by Betsy Herbert
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 2/27/2014
Last December I drove south to Joshua Tree National Park to hang out with friends in the desert. I hadn't visited the area for decades, so I didn't anticipate the major sprawl around the desert town of Yucca Valley on Highway 62 leading to the park -- housing developments, a Walmart, a Home Depot, and other big-box stores.
To avoid the Yucca Valley sprawl, my friends rented a little house between 29 Palms and the town of Joshua Tree, just outside the park boundary. From our house, we could walk up the road a few hundred feet and venture into the park's vast stretches of red rock formations, punctuated with iconic Joshua trees, yuccas, and barrel cacti. Beautiful!
Looking across miles of big sky and expansive desert sands, I observed what appeared to be a strangely irregular, large blue lake. I asked my friend, "Is that a lake in the middle of the desert or is it a mirage?"
"Neither," my friend said. "It's a commercial solar installation."
This particular solar installation is a field of photovoltaic panels, like those seen on rooftops -- except that here, the panels have displaced some 85 acres of what used to be viable desert habitat.
"People think of the desert as wasteland, but it's anything but that," said Bonnie Kopp, a retired city planner who lives near the national park. She points out that the iconic Joshua tree -- as well as the endangered desert tortoise -- are part of this desert ecosystem, which expands well beyond park boundaries into surrounding residential and commercial areas.
Kopp, also a board member of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, explains that until recently, local residents had no legal mechanism to voice their concerns about such commercial solar energy plants in unincorporated areas like Joshua Tree.
Now, she says, San Bernardino County requires commercial solar projects in residential areas to address public concerns.
Kopp has since opposed a newly proposed photovoltaic solar power facility on a 56-acre site in Joshua Tree. She writes that the site is adjacent to land that the Mojave Desert Land Trust has already purchased to serve as a wildlife corridor needed to preserve the movement of desert tortoise, bobcat, golden eagles, fox and prairie falcons between Joshua Tree National Park and other protected areas. She also says the project will negatively impact the park's views.
Kopp argues that commercial photovoltaic projects should be sited on existing rooftops, especially big-box stores in Yucca Valley, instead of destroying valuable desert habitat. "There are no local requirements for any large industrial buildings to put solar installations on their rooftops. Instead, the federal government provides incentives to corporations to build big centralized solar energy plants in the middle of prime desert habitat," she says.
This Joshua Tree project is only a tiny speck on the map of the American southwest, where 365 commercial solar applications have been filed across 52,000 acres of federal land since 2009.
"The Great Green Rush," as the phenomenon is called by Los Angeles TV station KCET, is fueled by California's mandate to increase alternative energy sources, as well as federal government incentives.
Ironically, the "Great Green Rush," with all of its impacts to desert habitat, may yet be defeated by the mythical slow-moving tortoise. Only 20 plants are on track to be built and only three are up and running, according to the Los Angeles Times. Why? Several uncertainties are giving big solar investors cold feet, including an anticipated drop in federal tax credits in 2016, and -- oh, yes -- the unconsidered costs of protecting endangered species when a huge project is sited in the middle of their habitat.