Environmentalists in a Clash of Goals
By FELICITY BARRINGER
WHITEWATER CANYON, Calif. — As David Myers scans the rocky slopes of this desert canyon, looking vainly past clumps of brittlebush for bighorn sheep, he imagines an enemy advancing across the crags.
That specter is of an army of mirrors, generators and transmission towers transforming Mojave Desert vistas like this one. While Whitewater Canyon is privately owned and protected, others that Mr. Myers, as head of the Wildlands Conservancy, has fought to preserve are not.
To his chagrin, some of Mr. Myers’s fellow environmentalists are helping power companies pinpoint the best sites for solar-power technology. The goal of his former allies is to combat climate change by harnessing the desert’s solar-rich terrain, reducing the region’s reliance on carbon-emitting fuels.
Mr. Myers is indignant. “How can you say you’re going to blade off hundreds of thousands of acres of earth to preserve the Earth?” he said.
As the Obama administration puts development of geothermal, wind and solar power on a fast track, the environmental movement finds itself torn between fighting climate change and a passion for saving special places.
The conflict began playing out almost a decade ago in places like Cape Cod, Mass., where a plan to place 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound has pitted energy-conscious environmentalists against local residents who fear harm to aquatic life and the view.
It has spread west to Mojave-area locales like flatland near the Ivanpah Valley, 130 miles northeast of here, where a proposal to install three clusters of 50,000 solar mirrors has prompted anxiety over the fate of endangered tortoises.
Terry Frewin, a local Sierra Club representative, said he had tough questions for state regulators. “Deserts don’t need to be sacrificed so that people in L.A. can keep heating their swimming pools,” Mr. Frewin said.
For traditional environmentalists, industrial intrusions have always been anathema. They have fought such encroachment since John Muir opposed the dam that inundated the Hetch Hetchy Valley next to Yosemite almost a century ago. Similar opposition governs today’s campaign against drilling in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At a national level, that strategy is meshing with support for new policies intended to change how electricity is generated, how cars are made and how people live. “It’s not enough to say no to things anymore,” said Carl Zichella, a Sierra Club expert on renewable power. “We have to say yes to the right thing.”
So environmentalists like Mr. Zichella and Johanna Wald, a lawyer and longtime ecowarrior at the Natural Resources Defense Council, have joined an industry-dominated advisory group that makes recommendations to California regulators on where renewable-energy zones should be created.
“We have to accept our responsibility that something that we have been advocating for decades is about to happen,” Ms. Wald said. “My job is to make sure that it happens in an environmentally responsible way.”
The nation’s new interior secretary, Ken Salazar, called this month for a task force to map potential energy sites. To counter those efforts, Mr. Myers has proposed that Congress put hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in the Mojave Desert off limits as a national monument. The monument would stretch from Joshua Tree National Park to the National Park Service’s Mojave Preserve and would include the Sleeping Beauty Mountains.
The domain would encompass 960 square miles that the Wildlands Conservancy donated to the federal Bureau of Land Management for safekeeping plus a few hundred more.
Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, also proposed a national monument to protect much of the same land.
“I’m a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology, but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands,” said Mrs. Feinstein, who heads a subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department budget.
There is particular urgency to the hunt for renewable-energy sites in California. A 2006 state law requires utilities to produce 20 percent of the California’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
The goal is already a stretch, experts say, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to increase it to 33 percent. Getting there will mean rapid construction of plants and power lines.
To balance that goal against guarding the habitat of endangered species like the desert tortoise, Mr. Zichella, Ms. Wald and other environmentalists have shuttled between Sacramento, San Francisco and desert communities to learn about the specifics of power grids, solar technologies and desert ecosystems.
They are not always greeted warmly.
“We’re environmentalists,” said Jim Harvey, whose Association for a Responsible Energy Policy represents a coalition of activists in the Mojave area. “These people, who are supposed to be sitting next to us, are sitting across from us.”
Mr. Harvey’s group says that rooftop solar panels could be vastly expanded in heavily populated areas around Los Angeles. With energy conservation that would make desert clusters of solar plants unnecessary, it says.
Mr. Zichella and others counter that a wide embrace of expensive rooftop panels will be slow in coming. “The most prudent course is not to put all our renewable eggs in one basket,” Mr. Zichella wrote recently.
A reconciliation between the two environmental camps seems likely. As national and state targets mandate more and more renewable-energy projects, many say, environmentalists will have an incentive to work jointly to broker solutions with politicians and the energy industry.
“We are learning and understanding the trade-offs between things, and they are hard,” said Pam Eaton, deputy vice president of the public lands campaign of the Wilderness Society, who has been working to bridge gaps between environmentalists.
“You’ve got the short-term impact of a project versus a long-term problem, which is climate change,” Ms Eaton said.
In the Mojave, the biggest fight centers on high-voltage lines that are needed to reach areas where energy will be produced. The likely spots are separated from customers by two large national park properties, several wilderness areas and military bases like the Twenty Nine Palms Marine Corps reservation.
Finding a route for a project called Green Path North, which traverses those installations, fragile ecosystems and angry communities, has been difficult. One path “goes right between my house and the mountains,” Mr. Harvey said.
That is the kind of strife that Mr. Zichella and Ms. Wald are trying to ease.
Aware that internal debate is unavoidable, Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, suggests a greater effort to balance competing priorities.
“What you have to do,” Mr. Pope said, “is show that you’ve done the best job you can.”Posted by Arthur Caldicott on 25 Mar 2009