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Conservationists file appeal to stop solar project near Pahrump

The Nevada conservation group, Basin and Range Watch, along with Western Watersheds Project, filed an appeal to the recently approved Yellow Pine Solar Project with the BLM Southern Nevada District Office.

On Nov. 6, the BLM released a record of decision approving the Yellow Pine Solar Project, a 3,000-acre installation proposed 10 miles southeast of Pahrump. However, Basin and Range Watch has raised concerns that the project would be harmful to Mojave yucca and the threatened desert tortoise, among other issues.

The notice of appeal and petition for a stay of decision made by BLM, filed on Nov. 26, says that appellants are “parties that would be adversely affected by the project” who are public landowners and users.

“Public land access, property values, local tourism, and quality of life could be adversely impacted by this project. Local tourism in the adjacent communities of Tecopa and Shoshone would also be adversely impacted,” according to the document.

The Decision Record issued by the BLM stated that adversely affected parties may appeal the decision to the Department of Interior’s Board of Land Appeals “within 30 days after publication of this decision.”

“We believe that a stay is justified because the BLM failed to adequately address issues that were raised in the Draft Environmental Assessment. The solar project could impact local wildlife, the local recreation tourism economy, and property values. The BLM failed to address the cumulative impacts that could eventually lead to a de facto Solar Energy Zone which will require intensive land and water use,” the statement in the appeal said.

In the body of the document, the appellants stated several reasons for their activities including adverse impacts to the desert tortoise, Gila Monster, BLM sensitive species, and visual disturbance as well as impact on desert soil and vegetation.

“Close to 15,000 acres of additional solar energy development is being proposed for the region. There are four new solar applications with the Bureau of Land Management and the BLM was aware of at least three of these proposals during the entire NEPA review for the Yellow Pine Solar Project,” the statement said.

In the final Environmental Impact Statement, the BLM identified the proposed action layout using the “mowing alternative” construction method as the preferred alternative, according to the documents. Under the mowing alternative, vegetation would be mowed at a height of 18 to 24 inches to address concerns related to the loss of topsoil, vegetation, and seedbanks.

The BLM’s selected alternative is expected to result in adverse impacts to the federally threatened desert tortoise, according to the BLM findings. However, implementation of project-mitigation measures identified in the Final EIS, and terms and conditions identified in the biological opinion are expected to further reduce adverse impacts. The BLM believes that, on balance, the benefits associated with large-scale renewable energy production and battery storage capacity outweigh the impacts to the desert tortoise.”

In their appeal of the project, Basin and Range Watch and Western Watersheds Project argued that mitigation measures will not reduce significant impacts, and the project will further the severe decline of the species toward extinction.

“Almost 3,000 acres of high-quality desert tortoise habitat would be greatly disturbed or destroyed for decades if not centuries, as construction activities would degrade sensitive vegetation and biological soil crusts,” the statement reads.

As many as 400 vehicles per day might be driving in and out of the project site during peak construction, according to the biological opinion listed in the final EIS. The danger of road mortality of tortoises is not well addressed, the Basin and Range argued.

“Associated gen-tie lines, transmission upgrades, and new substation would involve more heavy equipment, yet this impact was unanalyzed for tortoise,” Basin and Range said.

The Mojave desert tortoise was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, followed by the designation of critical habitat in 1994. In 2000, the USFWS began systematically surveying tortoise populations in critical habitat and recovery unit areas to determine population trends.

“Despite mitigation measures for utility-scale solar [projects built and operating on public lands since 2009, the Mojave desert tortoise continues to plummet in numbers. Solar projects are driving the species toward extinction, and we argue that mitigation measures are not working to halt the declines,” Basin and Range said.

The document also argues that the Visual Technical Report and Final Environmental Impact Statement of the Yellow Pine Solar Project fail to provide an updated cumulative analysis of future potential solar projects in the region.

The proposed projects are Rough Hat Nye, proposed on 3,400 acres; Rough Hat Clark proposed on 2,400 acres; Copper Rays, proposed on 5,042 acres; and Sagittarius Solar, on 4,364 acres.

All of these developers plan to hook into the Trout Canyon substation. The visual analysis for Yellow Pine Solar can’t be complete without considering the full cumulative scenario for the region, the appellants said in a statement.

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