to even mention other impacts, notably the destruction of scenic views visible from within Anza-Borrego State Park, the impact on cultural resources, noise, shadowing effects from the blades, and more.
Jorgensen isn’t the only one alleging a gag order. “I talked to state park staff at party on Friday night and they are truly allowing themselves to the muzzling by the Governor’s office,” Terry Weiner, conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council, informed ECM.
Anthony Pico, Chairman of the Viejas band of Kumeyaay Indians, in a speech earlier this month at a renewable energy conference in San Diego, also spoke of pressures on federal and state officials to ignore environmental impacts as well as destruction of cultural resources. “The pressure has caused those engaged in the management of public lands to abandon all common sense, their responsibilities to tribes pursuant to the United States Trust obligation, and the duties and responsibilities delegated to them under relevant law,” said Pico, who has also sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking the President’s help to have the laws enforced to protect cultural resources , sacred sites and the natural environment.
After his retirement as Superintendent, Jorgensen said he has worked on an hourly basis for the Park as an environmental scientist leading field trips of proposed wind farms in Ocotillo and McCain Valley, both on federal Bureau of Land Management properties.
“I resigned from Parks so I could be free to express my own opinions on a number of environmental issues including this one,” he told ECM. “The people who have given their careers over to working in Sate Parks, people who have decades of experience and expertise, are muzzled by the bureaucrats—in the quest to “fast-track” these projects—in order for the BLM, the State of California, or the citizens to not be confused by the facts.” The term fast-track, he added, “is a euphemism for circumventing environmental regulations and avoiding the facts.”
Jorgensen, who worked for 30 years in ABDSP, also faulted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for drastically reducing Peninsular Bighorn Sheep habitat from 800,000 acres to around 370,000 acres, a move he says protects not sheep, but the interests of Pattern Energy (applicant for the Ocotillo Express wind project), a gravel miner, U.S. Gypsum Co., and the Agua Caliente band of Indians who had land slated for a new hotel/casino and golf course removed from the habitat areas.
“They said it was all science based, but they couldn’t produce the science,” he said of the BLM. ECM also contacted the BLM and Pattern Energy, but we has received no response.
In a September 22, 2011 letter to Perry at the BLM, Jorgensen blasted the federal agency. “Why did the BLM not consider impacts to the largest State Park in the contiguous United States?” he asked, citing cultural preserves, wildlife corridors, bighorn sheep and views specifically. BLM itself designated the area s “Limited use” for vehicles restricted to existing trails –yet proposes massive roads as well. He decried the coming “iron curtain, a massive industrial complex conceived by some money-hungry mongers” and asked, “Who is BLM representing here, the citizens of the United States, or Pattern Energy?”
Serious impacts on wildlife
Asked if the project site itself contains bighorn sheep habitat, Jorgensen replied, “Yes, the southwest section of the projects is bighorn sheep habitat.”
The project was altered to eliminate turbines in the mountains along I-8 at the base of Mountain Springs Grade (where just today California Highway Patrol chased a herd of bighorns away from the freeway with bullhorns). “But the project is still within what is considered by bighorn specialists and the U.s. Fish & Wildlife Service as “Essential Habitat.”
Linda Ewing, who has documented bighorn sheep sightings on the project site or at the boundary as recently as early March, said she was astounded at how the EIR described the “habitat” for the sheep. “The Interstate 8 island is described in the EIR as the area that exists between eastbound Interstate 8 and Westbound interstate 8,” she said. In other words, the EIR lists a median in the middle of the freeway as lambing grounds. She voiced outrage of efforts to “rape 12,000 acres of beautiful desert forever.”
She submitted several photos of a herd of 18 bighorn sheep taken on March 11, 2012 taken along westbound Highway 8 on the east side of the freeway, looking east. “I parked my car, ran across the freeway to the east side and stood looking up at the rocks she said. “I then walked a little way up the freeway shoulder and ofund a smaller group of five that were headed towards the main herd…They were definitely north of Devil’s Canyon [the acknowledged habitat area] as the EIR proclaims them to only reside on the Interstate 8 island.” Some of the ewes wore tracking collars, she noted. The herd was across from Meyers Creek outlet and opposite the backside of Sugarloaf Mountain, said Ewing, who shot more than 100 photos as proof.
Jorgensen voices other concerns. “The shadow of the towers will actually lay over State Park,” he wrote in his email to ECM. “Visitors will be trying to enjoy the splendor of one of America’s finest parks while gazing into a mega-industrial complex of 400 foot Eiffel Towers (actually 456 feet).”
He also fears devastating impacts to birds and bats. He estimates that “probably more than 10% of all the golden eagles in CA work to fledge their young that ultimately become victims at Altamont,” a wind farm where thousands of golden eagles as well as other raptors have been slaughtered by the turbine blades.
Although killing eagles is a felony under federal law, no prosecutions related to wind farms have ever been made. Now the federal government is preparing to issue “take permits” to wind farm operators, making it lawful to kill them.
“Thousands of birds will be killed.” at the Ocotillo Express wind facility every year, Jorgensen predicts, and the true toll will never be known, since scavengers will likely destroy the evidence beneath the turbine blades. Pattern’s proposed mitigation –having a single biologist in a tower monitoring the entire 12,500 acre site—five miles or more across—is woefully inadequate, he suggests. Similarly, radar proposed “won’t pick up a single soaring eagle foraging for rabbits while trying to feed its young in a nearby nest. We know there are several nests within foraging range of the project.”
Due to the slaughter of birds and bats, Jorgensen maintains, wind projects should not be called green energy, but rather “red energy, for all the bloodshed it will be responsible for.”
Others are also concerned about the impacts on wildlife—and on children who may witness the carnage. Jim Pelley, whose home is less than half a mile from the project, watched the movie “Windfall,” an expose on the wind industry, with his neighbor and her children. Following a scene depicting bird killing by the turbines,, “Her kids started crying after see a bird get killed by a wind turbine…now I’m crying, too,” he wrote, providing a video of the scene as proof.
Scott Cashen, an independent biological resources and forestry consultant, did submit comments to the BLM that bolster the contentions of Jorgensen. His comment notes that “burrowing owls are highly susceptible to collision with wind turbines” and concluded the project would contribute to their decline.
Disturbingly, he reports, “15 of the 22 eagle observations were within the rotor swept area of the turbines that will be located on the Project site.” He said a conclusion that the risk is low “clearly demonstrates bias and the failure to honestly disclose the project’s risk to golden eagles.”
Cashen also confirmed the risk to Peninsular bighorn sheep noting that “The federal recovery plan for the PBHS states `the ability of bighorn sheep to move freely throughout all parts of the range is critical to recovery” and that conclusions drawn for the project lack support.
The state and federal wildlife agencies’ report, too, submitted for the DRAFT EIS/EIR on the facility, warned that “loss of essential habitat should be added as a direct effect of the proposed action on bighorn sheep”, requested a “burrowing owl mitigation plan”, noted two active eagles territories and 22 eagles found within the project area, and warned that “no take is permitted” of eagles, a state protected species.
Moreover it noted that recovery of plant cover and biomass in desert area can require up to 300 years without restoration efforts and that “we consider all ground-distrubing impacts associated with the proposed project to be permanent.”
Cultural resource impacts
A newly designated State Cultural Preserve at Piedras Grandes will be “visually and spiritually degraded” if the wind farm is built. In addition, rock art, an equinox ceremonial site, and Native American village site within the Cultural Preserve will be “defamed” and Kumeyaay ceremonial sites within the project itself will be “destroyed,” Jorgensen said. “The Pattern Energy folks claim they have planned for protection of each documented site, but when they construct a maze of roads and giant towers all around these sites, they have destroyed the cultural landscape—the ancient open Native American landscape used for thousands of years and preserved until now.”
The project is opposed by the Viejas, Quechan and other Native American tribes due to destruction or degredation of cultural resources on federal and state lands. Chairman Pico of Viejas recently made clear in his speech at a renewable energy conference sponsored by local tribes and environmental groups that the tribes have “laid a foundation” for litigation if the project is approved as proposed.
How fair is the process?
Jorgensen described a “public meeting” held by the BLM on August 25, 2011 in Ocotillo at which the public was prohibited from speaking. “We the members of the public, were offended by this sham,” he told Perry adding, “It certainly is clear BLM is a partner of the private developer, Pattern Energy, and not the citizens.”
Did the Governor’s office or employees at state and federal agencies charged with protecting public lands violate the public trust? Does the Ocotillo Express wind farm—and perhaps other massive energy projects, amount to a theft of public lands?
With numerous other wind projects planned for the vicinity in San Diego and Imperial Counties, he and others are concerned about the cumulative impact.
“Alternative energy projects in the right locations and of the right method are the way to go,” Jorgensen concludes, “but ruining our back country with fast-tracked high impact projects is going to be the ruin of the West.”
A petition has been started by people opposed to this project: http://www.change.org/petitions/say-no- … y-project#.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park spans both San Diego and Imperial Counties. Tomorrow at 9 a.m., the Imperial Valley Planning Commission will consider the project. The U.S. Department of Interior must also grant approval before the project can be built.
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