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Many Wind and Solar Projects on Public Lands Get It Right, Calico Doesn't

Johanna Wald

Posted April 5, 2012 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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With nearly 200,000 Americans receiving paychecks from the wind and solar industries today, it’s clear that continuing to tap America’s clean energy potential will deliver enormous benefits for our economy as well as our climate and environment.

We just have to do it right.

While the renewable industry is still in its infancy, many industry leaders are working hard to make their projects as environmentally responsible as possible.  The developers of the Calico solar project in the Pisgah Valley of the Mojave Desert are not among them. And that is why the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club are suing the Department of Interior to stop the Calico project from moving forward.

For the first 35 years of my career as an environmental advocate, I fought to protect America’s wild lands from destructive activities like coal mining and oil and gas drilling. Yet for the past few years, I have been encouraging smart wind and solar development on public lands.

What inspired the change?

Clean energy is one of our most powerful solutions against the dangers of climate change, which not only threatens our communities with extreme weather events, but also endangers the wild animals, water resources, and landscapes I have fought so hard to protect.

And so I have been working with energy companies and government agencies to ensure renewable projects on public lands maximize clean energy potential and preserve ecological treasures at the same time.

A number of renewable developers NRDC has approached have been willing to do what it takes to reduce the environmental impacts of their projects. One company redrew the boundaries of its site so it wouldn’t intrude on a desert tortoise movement corridor. Others have reduced their projects’ footprints in different ways. Most projects permitted on public lands in California agreed to go beyond the protections imposed by state and federal regulators and have helped chart a course toward responsible energy development on public lands.

The Calico solar project has failed to do so. The project is slated for a location too rich in wildlife habitat to warrant any kind of energy project.

There are few places left in America that are as wild as they were hundreds of years ago. Large parts of the Pisgah Valley are among them. There are few signs of human activity here. A serene quiet infuses the valley, which is dotted with creosote bushes said to be the oldest living things on Earth—some creosote colonies in the Mojave have been alive for 11,500 years. In a very real sense, walking into the valley is like stepping back in time.

Animal life thrives in this calm. The intact ecosystem supports bighorn sheep, burrowing owls, and fringe-toed lizards – all imperiled species. But it is especially critical for its desert tortoises. These prehistoric creatures are slow to mature and slow to reproduce. They are homebodies who live in near the same tortoise neighbors for years, but they need to connect with other groups to retain genetic diversity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says the Pisgah Valley is critical for the survival of this endangered species, because it links three different critical tortoise habitat areas and tortoise populations. 

We do not need to industrialize sensitive places like the Pisgah Valley in order to generate clean energy. And that is why we’re seeking to stop the Calico project from moving forward.

We can focus instead on areas that have already been disturbed, like former agricultural lands, already mined lands, or transmission line corridors. NRDC is working to promote solar development on formerly farmed regions in California’s Central Valley and to help the Interior Department establish a comprehensive, environmentally responsible program for managing solar resources of the public lands. 

But make no mistake. America needs large-scale solar projects.  Roof-top panels alone cannot generate enough power to fight climate change. We need to responsibly deploy all our weapons against this threat, including efficiency, sustainably grown biofuels, and big and small renewable installations.  

American innovators are already pioneering the next generation of clean technologies that will generate more energy more efficiently. If we install these technologies in locations best suited for development, we can safeguard our health, stabilize our climate, and protect our last wild places.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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