Threatened by Large-Scale Renewable Energy Projects

by Laura Cunningham, Basin & Range Watch

Clark County, Nevada – Two proposed large-scale energy projects could significantly damage Ice Age fossils on public lands in southern Nevada.

Both the Greenlink West Transmission Project and Golden Currant Solar Project would be built on significant Pleistocene fossil beds representing a time when marshlands were common in southern Nevada 12,000 to 100,000 years ago. Fossils preserved in these geologic formations include Columbian mammoth, sabertooth cat, camels, bison, and extinct types of horses among others.

NV Energy proposes to build the Greenlink West Transmission Project inside the boundary of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in the Las Vegas Valley which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS). A total of 11 giant power poles would be built on NPS lands, where a study using ground penetrating radar determined that the poles would damage significant fossils. Although alternative locations have been reviewed, the Interior Department continues to push this project within NPS boundaries.

Stump Springs, just across Tecopa Road from the Golden Currant Solar Project.

Photo: Laura Cunningham

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On the other side of the Spring Range, the Golden Currant Solar Project is proposed to be built on 4,400 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the South Pahrump Valley near Tecopa Road. In June, 2023, Basin and Range Watch co-founder Laura Cunningham located a Columbian mammoth fossil on the site. Cunningham holds a degree in paleontology from the University of California, Berkeley, and also had the mammoth tooth find verified by the Geology Department of University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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c. Pic 3 Columbian mammoth-sabertooth-graphite

Left: Columbian mammoth molar as found by Laura Cunningham at the site of the proposed Golden Currant Solar Project in South Pahrump Valley, NV.   Photo: Laura Cunningham

Right: Illustration by Laura Cunningham of a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) in a wetland, with sabertooth cat (Smilodon).

The huge molar was 18 inches long and was identified as from an old individual. Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) were related to the smaller, more northerly woolly mammoth (M. primigenius), and both species had grinding molars that they used to feed on coarse grasses.

The developer, Primergy, would cut and fill the topography for the Golden Currant Solar Project which would obliterate any fossils located on the site. The recent mammoth tooth fossil find prompted the BLM to require Primergy to conduct a full paleontological survey before the project review can proceed further.

The desert badlands may look barren today, but they are deposits from thousands of years of spring-fed marsh habitats. Imagine Ash Meadows with herds of giant Columbian mammoths. The rugged badlands south of Pahrump represent paleowetland deposits that are tens of thousands of years old, and during the Pleistocene these wetlands were habitat for foraging megafauna.

During the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted from 2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, the climate was generally colder and rainier in the Southwest deserts. Continental glaciers spread across northern Eurasia and much of Canada. During the Last Glacial Maximum, approximately 20,000 years ago, bristlecone pines grew as low as the foothills of the mountains surrounding Tule Springs.

The fossil mammoth molar was left in place, and the BLM notified of its presence. Tusks and other fossil remains could also be here. The area should be protected and studied, not destroyed by bulldozers and graders for solar panels that can easily go in the built environment.

Both projects are being reviewed with Environmental Impact Statements under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Laura Cunningham is the co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, is the California Director at Western Watersheds Project, and lives next to Death Valley National Park. She has worked in the  field of wildlife and  fishery biology and is author of A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (Heyday, 2010).