One week ago, Friday, November 30, when it was announced to the press that the Nevada BLM had terminated a proposed industrial wind turbine project that would have sprawled 22 miles on 32,351 acres of mostly virgin public lands, the decision sparked a mystery. Earlier Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents suggested the BLM was working with Crescent Peak Renewables, LLC (a subsidiary of Eolus Vind of Sweden), in an attempt to expedite the approval of the project, which meant that the announcement by a Nevada BLM spokesperson came as a surprise when it stated the BLM had previously determined that the gigantic wind energy scheme, which could have consisted of up to 248 wind turbines 600 feet tall, did not conform to the Las Vegas Regional Management Plan (RMP). In correspondence obtained from the government, offers were made by Nevada BLM to give the wind energy developers access to three water wells while a fourth source of water was being sought for the project. Speculation concerning the origin of the actual memorandum of termination against the project were rumored to have come down from the highest levels of the Department of Interior (DOI).
Thursday evening, December 6, those rumors were confirmed when a copy of an important letter was received from the third highest administrator of the DOI, verifying the origin of the orders to shut down the contested Crescent Peak Wind project. The letter was obtained through FOIA by a coalition of private citizens, retired Federal administrators, and conservation groups who were working to protect what some outdoor enthusiasts believe to be the most pristine wild lands of Southern Nevada. The proposed project site is also home to many protected species of bird, mammal, reptile, and plant life.
The original letter was date stamped November 19, and came directly from the DOI’s Joseph R. Balash, Assistant Secretary Land and Minerals Management. The DOI is overseen by Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose second-in-charge is Deputy Secretary David L. Bernhardt. The third-highest tier of the DOI hierarchy consists of six major Assistant Secretaries, including the Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management. That particular Assistant Secretary oversees the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and most significantly, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which establishes Balash as the supervisor over Michael Nedd, Acting Director of the BLM. In effect, the denial of the Crescent Peak Wind project came from the third-highest administrator within the DOI.
According to the November 19 letter sent to Mr. Hans-Christian Schulze and Mr. Ed Duggan of Eolus North America, Inc., the controversial project was denied by Balash on six major conflict of interest categories. The first group of conflicts cited had to do with the Las Vegas Resource Management Plan (RMP), which had been formally agreed to years earlier by the DOI Secretary. The top RMP conflicts spelled out in the letter included the designated visual class of the area, which was established as Class III. By comparison, a highly protected wilderness area is often rated visually as Class II. For an industrial wind turbine project to legally be built, the area’s visual classification would have to be downgraded to Class IV, which would likely represent a prolonged contested battle in Federal court. Other reasons listed as the basis for conflicts of interest with the RMP highlighted the potential damage that would be done to bighorn sheep habitat through the degradation of springs, seeps, and other riparian habitat in the area. Also of major documented concern was the issue of protecting key nesting and migration routes.
The second major set of conflicts that were stated in the DOI’s denial of the Right of Way (ROW) to construct the wind turbines was based on the public scoping comments received by the BLM on or before June 13, 2018, when the 90-day comment period ended. According to Balash’s letter, the BLM received 216 comments in the public review section alone. Many of the concerns of citizens centered on the “potential biological impacts of the project, especially to eagles, birds, and bats, as well as impacts to existing land uses.” According to the Assistant Secretary, “The comments indicated that the town of Searchlight, Nevada, closest to the project site, would be heavily impacted by this project.”
In late July, shortly after Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to Southern Nevada, residents of Searchlight put together a petition, written by former Lake Mead National Recreation Area Superintendent, Alan O’Neill, explaining to Zinke the many adverse effects of the project on the town. At the same time, residents also sent letters to President Donald J. Trump concerning many other potential negative effects of the project. In light of the results of that grassroots campaign, it would appear that cries for help from the Searchlight residents did not fall on deaf ears at the highest levels of government.
Besides the general public review portion of the scoping comments, Balash noted important scoping feedback from the mining community and Clark County Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport (SNSA). Per mining statistics, DOI noted there were 306 active mining claims in the proposed project area, which would present access problems and cause conflicts with claimants attempting to develop their mining claim. A special emphasis was made in the letter concerning the known logistical challenges that such wind energy projects pose in regards to the safe operation of airport facilities. Specifically, the letter explained the potential aviation hazards created by 600 foot towers, which not only create height obstructions but also interfere with air navigation systems, adversely impacting the efficient use of navigable airspace in Clark County.
A third major conflict of interest for denying the project was cited under the heading of “Bighorn Sheep, Eagles, and other Wildlife.” Secretary’s Order (SO) 3356 and SO 3362 had previously been signed into existence, directing the BLM to enhance hunting opportunities by improving the management of game species and their habitats, which included not only bighorn sheep but also mule deer as well as smaller game. Fish and wildlife experts in Nevada “expressed a strong concern that activities and impacts associated with construction and operational phases of the proposed wind project would result in reduced wildlife and presence, particularly near water sources.” It was also noted that 17 golden eagle nests had been identified in the area and that both tree roosting and migratory bat species “could be impacted during bat migration through the project area at heights that
are within the wind turbine’s rotor sweep area.”
Furthermore, on a fourth conflict of interest category, Balash pointed out tribal concerns as being a top priority of the DOI’s intentions to “promote meaningful tribal sovereignty and consultation.” According to Balash, BLM officials formally consulted face-to-face with eight affected tribes. During those visits, officials were informed by tribal leaders of the tremendous spiritual and cultural significance of their sacred Spirit Mountain (Avi Kwa’ Ame) and of their concern with how the project would degrade the view shed toward their ancestral home.
The military weighed in as a fifth conflict of interest against the project due to the interference it would cause to training missions, especially from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, whose missions “require airspace that is free of aircraft radar interference.” Balash went on to emphasize, “Wind turbines are potentially incompatible with and pose a significant threat to military operations in the R-2508 airspace and beyond.” According to military records, more than 30,000 flights were conducted over that airspace in 2017 and they estimated an increase in that usage of 10-20% in 2018.
A sixth category of conflicts of interest was raised by the Assistant Secretary himself who personally stated, “I have concluded that the proposed Crescent Peak Wind project, which does not conform to the approved Las Vegas RMP, would also create conflicts with resource uses, including hunting, mining, tribal values, military training missions, and county development.” In a rare move to halt any further progress with the project, Balash stated “it is not in the public interest to continue to process the ROW application and complete a detailed environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).” The memorandum of termination ended with an order from the Assistant Secretary directing the BLM to “cease further work on this land use planning effort and deny your ROW application.”
The Crescent Peak Wind project would have significantly impacted the integrity, biological diversity, and view sheds of the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness, South McCullough Wilderness, Mojave National Preserve, Castle Mountain National Monument, Mojave Trails National Monument, Paiute Valley Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Spirit Mountain Wilderness, an Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA), and the historical Walking Box Ranch. Had the wind turbines been placed on the borders of two wilderness areas, as proposed, the noise and visual obstruction from the towers could likely have nullified the solitude
requirement of two Federally-designated wilderness areas, rendering them as non-wilderness lands, which would have represented the unconstitutional overturning of a Congressional act to establish those lands as wilderness areas in the first place.