Newspaper column: Opposition to wind farm project expressed

As part of its review process to determine whether to approve an application to allow construction of wind turbines on 32,000 acres of public land in Nevada adjacent to the California border just west of Searchlight, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted a series of scoping meetings to allow public input.

At a recent meeting in Las Vegas a half dozen speakers largely expressed support for renewable energy but not on the proposed site.

According to a 2012 filing with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, Crescent Peak Renewables is proposing to erect 220 wind turbine towers standing more than 400 feet high and generating 500 megawatts of power. The proposed site is adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve and the Castle Mountain National Monument in California and the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness and the South McCullough Wilderness in Nevada. All of the land is in Nevada.

Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area (Pix by Kurt Kuznicki)

Alan O’Neill, retired superintendent at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, testified there is a coalition of conservation organizations in California and Nevada that asked the BLM to hold off on issuing the notice of intent for the wind project until a supplemental resource management plan could be completed.

O’Neill also said the groups asked that the area be designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

“What we’d like the BLM to do, and I’m speaking on behalf of a number of conservation organizations, is for BLM to develop an alternative as part of this EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process that has a ‘no wind’ alternative,   combined with establishing the Castle Mountains ACEC. We think that’s a solid alternative,” O’Neill said, noting there are 19 environmental conservation organizations plus four retired superintendents backing the proposal.

“It seems disingenuous to me that in the overall presentation you’re talking about an impact of 750 acres,” actual area cleared for pads and roads, O’Neill remarked. “It is surrounded by wilderness characteristics with basically no roads, except backcountry roads. Those roads are 10 feet wide, and you’re talking about building 93 miles of new roads 36 feet wide, in addition to 15 miles of road that they’re expanding to 36. The impacts of that are astounding. And you’re talking about a hole in the doughnut. You’re talking about this area surrounded by a protected landscape that many of us in this room have spent literally decades trying to get protected. You’re talking about putting in an industrial-sized development.”

Laura Cunningham, a member of the environmental group Basin and Range Watch, stated, “I would recommend going to this area, like the Castle Mountains in Nevada, and hiking, because I think what’s not being said here is how absolutely beautiful this place is. It is really pristine. There are hardly any roads there.”

Cunningham added, “So, this is a really wild, remote area, really biologically diverse. My group, Basin and Range Watch, we’re going to have a ‘bioblitz’ April 28th and 29th.”

Her group’s website explains that the bioblitz, which is defined as a biological survey in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area, is part of an effort to persuade the BLM to designate roughly 38,000 acres of Nevada desert — which includes the proposed wind farm — as an ACEC.

“I was just hiking there a couple of weeks ago and it’s got a unique, rare Sonoran Desert grassland with Joshua trees and yuccas,” she said. “You get up on some of those low ridges, they don’t look like much on a map, but when you’re there it looks like you’re in East Africa or Namibia. You just don’t see anything — no transmission lines, maybe there’s one road way off in the distance, a dirt road.”

Jose Witt, who said he belongs to the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said that, while there is a need to replace fossil fuel power generation with renewable energy, there also is a need to protect view sheds and wildlife habitat.

“If we put this type of development in the middle of all these protected lands, it ruins the integrity and conservation values of all this area. We fragment the habitat and essentially lose islands of protection, or become islands, because there is no continuity,” Witt said.

Shannon Salter said the Joshua trees in the area need to be protected. “Some of them are over 30 feet tall and they are approximately 900 years old. We need them protected. The name of their forest is the Wee Thump Joshua forest. That word Wee Thump is a Paiute Indian word, which means ancient one,” Slater said.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

 

Searchlight Wind project being abandoned

After nearly a decade of paper shuffling, rancorous public hearings, street protests and legal challenges, the Searchlight Wind Energy Project backers have reportedly thrown in the towel and abandoned efforts to erect 87 wind turbines, each 400 feet tall, on 9,000 acres of federal public land east of the town of Searchlight, according to a press release from wind farm opponents at Basin and Range Watch.

A simulation of what the windmills in Searchlight would have looked like.

“According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Las Vegas Field Office,” the release says, “the agency is now in the process of closing the application for the project, 18 months after a federal judge voided the federal approvals for the project because of the likely harm to desert tortoises and golden eagles.”

Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, was quoted as saying, “We applaud the Bureau of Land Management for finally putting an end to this ill-sited wind project. There are clearly better alternatives for renewable energy utilizing rooftops and other locations in the built environment that would produce the same amount of megawatts. It is time for the BLM to manage this special location to protect the view-shed, wildlife, property values and cultural resources in a way that will bring tourist dollars to the region. This is no place for industrial scale energy.”

The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs confirmed the news, reporting that BLM spokeswoman said the developer has taken down its meteorological towers used to monitor wind strength and preparing to shut down the Searchlight project. “The BLM will inspect the land to make sure the (meteorological towers) are gone and the land where they were is reclaimed,” Cannon said in an email to the paper.

U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du basically told Searchlight Wind, now a division of Apex Clean Energy, to start over and fix its flawed environmental analysis or abandon the 200-megawatt project.

Du ruled the Interior Department’s approval of the project failed to adequately address concerns about impacts on bald eagles, golden eagles, desert tortoises and migrating bats, but she refused to grant a permanent injunction. She pointed out the initial data used by the BLM found there were only three golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed turbines. Subsequent surveys actually found 19 probable or confirmed golden eagle nests within five miles of the site, the judge wrote.

Searchlight native and former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid was a backer of the project. He has since sold his home there and moved to Henderson.

This round might be over but there may be another.

Basin and Range reports that the BLM is currently considering approval of an even larger wind energy project on 35,000 acres west of Searchlight — the Crescent Peak Wind Project. “If a federal court ruled that there are too many potential harms to build an industrial-scale wind project near Searchlight, surely a far larger project like Crescent Peak with far more impacts should not be developed,” Laura Cunningham, Basin and Range Watch’s executive director, was quoted as saying.

 

Judge orders Interior Department to further review its environmental impact studies for Searchlight Wind Project

A federal judge has sent the Interior Department back to the drawing board and told it to rework paperwork that resulted in granting a Record of Decision allowing the construction of a wind turbine farm east of Searchlight. Interior had issued an environmental impact statement that found the project’s impact on endangered desert tortoises and protected bald and golden eagles was not great enough to reject the construction of wind turbines near Lake Mojave.

The Searchlight Wind Energy Project would erect 87 industrial-scale wind turbines that would be more than 400 feet tall.

In her ruling six weeks ago, Judge Miranda Du pointed out the initial data used by the Bureau of Land Management for the determination found that there were only three golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the proposed turbines — similar turbines near Ely have killed two golden eagles in two years. Subsequent surveys actually found 19 probable or confirmed golden eagle nests within five miles of the site, the judge wrote.

Simulation of what windmills may look it east of Searchlight and near Lake Mohave, home to bald and golden eagle.

Also, the original study relied on Idaho data about the foraging distances golden eagles may fly from their nests.

“In December 2012, however, researchers published a study addressing golden eagle home ranges and foraging distances in the Mojave Desert,” Judge Du writes. “The study shows larger home range sizes and foraging distances than those reported in the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement). Taken together, this new information is sufficient to show significant environmental effects that Federal Defendants should consider in an SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement).”

Du also told the BLM to re-evaluate its conclusions about the impact of the project on desert tortoises, especially the effects of blasting and noises of the turbines during operation.

In a press release this past week the conservation groups who filed the federal suit to block the project stated that a survey actually found 28 golden eagle nests within 10 miles of the project site and that a new study shows golden eagles in the Mojave Desert travel nearly 10 times as far from their nests to forage as previously thought.

The plaintiffs include Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, Basin and Range Watch and individuals Judy Bundorf, Ellen Ross and Ronald Van Fleet Sr.

“The Searchlight area merits preservation from large-scale industrial development. The historic town is the ‘Gateway to Lake Mohave’ and Cottonwood Cove in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and is surrounded by beautiful Joshua trees and abundant wildlife,” said Searchlight resident Bundorf. “Thousands of tourists visit each year, and enjoy the wide-open vistas and unspoiled Mojave Desert scenery. Allowing a 9,000-acre, 14-square-mile industrial wind energy project around the town would be a death knell for tourism, and for the rural lifestyle of people who call the little community home.”

Interior has been cheerleading all kinds of bird killing renewable energy projects on public land.

The last time I checked the owners of the project had not found a buyer for the power the project would produce.

In 2012, Bundorf also testified before the Clark County Commission in an unsuccessful attempt to block extension of the wind farm’s deadline for beginning construction.

Bundorf compared the Searchlight project to the Sloan gravel pit project. Sen. Harry Reid, who had a home in Searchlight, fought the 640-acre gravel pit and managed to shut it down. Bundorf offered that she would rather have a hole in the ground than 87 huge windmills. She estimated the windmills, with 24-hour blinking strobe lights for aviation safety, will be visible from 20 miles away.

Reid has since sold his Searchlight home to a mining company and moved to Henderson. Coincidentally, when the project was first proposed it was to have 165 wind turbines, some on the west side of the town where Reid lived, but a comprise removed all the westernmost turbines.