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Feds Deny Solar Project Near Mojave National Preserve

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The Silurian Valley | Photo: Chris Clarke

A controversial large solar project that would have occupied more than 1,600 acres along the main scenic route between two desert national parks won't be happening, it was announced Friday. The 200-megawatt Silurian Valley solar project, which had been proposed by Iberdrola Renewables, was rejected by the Bureau of Land Management, which said the project would cause too much damage to the area's environment and historic resources.

Iberdrola's project would have been built along Highway 127 about ten miles north of the community of Baker in San Bernardino County, along a stretch of road that has been described as one of the most scenic in the state (including here at KCET.) The solar project would also have been immediately adjacent to Iberdrola's proposed Silurian Valley wind project, a 160-megawatt facility occupying more than 6,700 acres in the north end of the valley.

According to a press release issued by the BLM, the agency's assessment of the project found that its "impacts to the Silurian Valley, a largely undisturbed valley that supports wildlife, an important piece of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, and recreational and scenic values, had too great of an impact on the resources." The BLM determined that the solar project would not be in the public interest. The wind component of the project was not addressed in the announcement.

The Silurian Valley solar project had been intensely controversial due to its location in a renowned scenic corridor between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, as well as the likelihood that migratory birds following the course of the Mojave River drainage a few miles south might mistake the project's photovoltaic panels for a large lake adjacent to the Silver Lake playa.

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This is the first time the BLM has turned down a renewable energy project on so-called "variance lands" that lie outside Solar Energy Zones designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012. Had the BLM approved Silurian Valley solar, the project would have been able to begin the environmental impact assessment process under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Unsurprisingly, environmental groups that had opposed the Silurian Valley solar project lauded the decision by the BLM.

"This isn't about solar or wind energy," said Sally Miller, a senior California conservation representative for thew Wilderness Society. "It is about the value of this place. Silurian Valley is simply not suitable for this type of large scale development. By denying the variance application, the BLM has paved the way for the level of protection this desert treasure has long deserved."

"Silurian Valley is the "connective tissue" of this portion of the northern Mojave Desert," added Miller. "It encompasses lower elevation lands that provide important connectivity habitat between nearby mountain ranges, and that link Death Valley National Park with the Mojave National Preserve. Allowing this application to move forward could have attracted more transmission, roads and other development, and potentially spurred other applications and potential development in this very special and remote part of the California desert."

"Today's decision is a powerful step forward for the BLM and its stated landscape-level approach to conservation and guided energy development," said David Lamfrom, California Desert Associate Director of the National Parks Conservation Association. "It also marks tremendous progress for wildlife and one of our truly wild and beautiful places."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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