Can bighorns, a bullet train and a huge solar farm coexist in the Mojave Desert?
Published in Science & Technology News
BAKER, Calif. — To most travelers on Interstate 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas, the Mojave Desert’s jagged Soda Mountains rise above a seemingly lifeless wasteland of hellish sand dunes, lava flows and vast flatlands.
But scientists say the scorched terrain just half a mile north of the Mojave National Preserve’s aptly named Devil’s Playground is a deceptively delicate and vital ecosystem rich in wildlife: tortoises, foxes, badgers, bobcats and bighorn sheep.
Now, proposals to build a high-speed electric rail linking Southern California to Las Vegas and revive a long-dead solar project in the area have triggered a clash with conservationists over how best to ensure that bighorn sheep populations do not become genetically isolated — or wind up as roadkill.
Of particular concern was a recent announcement that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a revised version of the controversial Soda Mountain Solar Project that includes requests for permits to “take,” or fatally injure, desert tortoises, and alter desert washes during construction.
“We can’t let this solar project happen,” said Chris Clarke of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn.
“The value of this landscape and its habitat,” he said, “far outweighs the value of energy the proposed project would generate.”
For Mojave watchers, the situation is a crucial test of state Fish and Wildlife’s ability to mediate compromises among the developers while also planning a sustainable future for complex and fragile ecological networks across the desert.
Critics worry that the solar project could jeopardize negotiations among federal rail officials, Caltrans, state wildlife authorities and the rail developer, Brightline West of Miami, to include three wildlife overcrossings in its $8 billion project, which would occupy the center divider of Interstate 15.
Zglobal, the Folsom, California, renewable energy company backing the Soda Mountain Solar Project, and Brightline were unavailable for comment.
But Christina Aiello, a biologist at Oregon State University and expert on bighorn sheep along Interstate 15, said, “It’s a bit of a shock that this zombie solar project has reemerged from the dead.”
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