Gusts of wind were slapping our camper van when my eagleeyed wife cried “Watch out!” and I swerved around the desert tortoise on a road in the Mojave National Preserve. We jumped out next to a spiny cholla cactus to make sure no cars rocketed over its shell. Driving east from Los Angeles, we had been greeted by hundreds of spinning wind turbines in the western Mojave Desert.
Collateral damage often comes up in discussions of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind. The effect of wind turbines on avian populations has enraged many a bird lover; giant solar farms, being installed on federal lands by the thousands of acres, take their toll, too. The $2.2 billion Bright-Source installation in the Ivanpah Valley east of L.A., which we drove past, was the first largescale solar project to colonize a tortoise habitat, and more are coming—such as the 3,000-acre Stateline Solar Farm. Desert biologists have been factored into the budget to tag, track, count, and preserve the tortoises. Yet I wonder if tortoises have much chance of survival in the transformed western Mojave.
Desert tortoises played a role in the brief celebrity of Cliven Bundy, the militant Nevada rancher whose clash with the BLM was not only over twenty years of unpaid grazing fees, but also over his incursion into tortoise habitat. On that score, the BLM’s treatment of Bundy’s ranch and of Nevada’s new solar farms betrays a double standard. Cattle do damage to tortoises, but solar farms also disrupt their habitat. For a final irony, Bundy’s ranch is right in the middle of a proposed solar farm, so large it could provide enough energy for 30 percent of California. For now, the solar projects proliferate and the desert tortoise’s survival, any way you cut it, rides entirely on how willing we are to slow down, swerve, or double back.--DG