Solar energy is one key to sating the United States' enormous energy appetite, but federal officials need to be careful not to overly impact national parks and other public lands when it comes to siting these facilities.
Current proposals in California by the Interior Department place some of these solar farms close to parks such as Death Valley and Joshua Tree, as well as the Mojave National Preserve. By highlighting impacts created by those decisions, a report from the National Parks Conservation Association aims to generate public pressure on federal agencies to make wiser choices with future decisions on where to erect such facilities.
The Amargosa Farm Road Project to be built near Death Valley will "destroy 4,000 acres of desert scrub habitat, fragment the larger landscape, and mar scenic views from Death Valley National Park’s wilderness lands," according to the executive summary of Solar Energy, National Parks, and Landscape Protection in the Desert Southwest. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station also stands to destroy valuable desert tortoise habitat near Mojave National Preserve while also impacting the viewshed, and the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm proposed to go in about 2 miles south of Joshua Tree would impact viewsheds and could fragment migratory corridors for desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife, the report adds.
These approved solar facilities demonstrate that large, industrial-scale solar energy development will have significant impacts—despite the best efforts at resource protection and mitigation. In particular, the resulting habitat fragmentation and destruction, impaired visual resources, and lost wildlife connectivity will affect not only BLM lands but adjacent national park lands as well . In short, while there are great benefits to harnessing sunlight for electricity generation, these benefits come at a significant cost to desert resources . This reinforces the need to responsibly site solar facilities while continuing to support this needed upgrade to renewable energy.
While the report's authors acknowledge that changes made to the initial plans for siting and developing these facilities will reduce their impacts, they note that some issues remain and that going forward more scrutiny and greater input on pending projects can produce better siting decisions. Federal officials, they say, should work with stakeholders in the Southwest to identify lands with lower conflicts for solar projects. Another benefit would be to site these projects on lands that already have been degraded, such as former Defense Department lands.
"I think that part of the message we want to share today is that we do want to encourage both the public and the administration to stand strong in support of national parks. We recognize that it's really important to forward our solar future, but we think that can best be accomplished by a diversified portfolio where we're looking at options like not just roof-top solar, but also looking at development on disturbed lands," David Lamfrom, NPCA's California Desert senior program manager, said during an hour-long conference call Tuesday.
"I think that we've been lulled into a false choice where we now believe we can either move forward with solar on pristine public lands or not at all, but in reality that's not the case," he said.
The proximity of energy exploration and development have arisen as viewshed issues at Arches and Theodore Roosevelt national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, just to name three areas in the park system. Similarly, solar development in California mars viewsheds near parts of Mojave National Preserve, pointed out Dennis Schramm, a former superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.
"The Ivanpah project was about a mile, a mile-and-a-half away from the Clark Mountain boundary, and it sits on this slope that is the primary access to that part of the Mojave unit," said Mr. Schramm. "Clark Mountain is the tallest peak in the park, and as you're driving along I-15, that view of Clark Mountain is now dominated by almost 200,000 mirrors the size of billboards, and the three tall towers that are going in there."
The same cluster is visable if you're on top the 7,929-foot mountain looking down, he added.
During the call Mr. Lamfrom voiced his belief that "financial and tax-based incentives" could be leveraged to see solar facilities sited in "the right places to reduce conflicts.
More than 75 proposed solar projects proposed for California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are being reviewed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has expanded review through its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to include lands in Utah and Colorado, the NPCA report points out.
One of the alternatives in the PEIS, the “Modified Solar Energy Zone Alternative," would restrict solar farm sitings to these so-called "SEZ" areas and effectively ban them from more than 22 million acres of "variance" lands, many of which bump up to units of the National Park System, the report said.
"Millions of acres of variance lands abut or are very close to national parks. If the BLM decides to make these areas eligible for solar development, there will be significant impacts on national parks if developments occur," the narrative states. "NPCA believes that developing solar energy resources and protecting resources in our national parks and other public lands are not mutually exclusive.
"The BLM’s efforts to develop a framework for evaluating solar energy project proposals has initiated an important national discussion—one that requires us to consider the benefits of solar energy and weigh them against the costs to desert landscapes. These are not wastelands, devoid of life and low in value. Instead, these places provide habitat for specially adapted desert plants; these intact landscapes connect wildlife that range over significant distances; and these open spaces connect us to the living things that surround us, giving us places to explore and enjoy with family and friends."