JUICE : Slow Food Movement

By Published On: April 12, 2013

Before developers named it the “Inland Empire” it was a crappy boring desert. Growing up there, for diversion I’d catch a tortoise jaywalking Route 66. I’d take it home. Feed it iceberg lettuce. It wasn’t cuddly. No unconditional love. No furry warmth. But it was a perfect pet for a kid with a lack of attention to detail. Today, the area—including the desert over the mountains where solar projects are being built—is home to a growing number of people, strip malls and other land-uses. Still, part of me wonders what all the fuss is about preserving these ancient mobile carapaces, with their quiet lumbering way blocking big solar projects. They have a cold bloodline that goes back to dinosaur land. They’re tough little buggers. They easily live longer than humans. What’s the deal with a solar project giving them grief? They’re more resilient than that. Or are they? Turns out that it’s a baby problem. Young tortoises, before they shoulder those hardened shells, are treats for ravens. Something like a raven’s dive-thru lane at McTurtles. The more their habitat is disturbed, the more the next generation becomes prey. The result is a shrinking habitat for tortoises and other wildlife that places a higher mitigation burden on renewable developers, although more public land is trashed by off-road vehicles and the military. In the Mojave Desert, for example, about 750,000 acres is accessed by all-terrain and other off-road vehicles that run roughshod over habitat and critters. The military uses about another 3.5 million acres, and the number of upturned carapaces with their little legs waving toward heaven is unknown. Does more extensive destruction elsewhere make solar developments OK? Are some tortoises (and hares, and fox, and owls) worth a bunch of air conditioners and a fluent state economy moving away from fossil? There are no pat solutions but a fairly new state mitigation program holds some answers. California lawmakers passed legislation in 2010 that created a $10 million revolving loan program to buy comparable lands to offset harm on public lands used for solar and other renewable project developments. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife buys or finances the purchase of private lands that meet set criteria to offset non-fossil energy project impacts. To date, only one solar developer, BrightSource, has contributed to this “in lieu” mitigation program. Under a deal closed about two weeks ago, the solar developer paid $11.3 million to support the purchase of 7,000 acres of undisturbed lprivate and with similar tortoise habitat—double the amount of acreage being used to house BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar facility in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County. The company was unable to find land to replace the habitat it was destroying so paid into the Fish & Wildlife fund. This “in lieu” mitigation faced little opposition. Unlike earlier mitigation land swaps in other areas, this one includes decent funding. Of the $11 million price tag, $6.2 million is for the purchase of land in the west Mojave Desert and $5.2 million to cover management and department oversight costs. This funded land mitigation program, aimed at fostering both renewables development and habitat protection, has promise (see sidebar). If it results in expanded renewable protection and habitat gains as hoped this “in lieu” mitigation fund program should be expanded. It may reduce wandering tortoises’ dependence on the kindness of strangers, but I wonder why no one cares as much about the tortoises’ habitat-mate—the rattlesnake.

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