Of grizzlies and tortoises


The towering grizzly bear and diminutive desert tortoise have something in common, and it’s not good: both animals are struggling for survival.

“The population of grizzlies in the continental United States was 50,000 at time of Lewis and Clark, and it’s down to 1600 animals today for some of the same reasons the desert tortoise has declined precipitously since 1970: habitat destruction and human caused mortality,” says Sid Silliman, an emeritus professor of political science at Cal Poly Pomona who has long tracked the fate of endangered species.

Silliman, who taught a course on the endangered grizzly bear at Cal Poly Pomona, fears that like grizzly bears, the threatened population of desert tortoises will eventually be restricted to just a few areas. And according to Silliman, projects like the Ivanpah Solar Plant, situated along the cusp of the California Nevada border and near Mojave National Preserve, are part of the problem.

The scenic Mesquite Mountains rise above the Ivanpah Valley - photo Sid Silliman

The Ivanpah solar project is not unique: the Bureau of Land Management and other land management agencies have received a flood of applications for utility-scale solar developments - a phenomenon many refer to as the “solar gold rush.” But many conservationists are questioning whether these projects should be sited on sensitive lands such as those in the Ivanpah Valley.

“Ivanpah is so interesting because it’s in the east Mojave and has a different climate. It has monsoon rains, different plants, lush vegetation and biological soil crust,” says Laura Cunningham, a biologist and founder of Basin and Range Watch , a source of conservation information about the Mojave Desert. The biological soil crust prevents erosion of the fragile desert soils, absorbs atmospheric carbon and sometimes takes thousands of years to form. “I’ve never seen crust so dense as in the Ivanpah valley- you can see this black fuzzy coating all over the dry sand,” reports Cunningham.

But Ivanpah is also unique in other ways. It is “old growth desert”, a reference to the many venerable creosote bushes, which have survived on the site for hundreds of years. The area is also remarkably beautiful and rugged. Huge barrel cacti punctuate the arid landscape and in the winter the view of the nearby snow capped Clark Mountains is spectacular. The valley is habitat for 10 rare plant species and the California population of northeastern Mojave Desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, burrowing owls and the golden eagle.

Large barrel cacti grow on the Ivanpah Solar Project site - photo Laura Cunningham

This unique environment is threatened by large scale solar development. Construction of the Ivanpah Solar Project will involve three solar concentrating thermal power plants with 173,500 panels. Each panel will have two mirrors and will surround three 459-foot power towers-- taller than the great pyramid at Giza.

The development would involve permanent destruction of 3,600 acres of critical desert tortoise habitat With two other large solar projects slated to be developed nearby the cumulative impacts may mean the loss of the viability of the northeastern desert tortoise recovery unit, a population defined by the 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan that lives in the Ivanpah Valley. 

Bulldozers grading the Ivanpah Solar site - photo Laura Cunningham

“This tortoise population is different from other populations and part of my training as a biologist is you want to maintain distinct populations,” says Cunningham. “If these Ivanpah tortoises become extinct you can’t just take
some from Ridgecrest and replace them.”

In addition to the concerns about desert tortoise, there will also be significant impacts to two special status plant species -- Mojave milkweed and desert pincushion -- and the project site will be an eyesore when viewed from the Mojave National Preserve. Yet another concern is flooding as the power plant will be located on a steep alluvial fan that is covered with hundreds of active washes. Torrential winter or summer rains could thunder down the fan and inundate the power plant. Proponents of industrial scale solar developments argue that they are essential to combating climate change and weaning our nation off foreign oil. To them, criticism of projects like Ivanpah are iterations of Nimbyism (an acronym for the phrase "not in my back yard"). But conservationists like Silliman and Cunningham see things differently.

“In my view the way forward is through the distributed solar energy -- through local generation and small scale generation,” says Silliman. “Rooftop solar photovoltaic should be a key part of any plan to move us away from carbon based energy. It’s more efficient, it avoids the economic problems and it’s more democratic.” Silliman also points out that it doesn’t make sense to destroy habitat in the name of climate change when that very habitat may be what helps species adapt to climate change.

Small, local solar arrays located on disturbed lands, in or near cities and towns and on rooftops are comparable in efficiency, faster to bring online and less expensive than remote, utility scale solar thermal plants like Ivanpah when the cost of new transmission infrastructure, line losses and other costs are considered, according to Solar Done Right, a coalition of public lands activists, engineering experts and biologists. The reason the remote, utility scale solar plants are being constructed at such a rapid pace is that investor owned utilities can make significant profits off the sale and transmission of energy. They’ve also convinced key decision makers that large scale solar is the best way to address climate change.

Both the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission have authorized the construction of the two billion dollar Ivanpah solar plant, which means that Brightsource Energy is the first solar developer to break ground on a utility scale solar development in California. And contract workers have already begun removing desert tortoises from the sight, but there is no way to know if some have been missed during the relocation effort.

Back in September, Silliman, Cunningham and other desert activists camped at Ivanpah to educate people about the beauty and diversity of the Ivanpah valley, emphasize that the construction of this power plant will permanently destroy part of the Mojave Desert and to publicize their opposition to the industrialization of the northern Ivanpah valley.

Biologist Laura Cunningham reports that the sunsets were amazing and there were beautiful stars. The group took a tortoise walk, looked a cryptobiotic crust and found wildflowers blooming from a summer rain. Migrating swifts and swallows flew through the clear air.

Cunningham fears that utility scale solar will destroy the ecology of the Mojave Desert and the character of its communities. “My big message to congress is that we need a renewable energy plan that includes distributed solar. Can we slow down a little bit and get an energy plan?”

More info from HCN about solar developments across the West: Solar spree.

Seth Shteir is California Desert Field Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.