The Case of Charleston View | By Patrick Donnelly |
A little known corner of the northern Mojave Desert is being targeted as the latest solar energy sacrifice zone. Charleston View, California doesn’t have a Post Office or a zip code. Public meetings used to convene in front of the payphone, but then the phone company removed it, so now they occur in front of the dumpsters. There are 150 people that live in this far-flung outpost on the California/Nevada border, and they are squarely in the crosshairs of land use planners for Inyo County and the California Energy Commission (CEC), who desire the locale as a site for utility-scale solar energy production.
Inyo County has proposed Charleston View as a Solar Energy Development Area (SEDA) in its Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA). This planning process was funded by a $700,000 grant from the CEC, which, in its mad dash to help the state meet its Renewable Portfolio Standard obligations, is incentivizing desert counties to expedite the permitting of solar projects on private land. If the Inyo County REGPA is adopted, solar developers would face reduced bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining county permits for projects within the SEDAs, and potentially may not be required to prepare full Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). Charleston View is by far the largest of the seven SEDAs proposed in the county, allowing up to 400MW of generation on 2,400 acres.Photo at top: Charleston View, taken from the middle of the proposed SEDA. Credit, Shaun Gonzales
This is not the first time solar power production has been proposed in this area: BrightSource Energy put forward the Hidden Hills Solar Energy Generating System (SEGS) in 2010. This behemoth 500 MW utility-scale solar project was to feature two 750-foot tall power towers, dwarfing those at the now-infamous Ivanpah SEGS, located two valleys to the south. In late 2013, the EIR was put on hold for two years, at least partially due to widespread opposition, which caused delays in permitting.
Charleston View is located in the northern Mojave Desert, perched above the beautiful Pahrump Valley (which is largely in Nevada) on the southeast slope of the Nopah Range. It boasts a stunning view across the valley to the Spring Range and snow-capped Mt. Charleston. Decades ago, a wildly optimistic landowner graded a grid of roads here, hoping to grow a bedroom community for Las Vegas. This never happened, and many of the roads have gradually returned to the desert. It is a fairly typical creosote/saltbush scrub ecosystem. There are known populations of desert tortoises and burrowing owls, bighorn sheep use it to connect adjacent mountain ranges, and it is generally what one might think of as “undisturbed.” During the Hidden Hills proceedings, a California Native Plant Society survey found seventeen rare plants, many discovered in California for the first time, and only known in the state in this immediate area.
And spread out across the landscape in isolated pockets are the residents of this largely undeveloped area. Hidden Hills SEGS would have been quite literally in the front yards of some residents, and would be directly in line with the prized view of Mt. Charleston for the entire community. The Old Spanish Trail, a National Historic Trail and route taken by explorers and traders, runs directly through Charleston View. The area is sacred to the Pahrump Paiute, and has been identified as part of the Salt Song Landscape, a vitally important ethnographic area for all Southern Paiute. The land slated for development completely envelops these modern and historic cultural areas, turning what was a quiet desert refuge into an industrialized solar slum.
Southern Inyo County, which also includes the communities of Tecopa, Shoshone, Death Valley Junction, and Furnace Creek in Death Valley, has no more than 500 residents, representing less than 3% of the county’s population. There is near universal opposition to utility-scale solar development in the scenic Owens Valley, 200 miles away on the more populated side of Inyo County, but many feel that the County “has to put it somewhere.” No matter how well-meaning, politicians have voters to please and the CEC to appease, so the REGPA plans for 45% of the utility-scale solar power development in Inyo County to be sited at Charleston View.
Meanwhile, within the environmental community there are echoes of the Great Schism of the late 2000s, when a stark divide appeared between desert activists, who prioritized land conservation, and big national environmental groups, who prioritized combating climate change. Submitting comments on the REGPA in January 2015, local Inyo County groups were unanimous in their opposition to utility-scale solar development in Charleston View, and many national groups supported that position. But not all. Some national groups told the County that private lands in Charleston View would be appropriate for utility-scale solar power.
The history of resource conflicts related to the industrialization of the West has been one of trade-offs: battles won and battles lost. We kept the dams out of the Grand Canyon and Echo Park; we let them build one in Glen Canyon. We prevented oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; we let the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming and the San Juan Basin in New Mexico turn into vast petro-wastelands. We’ve kept utility-scale solar out of the central Mojave (so far); we’ve let the Ivanpah, Chuckwalla, and Antelope Valleys get paved under with mirrors.
But who gets to decide that Charleston View is a solar sacrifice area? Do politicians representing far-off and more visible constituencies decide on the fate of an ecosystem and a community? Do state-level energy planners, drawing with pink colored highlighters on a map of a 25 million acre desert, get to put this place on the chopping block in the name of meeting abstract targets and goals? Do big, national environmental groups get to choose which areas are wild enough or full of enough endangered animals to save, and which are just “junky desert?”
By press-time, Inyo County and the CEC may already have decided Charleston View’s fate. By this time next year, Charleston View could be undergoing a dramatic transformation, from a quiet and undisturbed desert community, full of wildflowers and tortoises and humans, to an industrialized energy production zone. This is the cost of PG&E and SoCal Ed using our electric bill to fund political battles to suppress the expansion of rooftop solar. This is the cost of Californians feeling superior about how green their energy is every time the Renewable Portfolio Standard gets ratcheted up further. This is the cost of making trade-offs.
This story illuminates a fundamental problem with the way we, as a society, have chosen solar sacrifice zones. We think that only those places with formalized protection, with Wilderness status, Critical Habitat, or National Conservation Lands designation are worth saving. Private land tucked into some remote corner of the desert, full of underprivileged and largely invisible citizens, seems the ideal place to declare a sacrifice zone in the minds of some.
But at heart, this is an issue of environmental injustice. These places matter. These people and their homes matter. These tortoises and bighorn and burrowing owls and rare milkvetches matter. The Southern Paiute’s traditional sacred lands matter.
So resistance continues. Residents have mobilized, and great pressure is being brought to bear to protect this place from solar power’s shimmering hand. Groups like Amargosa Conservancy, Friends of the Inyo, and many others have been lobbying Inyo County and the CEC, attempting to give a voice to a place that is so often overlooked. At a County hearing on the REGPA in Tecopa, over 30 residents came out to express their displeasure at having their homes and landscape targeted for solar development. Perhaps the greatest quote of the evening came on the topic of appropriate mitigation to “make up” for the damage done to the landscape. “You mean if they go out there and kill a bunch of turtles, but then they make turtle soup out of ‘em, and feed it to hungry kids, well then it’s OK to destroy my neighborhood?”
Remember Glen Canyon. Remember Charleston View. Watch out. Your neighborhood could be next.
Patrick Donnelly is the Executive Director of the Amargosa Conservancy. He first came to the desert during the torrential winter of 2004-05, and knew he’d found home. More recently, he entered into self-imposed educational exile for several years in the Bay Area and spent two summers in Spain researching utility-scale solar policy. He is now back in the desert, a resident of Shoshone, California, where he and dogs Kelso and Riley love to splash around on the banks of the beautiful Amargosa River.
 The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) also targets Charleston View for solar. While the DRECP is intended to expedite incidental take permits for solar development focus areas, the County has final authority over land use designations on private land, and thus the REGPA is the focus of this article. For more on DRECP, see the cover story in the last issue of Desert Report.
 Environmental review documents have consistently ignored or downplayed the populations of these animals. And yet residents report frequent occurrences of tortoises crossing Old Spanish Trail, of dense burrowing owl burrows, and of widespread bighorn sign in the surrounding hills. Paid biologists that visit an area for a few hours or days cannot possibly ascertain all there is to know about an ecosystem.
 Interested readers may access the Hidden Hills Ethnography Report, by ethnographer Dr. Thomas Gates at (caution, large PDF file): http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/hiddenhills/documents/2012-08-16_Hidden_Hills_Ethnography_Report_TN-66701.pdf
 It is not the intent of this article to inspire partisan rancor over this issue, and thus names have been omitted. Interested readers can view public comments on the REGPA at (caution, large PDF file): http://www.inyoplanning.org/projects/documents/CommentssubmittedfortheDRAFTPEIR_REGPA.pdf