News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Departing Joshua Tree Superintendent Slams Desert Solar

Mark Butler with his A 38-year veteran of the National Park Service who capped his career by spending three years running Joshua Tree National Park has come out against a solar project proposed for the central Mojave Desert in no uncertain terms.

Mark Butler, who retired from his post at Joshua Tree's Superintendent last month, penned an op-ed in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times in which he slams the Soda Mountain Solar project near the Mojave National Preserve, calling it contrary to the mission of the National Park Service.

"After nearly 38 years working for the National Park Service, I hung up my 'flat hat' this month and retired as superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park," wrote Butler. "That means I can now speak out against pending proposals with the potential to harm our country's most spectacular national parks in the California desert."

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The 358-megawatt project would put just under 2,600 acres' worth of photovoltaic panels on a 4,000-acre parcel that is, by Mojave Desert standards, immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve.

Butler's op-ed spells out a number of objections to the project (covered earlier here and here on ReWire) including impacts on local populations of bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and the endangered Mohave tui chub.

Butler also points out the project's likely effect on the visual resources of the Mojave Preserve:

The solar project would also interrupt the sweeping scenic vistas of Mojave National Preserve. That would be a violation of both the spirit and intent of the recently passed San Bernardino County Renewable Energy Ordinance, which calls for solar developments not to impair views from hiking and backcountry camping areas within the preserve.

Butler is no stranger to proposed solar projects abutting national parks. During his tenure as Joshua Tree's Superintendent, the Interior Department approved the 4,000-acre Desert Sunlight solar project on the Park's 75th birthday. That project, surrounded on three sides by the Park, is now nearing completion. Not far from Desert Sunlight, the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System would put two 750-foot tall power towers less than a dozen miles from the park's southeastern boundary. EDF's Desert Harvest solar facility, Solar Reserve's Rice solar power plant, and a number of proposed wind power projects within sight of the park were also proposed or approved during Butler's tenure as Superintendent.

And those projects undermine the reason people come to Joshua Tree, says Butler:

In my time at Joshua Tree, I learned that most people come to the desert for its expansive and unobstructed views, and for that feeling that they are in some profound sense "away" from the confines of the modern world. In fact, more than 90 percent of Joshua Tree National Park's 1.4 million annual visitors say on surveys that they come to experience "views without development." To intrude on those views would be wrong.

Butler says that he's joined with four other retired Superintendents of California desert National Parks to formally oppose Soda Mountain in a letter. (We'll report on that letter when we get a copy.)

"When I joined the National Park Service nearly 40 years ago, I made a covenant with the American people to maintain the public trust and to dedicate my life to the stewardship and protection of our national treasures for future generations," says Butler. "That promise demands that I now sound the alarm about Soda Mountain."

Wouldn't it be nice if the people we pay to defend our National Parks, like Butler, those four other retired Superintendents, and the capable administrators that have taken their places, were allowed to speak their minds about threats to our National Parks before they hang up their "flat hats"? Just a thought.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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