Monthly Archives: October 2010

BrightSource, Center for Biological Diversity make pact

As the bulldozers roll, energy developer BrightSource and the Center for Biological Diversity announce they have reached an agreement.

For Immediate Release, October 22, 2010


Kierán Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 275-5960
Kristin Hunter, BrightSource Energy, (415) 281-7161

Center for Biological Diversity and BrightSource Commit to Desert Protections

TUCSON, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity and BrightSource Energy, Inc. reached an agreement today to provide additional protections for the desert tortoise and other rare species affected by the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project in the Mojave Desert.

Under the terms of the agreement, BrightSource will arrange for the acquisition and/or enhancement of thousands of acres of desert tortoise and other desert habitat. The specific lands identified for acquisition and/or enhancement will be made public when agreements are completed with the willing sellers. 

“This agreement will provide important additional protections for the desert tortoise and other sensitive species in the area affected by this project, above and beyond what was required by the state and federal agencies that recently approved it,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center, which will receive no money or other compensation from the agreement.

“With world-class sun and rich biological diversity, the Mojave Desert is a vital resource to California and our nation,” said John Woolard, President and CEO of BrightSource Energy. “From the start of this project, we have focused on reducing its impact by implementing an environmentally responsible technology. We’re pleased to work with the Center to enhance the project by ensuring additional protections for desert tortoise and other habitat.”

Following a three year permitting process, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the State of California approved the 370-megawatt project earlier this month. The project entails approximately 3,500 acres of public land in San Bernardino County.

“The desert tortoise is an irreplaceable member of the Mojave Desert ecosystem that has been struggling to survive for decades against an onslaught of threats ranging from loss of habitat, cattle grazing, off-road vehicles, disease, and now, the effects of global warming. Today’s agreement will provide the tortoise significant additional relief,” said Suckling.

BrightSource and the Center agree that the California and Nevada desert ecosystems are nationally important and must be better managed and protected. The Center and BrightSource are committed to working to ensure that future utility-scale solar projects are sited thoughtfully to avoid conflict and achieve the mutual goals of preserving species habitat, meeting the need for climate protection, and rapidly transitioning the U.S. away from fossil fuels.

Petition to Save The Desert Tortoise from Big Energy

The petition is here. Go sign it, then tell your friends to do the same. Post it on your blog, mention it in appropriate blog comment threads, facebook and twitter it to hell and back.

They’re finding a lot more tortoises than they expected at Ivanpah. A lot. Now is a very good time for the BLM and CEC to be made aware of public sentiment in favor of the tortoise.

Sign here.

Solar Gold: The Ivanpah Spirit Run (video)

Filmmaker Robert Lundahl joined us at the Ivanpah Spirit Run last weekend. This is the result. Edited among images and interviews with Spirit Run participants are snippets of a longer interview with Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center Director Jim Andre. You can see that unedited interview here.

Solar Gold: Ivanpah Spirit Run from Robert Lundahl on Vimeo.

More shortly on the Run, how I came to participate as a runner, and why I didn’t wear shoes to do so.

A moment during the Ivanpah Spirit Run

taking a breather

He was taking a moment in between running along Ivanpah Road to collect rocks. There are plenty of rocks along Ivanpah Road, debris washed off two mountain ranges. He had a fistful of nice quartz. Five hours later on the Ivanpah Lake playa seven miles north he offered to sell me a piece of roadbed gravel for a dollar.

The Sierra Club decides to let Ivanpah happen

Posted without comment from the Ivanpah Valley, a memo sent Friday by Sierra Club national to the Club’s activists. Forwarded to me by a dozen of said activists.

Memo on Ivanpah from Robin Mann and Michael Brune

No one said that clean energy would be easy.

After much deliberation, the Board of Directors made a difficult decision this week not to try to block BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar project in the Mojave Desert.

Club volunteers and staff have worked tirelessly to reconfigure Ivanpah in a way that would do the least harm to the desert tortoise and the surrounding ecosystem. Unfortunately Brightsource is moving forward with a plan that causes unnecessary harm to species. 

The Board of Directors has decided not to pursue litigation at this time. This battle has already been costly, and we must now rely on the federal agencies to require that Brightsource come around, so that we can focus our resources and attention to making sure that future large-scale renewable energy projects are built in a more responsible manner. We will continue to work with the Interior Department and Brightsource to improve the project in any way we can.

The Sierra Club remains deeply committed to moving America off of dirty energy quickly and responsibly, and that will include building large-scale renewable energy projects in the smartest way possible — by eliminating or minimizing harm to wildlife and natural resources.

Because the Sierra Club has a long history of protecting wildlife and public lands, as well as a record of winning fights against dirty energy, we are in a unique position to make sure clean energy projects are built responsibly. We are also in a tough position; we urgently need to get clean energy up to scale, and that means we will face more difficult decisions about where to put large renewable projects. 

There are solutions to this conflict. As we showed with our proposed reconfiguration of Ivanpah, there is a way to balance clean energy development with the protection of our wildlife and natural resources.

We thank all of the volunteers and staff members who have dedicated years — and tears — to the Ivanpah fight. There will be more battles ahead, and we hope we can count on you to lead us to clean energy solutions.

The Ivanpah project has received occasional media attention over the past few months and will likely receive more. You can find our approved talking points in Clubhouse.

But please note that we are the only official Club spokespeople on this issue, along with Clean Energy Solutions Senior Representative Barb Boyle. Please direct any inquiries you may receive to Senior Press Secretary Kristina Johnson at (415) 977-5619.


Robin Mann, Sierra Club President
Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director

“Get some perspective on climate change!”

I subscribe to an email list operated by the Sierra Club and devoted to the topic of desert conservation. The majority of the active participants on the list are horrified by the Club’s support of desert public lands energy development, but every now and then someone will post a note saying that we need to remember how serious climate change is, with the unspoken message that we should not be too upset when a beautiful piece of desert is needlessly sacrificed to the energy industry. This weekend, as we were reeling from the news that the first Ivanpah Valley solar project had been approved and tortoises were already being relocated, someone made just such a comment.

I dashed off an angry reply, took a few moments to decide whether I would likely regret hitting “send,” decided that I didn’t care if I regretted it, hit “send,” then went to the desert for the weekend. On my return last night I found that I did not regret it. That reply, with minor grammatical corrections, follows.

I know that compared to some of my beloved compatriots on this forum I am a relative youngster a mere half century old, but I have been watching cherished and important pieces of the landscape be lost to foolishness or greed or random accident for most of that time. From the increasingly old second-growth hardwood forests of my native Western New York, to fragments of the chaparral and oak savanna ringing the San Francisco Bay area destroyed for housing now unoccupied, to the vernal pools plowed up to build UC Merced, to the old-growth redwood savaged in an orgy of junk-bond logging in the early 1990s, I have — as have many of you — lost landscapes I care about before, far too many times.

But this is the first time I can recall losing a landscape while being chided by ostensible allies that I am being short-sighted.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the (then) Buffalo Evening News warning about the threat of catastrophic climate change from fossil fuel burning in 1973. In 1980 I publicly refused to register for the draft and got air time on news stations from New York to Colorado to California talking about the manifold costs of our addiction to fossil fuel — “no war for oil” was a catchphrase even then — and among other issues I spoke about the inevitability of climate change if we didn’t change our ways, risking five years in Federal prison to do so. In 1989 I started working as an environmental advocacy journalist and worked to educate people about the climate effects of car dependency, of power generation, of destroying rainforests. I was the first magazine editor that I know of to publish a story on the threat of methane clathrate release from warming tundra and seafloors. I helped publicize the insane generation of power from coal stripmined at Black Mesa and shipped at a huge energy cost to Laughlin, there to be burned in a plant that turned the Mojave Valley skies the color of chocolate. I have mourned the seemingly inevitable fate of the pika and talked about it and written about it since 1992. I have mourned the seemingly inevitable fate of the red spruce forests since 1985.

And in the last two decades of falling in love with the Mojave, I have watched as the southern edge of that biome unravels, fire and invasives and drought and the whole interrelated nest of landscape disruptions either caused by or worsened by increasing temperatures. I watched in horror in 2005 as climate-driven fires burned more than a million acres of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in a mere six weeks, including land that had not burned since the Pleistocene.

I have devoted the last 15 years to writing a book about how climate change will almost certainly consign the Joshua tree to extinction in the wild, and my obsession with writing that book has consumed my life, contributed to my divorce, prompted my permanent moving away from the Bay Area, which aside from the Mojave is the only place that has ever felt like home.

And so I must ask: How much more goddamn perspective on the severity of climate change would those ostensible allies suggest I cultivate?

We have limited time and limited resources — both financial and political — to address the reality of climate change. We must absolutely find the quickest means by which we can reduce our burning of fossil fuels. If people read what we’ve put together over at in the briefings section, they will see that we advance and support the argument that remote solar, especially concentrating solar, is no longer as efficient as distributed PV at generating power in terms of engineering, of cost per installed kilowatt, of environmental impact on the landscape, and of time elapsed from conception to power generation. One might disagree with that argument, but so far I have seen no rebuttals to it that have any facts to back them up. Rather, I have seen dismissals based on assumptions that economics and technology have not changed since 1985, when CSP was more efficient in most ways.

California has installed more generating capacity this year in rooftop PV than Ivanpah would offer. That in the presence of significant disincentives to rooftop PV, and with green groups relegating their support of the industry to parenthetical, afterthought status.

I maintain that if people treat concentrating solar and remote, utility-scale PV as anything but a last desperate and ineffective resort, they do not fully grasp the magnitude of the threat climate change poses us. They have not paid sufficient attention. They have not thought things through. They have not listened.

But those of us grieving over Ivanpah, or Imperial, or Lucerne Valley: we’re the ones subject to lectures about realism. About needing to be pragmatic and constructive and team-playing and possessed of sufficient perspective and ready to accept some development in the desert. Despite the fact that not a peep of protest has been made in this forum about Abengoa Harper Lake, or Beacon, or Palmdale. Despite the fact that Sierrans in this group have played fair and by the rules and remained loyal to the Club, even as National has undone decades of their work. Despite the facts being unambiguously on our side, should anyone care to note them.

And atop all this — atop all this! — the bulldozers at Ivanpah are merely the first pebbles in an avalanche. In a month we will look back wistfully at this week,  when it was just a few acres of Ivanpah Valley being killed, and the mainstream groups restrict their response to regretful noises about trade-offs and sad perspective and doing things better in the future.

So damn straight I’m grieving. And furious. And despondent.

But never mistake that for giving up. Ivanpah is not yet killed. There are still things we can do to stop the project, including offering support for the local tribes as they bring their forces to bear, and supporting any group with standards enough to sue, if there are any.

And should the worst come to pass there, I will work to make the name “Ivanpah Valley” a bone in the throat of any organization willing to explain away its complicity in killing it, the way the name “Glen Canyon Dam” has been for Certain Organizations.

Because I’m just that unconstructive, and lacking in perspective, and short-sighted.  And I am just one of many.

Accidental art

Apparently my phone’s camera uses a built-in “Instant Impressionism” filter when you zoom in under low light.


Saturday evening, Oct 9, 2010, Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

Biologists scour Mojave Desert in tortoise roundup

Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times:

More than 100 biologists and contract workers fanned out across a nearly pristine stretch of the eastern Mojave Desert on Friday to start rounding up tortoises blocking construction of the first major solar energy plant to be built on public land in Southern California.

On a sunny morning in the height of tortoise courting season, the biologists methodically peered under every bush and into every hole on both sides of a two-mile lane traversing the project site. Following close behind, workers bladed century-old creosote bushes and erected fencing in areas that will soon be declared a “tortoise-free zones.”

The effort in San Bernardino County’s panoramic Ivanpah Valley, just north of Interstate 15 and about 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, disrupted complex tortoise social networks and blood lines linked for centuries by dusty trails, shelters and hibernation burrows.

Read more.

RELEASE: Destructive Ivanpah Solar Project approved in Mojave Desert Core Habitat

For Immediate Release

Destructive Ivanpah Solar Project approved in Mojave Desert Core Habitat
Renewable energy coalition calls for halt to misguided industrial development on fragile wildlands

October 7, 2010: Solar Done Right (SDR), an influential coalition of conservationists working to halt the development of industrial energy projects on intact southwestern habitat slammed today’s decision by the US Interior Department to approve the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS).

“The project hemorrhages the very heart of the biologically rich eastern Mojave Desert, where plant diversity rivals that of the primeval coastal redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest,” said SDR member Jim Andre, who serves as director of the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. “This area is treasured by scientists throughout the world for its unparalleled pristine quality among deserts, one of the last functional ecosystems left on Planet Earth.”

“Every time I hike in Ivanpah Valley I find something new,” said Nevada wildlife biologist Laura Cunningham of SDR. “Migrating gray vireos, black-tailed jackrabbits, western banded gecko hunting insects at night, or intact cryptobiotic soil crusts covering the ground. This site is rich in life and needs to be preserved, not industrialized.”

A new study by The Nature Conservancy affirms the ecological importance of the Ivanpah site. In its September, 2010 “Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment,” TNC assigned the Ivanpah site to the top priority conservation category “Ecologically Core” lands, of which lands the report’s authors said “[t]heir full protection is critical for long-term conservation of biodiversity in the Mojave Desert.”

“This project is financed with roughly $2 billion of our taxpayer dollars and is being built on our public lands,” said Sheila Bowers, an clean energy advocate in California. “Any power produced here is going straight to other sunny California locations, so wouldn’t our money be much better spent on PACE loans so that residents could produce the same amount of clean, affordable power from our homes and businesses, where the power is needed?”

“I hope the public understands: this is land that belongs to all of us,” said Janine Blaeloch, Director of Western Lands Project in Seattle, Washington, and a founding member of SDR. “It is nothing short of tragic that we would do this when we could generate power in urban areas instead.”


ISEGS, which would replace 3,600 acres of old-growth Mojave Desert with an industrial facility immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, has been roundly criticized by conservation organizations as needlessly destructive of critical habitat for the desert tortoise and other threatened species.

The Nature Conservancy report ” Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment 2010” is available for download at

Solar Done Right, founded in the summer of 2010, is a coalition of public land activists, solar power and electrical engineering experts, biologists and others around the country who view with concern the rush to develop our few remaining wild lands for industrial solar energy.

In the months since SDR’s founding, the group has helped stage and participate in a protest encampment at the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station site, and met with dozens of Congressional and agency staff in Washington, DC to promote its approach to renewable energy development.

Solar Done Right holds that there is a proper hierarchy of priority for strategies to end our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels.  We should start the switch by using the most cost-effective strategies for renewable energy production, which also happen to be the least environmentally destructive. In descending order of priority:

1) Reduce demand.

2) Generate renewable energy at or near the point of use.

3) Generate renewable energy on a larger scale within the built environment.

Solar Done Right contends that a mix of these techniques can meet our electrical energy needs without large remote concentrating solar projects. However, should it turn out that after every practicable effort is made to reduce demand and generate renewable power at the point of use some form of remote concentrating solar turns out to be necessary, such projects should be restricted to heavily degraded land that offers no wildlife habitat, agricultural, or similar values, and to technologies that do not deplete scarce water resources. Public and private wild lands and productive agricultural land should never be converted to large-scale renewable energy production.  Visit the SDR website at

“We need to not be the environmentalists who say NO to everything.”

Ken Salazar and Arnold Schwarzenegger formally approved Chevron’s Lucerne Valley Solar project and Tessera’s Imperial Solar Two project today.

The Sierra Club took no action to prevent the second — despite the site’s being intact habitat for the critically endangered flat-tailed horned lizard and an archaeological and cultural treasure, and despite local and regional Club activists pleading that the Club intervene — and actually facilitated the first, calling an intact swath of Joshua tree forest “degraded land,” and trumpeting their work as an advance for the planet.

"We need to not be the environmentalists who say 'NO' to everything."

There are so many good people working for the Sierra Club, and for NRDC and The Wilderness Society — two other groups working to facilitate some of these awful, destructive projects. I have friends on the staff of all three. Some of them truly believe their organizations are doing the right thing. Others are attempting to sway those groups with varying degrees of hopefulness.

But the Sierra Club as a whole has become a threat to the survival of our deserts. I am just so goddamned disappointed.

The Playa Isn’t Lifeless

[A preview of a piece I wrote for the upcoming El Paisano.]

Ivanpah Lake in the rain

What landscape could be more sterile than a playa? Dry lake beds in desert valleys seem as devoid of life as any place on Earth. Playas are the desert boiled down to its essentials: the horizon, the sky, the occasional dust-devil dancing across the seemingly lifeless plain. But that plain isn’t really lifeless. Complex communities of organisms have evolved strategies for survival in these incomprehensibly hostile places.

Playas form in valleys that collect enough runoff to fill lakes, but not enough to keep those lakes from drying up. When a desert lake dries it leaves behind a dry lakebed, usually referred to in North American deserts by the Spanish word for beach: playa. In valleys where the ephemeral lake has some outflow – either in a surface channel, or through the soil into an aquifer – the lake will leave behind a brownish mudflat. Where water cannot flow out of the lake it leaves behind dissolved minerals when it evaporates, and the playa that forms will thus be full of those salts.

When the playa is dry its residents go into hiding. After a rain, when a bit of standing water stays on the playa’s surface for a few days, they emerge and multiply. Green algae such as Dunaliella and Dangeardinella begin to tint the water – green if the salinity is mild, reddish as the water evaporates. Other contributors to the red tint often found in saline lakes are Haloarchaea, also called “halobacteria.” Haloarchaea are not true bacteria but are rather a family within the domain Archaea, and are the main reason for the pink tinge in the salt crusts in places like Owens Lake.

After water has stood in ephemeral desert lakes for about a day and a half, the eggs of fairy shrimp begin to hatch. Fairy shrimp are crustaceans in the order Anostraca, which includes about 500 species in two dozen genera. They include brine shrimp, the “sea monkeys” sold to generations of curious children.

There are dozens of species of fairy shrimp native to ephemeral lakes in the southwest deserts. Most of them are filter feeders about a half-inch long, gathering up the halobacteria, algae, and organic detritus that may have been blown or washed onto the playa. One species, however – Branchinecta gigas, the giant fairy shrimp – has found a niche a step higher on the food chain. Growing to as long as six inches, the giant fairy shrimp preys on its smaller cousins.

Giant Fairy Shrimp

Branchinecta gigas, the giant fairy shrimp.

Other crustaceans that emerge from wet playa soil include tadpole shrimp and clam shrimp, both named for their general appearance. Tadpole shrimp prey on fairy shrimp and anything else smaller than they are. Their dormant larvae can withstand several years of drought before a wet year allows them to become adults and breed. Clam shrimp can ride out long droughts too: seven years or more of desiccation isn’t enough to kill these survivors from Devonian times.

About a week after a good rain, spadefoot toads will emerge from their burrows. If the playa is of the mudflat variety rather than salty, the spadefoots head for the ephemeral lake, where the males fill the air with their odd, sheep-like calls to attract potential mates. The females lay eggs in the water, which hatch in a day or so, and the resulting tadpoles race to eat as much as they can – including algae, smaller invertebrates, organic detritus, and occasional smaller tadpoles. The tadpoles grow and develop quickly. If the standing water persists for a week, young adult frogs emerge and head uphill to dig burrows in which they can wait out the next drought. If the lake dries up in three days rather than eight, a generation of toads will perish.

With the sudden flush of new life when a playa fills with water, it’s no surprise that other creatures show up to take advantage of that bounty. Ephemeral lakes in the desert often play host to an astonishing range of birds, from the local ravens and wrens to ducks and shorebirds, to dramatic visitors such as white pelicans, sandhill cranes, and even great blue herons.

When the playa dries up, the birds leave and the spadefoots dig their holes, and the smaller organisms’ eggs and spores settle into the mud, where passing dust devils pick them up and carry them to other basins. Wherever they land, they need only a good monsoon to come to life once more. Not bad for a “lifeless” environment.


I’m up in my writers’ group this week, and I’m cranking out Chapter 11* of the Joshua tree book, writing about the night I took this photo. So here it is.


*No bankruptcy jokes please. Too close to home what with working 10 hours a week.