Feds Laud Solar Project Near National Park, Forget to Mention Park

Not labeled in background: the Coxcomb Mountains, formerly one of the wildest areas in Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior.

There's something unusual about the Interior Department's PR blitz to mark the formal launch of the massive Desert Sunlight Solar Farm next door to Joshua Tree National Park: Interior doesn't mention the Park anywhere in its press release.

The 550-megawatt solar project, approved in August 2011 on Joshua Tree NP's 75th birthday, is surrounded on three sides by the popular desert park's remote and wild eastern sections. The project's eastern fence runs within about a mile of the park boundary in the Coxcomb Mountains.

But you won't learn that from the Interior Department's press release celebrating the formal opening of the plant, which doesn't mention the 1,234-square-mile National Park even in passing.

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Desert Sunlight, which was built by First Solar on more than six square miles of open desert north of the Riverside County community of Desert Center, came fully online in December, but it wasn't until Tuesday that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM head Neil Kornze joined state and local dignitaries for a formal ribbon-cutting.The Interior Department's press release lauding the project does take pains to describe its location, but neglects to mention the local landmark most likely to be recognized by Southern Californians:

We've cobbled together a rough map showing the location and approximate extent of the project in relation to Joshua Tree National Park:

Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, surrounded by Joshua Tree National Park | Map: Chris Clarke | KCET

Oddly, the Interior Department's release does mention that the National Park Service was involved in negotiations to reduce the project's originally proposed footprint of nearly 30 square miles:

But the release doesn't explain just why NPS was involved in those negotiations: because those 30 square miles of proposed solar photovoltaic arrays would have been cheek-by-jowl up against some of the wildest sections of a 1,234-mile national park.

This isn't the first time national parks have gone curiously unmentioned in discussion of solar facilities proposed for their fencelines. The proposed Soda Mountain solar project in San Bernardino County, whose fate is expected to be determined by a BLM decision this month, would be within a mile of some of the wildest parts of the 2,400-square-mile Mojave National Preserve. Nonetheless, early detail maps of the project prepared for public scoping meetings by BLM staff omitted the Preserve.

"Solar projects like Desert Sunlight are helping to create American jobs, develop domestic renewable energy and cut carbon pollution," said Secretary Jewell in the Interior Department release. "I applaud the project proponents for their vision and entrepreneurial spirit to build this solar project and commend Governor Brown for implementing policies that take action on climate change and help move our nation toward a renewable energy future."

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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