The recent sight of road graders clearing old-growth Mojave Desert shrubs for the nation's first large-scale solar energy project on public land pained Phil Smith.
"It hurts because it will never be the same again," said the Chemehuevi elder, who lives near Needles, a city in southeastern California.
The Ivanpah Valley in northeast San Bernardino County holds ancient trails and worship sites, he said. It is home to the desert tortoise and other plants and animals that were important sources of food and medicine to his people.
But state and federal reviews earlier this year found the land for the 5.6-square mile project -- being built near the Nevada border by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc. -- had no significant cultural resources, such as former village or burial sites. Government officials are allowing the tortoises to be captured and moved.
The project will feature thousands of mirrors focusing heat on towers with steam boilers, turning 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. They fear the process will obliterate sacred places, landmarks and artifacts.
Tribes say that the BrightSource solar property outside Primm, Nev., has trails and other sites sacred to Native Americans.
Tribal members say they are overwhelmed by the number energy projects. They don't have time to examine and respond to thousands of pages of environmental documents and arrange site visits with appropriate leaders.
They're also concerned because, in several cases, the government won't decide how to deal with lost 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 2010 qualify for federal stimulus dollars, according to a BLM website.
Three projects were approved recently: in the Ivanpah Valley, 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. Energy officials say applications have been filed for years, giving tribes ample opportunity for input. BLM officials also acknowledged that they expect several large energy projects will be approved before archaeological assessments are complete.
"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 at that meeting objected to the rapid approvals.
Rolla Queen, the BLM's desert district archaeologist, said in an interview that no projects would be approved before archeologists survey the land and research existing reports and literature. Once an energy project is approved, archaeologists will return and gather more information - possibly through digs. A significant find could force reconsideration of the project's boundaries, he said.
Native Americans worry 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 would 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, lobbyist for Solar Millennium LLC, which has offices in Berkeley, said the project has been redesigned repeatedly to avoid archaeological sites, and the company would hire a tribal representative to monitor construction.
(Contact David Danelski at ddanelski(at)PE.com.
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