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Opposition Grows To Wind Development Near Mojave Preserve

Avikwame seen from Wee Thump, January 2010. This view would be filled with wind turbines in the distance | Photo: Chris Clarke

As ReWire tracks proposed wind turbine developments in the Mojave Desert, it's become clear that developers are increasingly eyeing the area just north and east of the Mojave National Preserve. There are active wind proposals in the Silurian Valley north of Baker. Element Power has a permit to test for wind resources in Mountain Pass, on a site almost completely surrounded by the Preserve. Oak Creek Energy Systems has a similar testing permit at the northern end of the New York Mountains, just inside the Nevada line, in land that would certainly be part of the Preserve were it not for that state line.

But the application that's farthest along is Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind Energy Project, which would place from 87 to 96 turbines, each 427 feet tall, on almost 19,000 acres surrounding three sides of the little Nevada town from which it takes its name. The turbines would be just east of the Mojave National Preserve, as close as a mile and a half to the boundary of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and in an area of supreme cultural significance to Native people across the desert.

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The BLM issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Searchlight Wind Energy Project in December, and as the project has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- a local, at least on paper -- a Record Of Decision (ROD) from the Interior Department in favor of Searchlight Wind is almost certainly a done deal.

That's angered a number of locals, as well as frequent visitors who appreciate the views across the Southern Nevada desert. Those views are more than just scenery to some. From much of the area of the Preserve, including the Wee Thump Wilderness Area northwest of Searchlight, the turbines would intrude on the view of Spirit Mountain. Also known as Avikwame, that mountain -- a striking white massif rising above the desert -- is the center of the origin myth for a number of desert Native people from the local Mohave to the Quechan farther south, as well as the Yavapai, Hualapai, and Havasupai of Northern Arizona.

What Federal land planners somewhat prosaically call "visual resources" are of supreme importance to the tribes along the Colorado River: being able to see and describe the surrounding mountain peaks is an important part of Native ritual, as for example in the Chemehuevi's Salt Songs. As Avikwame is traditionally considered the home of Mastamho, the son of the Creator, Spirit Mountain plays about the role in local religion that the Vatican or Mecca play in certain other faiths.

Judy Bundorf of the grassroots group Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains related to me two weeks ago how the BLM had answered her queries about the impact of the Searchlight Wind project on native practices. "They told us that the sightlines between Spirit Mountain and the Native people wouldn't be affected, because the turbines would all be north of the mountain, and the reservation is in the other direction."

I ran into Bundorf at an event in Ward Valley commemorating the 15th anniversary of the defeat of the nuclear waste dump once proposed for that site. Also in attendance was my friend Rev. Ronald Van Fleet, an elder in the Fort Mohave Indian Tribe. I asked Ron whether the view of Avikwame from the reservation to the south was the only one that mattered to the Mohave. He just laughed.

Added to the cultural impacts of the project are the likely effects on large birds, especially eagles. The Searchlight Wind project would place turbines on either side of the pass leading down to the Colorado River along Cottonwood Cove Road, a potentially important migration corridor for birds and bats heading between the Eldorado and Newberry Mountains to travel between the river and the vicinity of the Mojave Preserve. Both Duke Energy and the BLM state that raptor populations in the area are relatively low, with only three golden eagle sightings recorded in the vicinity of the project site since 2007. (I lived in the area for much of 2008 and saw that many golden eagles in a week, although admittedly not directly on the project site.) The project area, largely composed of Joshua tree forest, is also habitat for desert tortoise, with 122 torts found in the project area during a 2011 survey. Eleven species of cactus grow in the area, and I've had personal communications from locals citing individual Gila monsters seen along roadsides in the area.

Though a green-light from Interior is near-certain given Reid's backing, Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains hasn't given up on its opposition: it's organizing a demonstration in Searchlight on Saturday, February 23 to urge the BLM to go back to the drawing board with the EIS. The group wants a wider range of alternatives considered in the document, including distributed generation, siting on private lands moving the project away from private property and valuable habitat.

It would also be sensible for the BLM to pay closer attention to potential cumulative impacts of the Searchlight site combined with those proposed for the Castle-New York Mountains, Mountain Pass, and the Silurian Valley. Fringing the northern edge of the Mojave Preserve with 200-foot turbine blades just seems on the face of it to be something we could think through a bit more carefully.

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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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