Press Release Apr 20, 2015

As DOI Solar Decision Looms, Community Leaders Call for Permanent Conservation of a Storied Desert Landscape

Area of Critical Environmental Concern Designation Sought for Soda Mountains

Baker, CA – Today, representing thousands of supporters, 120 key Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stakeholders, scientists, and former Interior Department employees called for the Interior Department to designate California desert’s Soda Mountains an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). This request comes on the verge of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) anticipated decision on whether a fiercely opposed Soda Mountains solar proposal will receive approval.

The ACEC request, contrasted with the solar proposal, underscores an important decision for the Interior Department, which stands to set the tone for its future: either protect a unique landscape with irreplaceable conservation values, or literally steamroll the vocal majority who oppose the project and the species and habitat in peril.

The Soda Mountain proposal has become known as the most harmful solar proposal under consideration by the Interior Department and is widely perceived to be against the public interest. Contention over whether this project should move forward has intensified due to the resource conflicts, opposition from all the surrounding local communities, and the knowledge that the project could be moved to a less harmful location.

“We have worked in partnership with BLM for decades to become a gateway community to the wild and beautiful country surrounding our desert town,” said Jacob Overson Manager of Baker Community Services District. “Now, BLM is willing to industrialize a neighboring valley important for bighorn sheep, for tourism, for education, and for our water supply. Did they ask us to protect resources just so they could destroy them?”

The Interior Department-appointed Desert Advisory Council, created to provide guidance to the BLM’s desert actions, recently signed a resolution opposing the project. “Our group resolved to oppose the Soda Mountain project due to the significant harm to National Parks, wilderness, wildlife, and recreation. It is obvious to everyone, including the BLM’s own advisors, that this project should be moved and that this special place should be protected as an ACEC due to its known important resources,” said Desert Advisory Council member Seth Shteir.

The Bechtel-backed Soda Mountain solar proposal would be built in what is noted as among the most important restorable corridors for desert bighorn sheep in the California desert, and is important habitat for kit fox, burrowing owl, and the desert tortoise. The proximity to rare desert springs also heighten the importance of this site as water drawdown from the solar project could affect rare desert fish and migratory birds. The site is also one quarter mile from Mojave National Preserve and close to the California State University Desert Studies Center which hosts researchers and students – many of whom experience their first national park in Mojave.

Mojave-focused Wildlife Biologist Ed LaRue noted, “The science community works closely with Interior to understand and conserve the spectacular resources in the California desert. That is why I can’t support a project that harms so much and offers so little in return. This technology could easily be moved to a better site in order to protect the diverse and federally-protected wildlife, springs, habitat, and future connectivity offered here. I join a community of scientists in calling for the Department to wake up and do the right thing.”

“The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, a national non-profit organization that is recognized as the voice of experience, is deeply concerned about the solar proposal,” said Ernie Quintana, Executive Council member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “We appeal to the leadership of the BLM to recognize the importance and sensitivity of this piece of the California Desert and pursue the establishment of a BLM Area of Critical Environmental Concern. This action would protect wildlife habitat and provide for connectivity among the existing BLM Soda Mountain Wilderness, the Cady Mountain Wilderness, and the National Park Service, Mojave National Preserve.”

“The Soda Mountain Solar project departs from the approach by President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell to transition to clean energy in a responsible and guided way,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert Associate Director for National Parks Conservation Association. “Desert community residents and beyond are angered over this painfully bad idea, but remaining focused on protecting this place that we so deeply love, by asking the Interior Department to protect Soda Mountains with an ACEC designation. This is a watershed moment for the Department in the California Desert, and thousands of people are watching and waiting for the agency to make the right decision.”

Click here to view the ACEC Petition and additional comments

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About National Parks Conservation Association
Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than one million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.