Native American Concerns regarding energy projects – Ivanpah & Blythe

DFN: Good points about there being too many projects, too few people to review and evaluate from the perspective of the various special interest groups potentially impacted by the projects. Article mentions the recently launched (start of construction) Brightsource Ivanpah and other project’s on the BLM’s fast track program. Very interesting geoglyphs on the Solar Millennium Blythe project, which I hope to be able to visit and see first hand in the near future.

CALIFORNIA DESERT: Native Americans object to energy projects
10:02 PM PDT on Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The Press-Enterprise

The recent sight of road graders clearing old-growth Mojave Desert shrubs to make way for the nation’s first large-scale solar energy project on public land was painful to Phil Smith.

"It hurts because it will never be the same again," said the Chemehuevi elder, who lives in the Needles area.

But state and federal reviews earlier this year found the 5.6-square-mile project near the Nevada border now being built by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Co. had no significant cultural resources, such as former village or burial sites. Government officials are now allowing the tortoises to be captured and moved.

The project will feature thousands of mirrors that focus heat on towers with steam boilers that turn turbines to generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Smith is among several Native Americans upset with the federal government for rapidly approving large solar projects on public land, a process they fear will obliterate sacred places, landmarks, and artifacts.

Tribes say that the BrightSource solar property outside Primm, Nevada has trails and other sites that are sacred to Native Americans. This photo of that land is shot by wildlife biologist Laura Cunningham.
Tribal members say they are overwhelmed by the number energy projects and don’t have time to examine and respond to thousands of pages of environmental documents and arrange for trips to the sites with appropriate leaders.

They also are concerned because, in several cases, the government won’t decide how to deal with the loss of cultural resources until after projects are approved.

The U.S Bureau of Land Management is "fast-tracking" approvals for 23 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on 236 square miles of public land in California, Arizona and Nevada. Developments that are construction-ready by the end of the year qualify for federal stimulus dollars, according to a BLM website.

Three of these projects have been approved in the last month, including the Ivanpah Valley project, one in the Lucerne Valley and another in Imperial County.

"It is a backward process," said Linda Otero, director of the Aha Makav Cultural Society and a member of the Fort Mojave Tribe. "There are so many projects, it is impossible to juggle them all."

BLM officials said they regularly consult with tribes to avoid harming important sites. And energy officials say applications have been filed for years, giving tribes ample opportunity for input.

BLM officials also acknowledged that several large energy projects are expected to be approved before thorough archaeological assessments are completed.

"The project may be approved, but a lot of work still needs to be done," said Alan Stein, resources manager for BLM’s California Desert District, said during a recent public meeting in Needles. Several tribal representatives attended that meeting to object to the rapid approvals.

Rolla Queen, the BLM’s desert district archaeologist, said in an interview that no projects will be approved before archeologists compete field surveys of the land and research existing reports and literature.

Once an energy project is approved, archaeologists will return and gather more information, and, if merited, some archaeological digs will occur, Queen said. A significant find could force reconsideration of the project’s boundaries, he said.

Blythe project

Native Americans are concerned about 10 square miles sought by Solar Millennium for a project northeast of Blythe in Riverside County.

Archaeological surveys turned up chipped stone flakes, evidence of tool or arrowhead making, at about three dozens areas within the site, Queen said .

Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, Chemehuevi elder and monitor, said the Blythe area contains sacred geoglyphs, large pictures of human forms, animals or geometric shapes made by clearing gravel and stones from the desert floor and slopes.

"These are images of the creator," Figueroa said. "They are not just our sacred sites. They are everybody’s sacred sites. This is the creation story. . .

"The geoglyphs are just around the area of the Colorado River, because that’s where the creator made his travels on the earth."

Queen said the Blythe solar project will avoid disturbing the 200- by 50-foot Kokopilli, an image of a human playing a flute, though an access road passes nearby.

Figueroa said six other geoglyphs are within the development’s boundaries, but Queen said archaeologists found no other geoglyphs on the site. Queen added that an analysis of satellite photographs taken since the 1970s indicate that the Kokopilli figure appears to be a modern work, created in the 1990s.

"It’s definitely not true. It’s been there thousands of years, but it has been repaired…maybe 50 years ago," Figueroa said.

Rachel McMahon, director of governmental affairs for Solar Millennium LLC, which has offices in Berkeley, said the project has been redesigned repeatedly to avoid archaeological sites, and the company will hire a tribal representative to monitor construction.

Ivanpah Valley

Smith said the Ivanpah Valley is important to the Chemehuevi people.

It has a triangular structure made of large black rocks on top of a hill near solar project boundaries.

Smith said he believes it is a centuries-old altar for prayer and offerings, and its three points may have directed ancient travelers to other sacred sites.

Queen said he was unaware of the rock structure but added that surveys found only stone flakes that were deemed too insignificant to merit federal protection.

BLM project manager Tom Hurshman said experts were unable to determine the significance of the rock structure.

Adam Eventov, a spokesman for BrightSource, said the Oakland company applied to use the land four years ago, and the project was the subject of extensive reviews overseen by the state and federal agencies. Native Americans have had ample opportunity to make comments but have done so only recently, he said.

Recording loses

Anthony Madrigal, the director of policy and cultural resources for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said tribes’ comments often fall on deaf ears and projects just go forward.

For past developments in the Mojave Desert, including mines and power lines, the government’s "mitigation" often has consisted of simply recording what was being lost, he said.

"We don’t think of it as mitigation. We call it destruction," he said.

Some things just can’t be mitigated, the Fort Mojave tribe’s Otero told the BLM’s Desert Advisory Committee earlier this month .

The losses to tribes go beyond artifacts left in the ground, she said.

"These are the places we connect to. This is our people. The plants and animals, they speak to us. They speak at an equal level to us."

Later, standing outside the BLM Needles field station with the Colorado River valley behind her, Otero said her nation is losing its heritage bit by bit. She stretched out her arms to signify the landscape.

"This is our museum," she said. "How long will it be before we are erased from history?"

Reach David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or


Some Native Americans say the government’s expedited process for approving alternative energy projects puts their sacred places at risk. Fast-tracked projects include:

BrightSource Energy, solar, 3,640 acres, northeast San Bernardino County

Solar Millennium, Blythe, 6,300 acres, eastern Riverside County

OptiSolar, 7,040 acres, near Eagle Mountain in eastern Riverside County

Solar Millennium Palen, 3,800 acres, east of Joshua Tree National Park, Riverside County

Chevron Lucerne Valley, 516 acres, east of Victorville, San Bernardino County

Granite Wind, Granite Mountain, 1,968 acres, near Apple Valley, San Bernardino County

AES (wind), Daggett Ridge, 1,577 acres, near Barstow, San Bernardino County



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