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

Environmental Statement Released on Project Next to Joshua Tree National Park

Desert Harvest site from Kaiser Road in Chuckwalla Valley | Photo: BLM

It's Friday afternoon, the traditional period when government agencies put out press releases they'd prefer not to attract a whole lot of attention -- especially after an extremely busy news week like this one's been. Today, the BLM released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Desert Harvest solar project next door to Joshua Tree National Park. Whether its release was designed to avoid attention or was merely a fluke of timing, it will likely attract less attention than it would have in another, quieter week.

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The 135 megawatt Desert Harvest project would cover 1,044 acres of public land near the Riverside County hamlet of Desert Center with photovoltaic panels, and would be prominently visible from the nearby section of Interstate 10, as well as from a number of wilderness mountain ranges in Joshua Tree National Park -- as well as within the Chuckwalla Bench Area of Critical Environmental Concern to the south. The project's size has been reduced from a bit over the 1,200 acres and 150 megawatts initially proposed by project developer enXco, now named EDF Renewable Energy.

The project is proposed for land five miles north of the Interstate, and immediately to the south of the developing Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, recently slammed by the National Parks Conservation Association as a "mistake" due to its effect on the nearby National Park's visual resources.

The BLM says the project size reduction was enacted in order to protect habitat of the Emory crucifixion thorn, a rare plant that it is surpassingly difficult to transplant, and blue palo verde-ironwood habitat, which is especially well-developed in the southern Chuckwalla Valley.

According to the EIS's executive summary, the project will have significant, permanent, and non-mitigable effects on the visual resources of the eastern Joshua Tree National Park area:

The project would create impacts from the conversion of a natural desert landscape to a landscape dominated by industrial character. Long-term land scarring would follow project decommissioning. The project would have strong visual contrast with the surrounding landscape and would be visible from proximate wilderness areas and scenic vistas. The project, if approved, would conflict with several Riverside County General Plan policies designed to protect visual resources.

The EIS also says the project "would contribute to loss of special status species in the NECO [North and East Colorado Desert] planning area."

The release of the EIS launches a 30-day period during which members of the public can protest or otherwise comment on the project as described in the final document. The deadline for such protests is December 5.

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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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I don't get the concept of "visual resources" with respect to solar power. As long as the solar farm stays outside of the boundaries of the protected lands of the park, I do not think it detracts from the park's beauty - and knowing its positive contributions to non-petroleum, renewable energy, I would say it enhances the scenery.

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It is shameful that the desert is being torn apart for these massive solar projects rather than putting more effort towards installing panels on rooftops or investing more in alternative energies.

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Visual resources means a lot when I am hiking in the Palen Wilderness Area on the mountain range and I look down and see several square miles of industrial solar panels instead of wild desert. From all the peaks of southeastern Joshua Tree National Park this project will create a brilliant artificial "lake" effect reflecting the sky, very visible.