President-elect Joe Biden has pledged that his administration will prioritize renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gases and slow or stop the rapid warming of the planet.
He has also promised to give tribes a greater voice in managing public lands with cultural significance to tribal communities.
The potential for conflict arises because the same massive solar and wind projects that would help meet renewable energy goals frequently threaten to devastate tribal cultural, religious and burial areas.
Tribes and environmentalists wonder what, if anything, the new administration will do to balance those goals, building renewable power generation while still protecting culturally important areas, particularly in the West.
“Project development needs to be done in a responsible, respectable way,” said Brian Golding Sr., a member of the Quechan Tribe and vice president of the Ah-Mut Pipa Foundation. “And that involves paying attention to what Native folk have to say about that land and its meaning.”
Large solar projects, known as “utility-scale,” can range from 1 million megawatts to more than 20 million megawatts, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The Freeing Energy Project estimated that some 13 million acres, or 21,250 square miles of land, would have to be covered with solar panels to satisfy the U.S.’s electric power needs for one year.
But while those projects could eventually help wean the U.S. from fossil fuel consumption and the consequences of releasing greenhouse gas into an already-saturated atmosphere, they can also harm sensitive cultural and ecological zones.
Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of the desert preservation group Basin and Range Watch, said because large-scale renewable energy projects are low-density energy producers, many acres of land are required to generate enough electric power to make the projects financially viable.
Emmerich said opponents point to impacts ranging from cultural resources and landscapes to loss of wildlife habitat. But he believes the biggest factor relates to economics.
“I think the real reason that very controversial areas are getting developed is because these plants have to be located by good transmission infrastructure, which makes it very quick and cheaper for a solar or wind developer to plug into the grid.”
And, he said, those lands are often the same lands that tribes and environmentalists seek to protect.
At least one large solar project in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts has already wreaked havoc on tribal cultural sites.
The Genesis Solar Energy Project in eastern Riverside County, California, was constructed in 2012 along a pre-contact trade route used by Indigenous peoples for millennia to transport goods from the California coast to the Southwest and back. The project was built over the objections of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, known as CRIT, and the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe.
Construction equipment tore through trails and funerary sites, and damaged or destroyed food preparation and hunting tools, and other important cultural artifacts, wiping out thousands of years of tribal history. The solar plant sits on 125 acres in Ford Dry Lake, about 25 miles west of Blythe.
The owner of the plant, NextEra Energy, was required to contribute $3 million on an ethnographic study and scholarships for Native students. CRIT sued to stop the project but lost the case.
The two tribes’ loss came after a success story in another community. In 2010, the Quechan Tribe obtained a preliminary injunction against the construction of a large solar generating plant in Imperial County, California.
Tribal officials successfully argued that the Bureau of Land Management failed to consult with the tribe until after the project had won approval, a clear violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. The 709-megawatt plant would have been placed on 6,500 acres of land that contained hundreds of cultural assets, including funerary sites.
The decision, which included some admonishments from the judge, spurred the nation’s public lands management agency to create the Solar Energy Programmatic Agreement, known as the “Solar PA,” to better address not only tribal input but environmental concerns. It also created a regional template to get solar plants approved.
The plan, negotiated with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and state historic preservation officers in the six states that the agreement covers, details how provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act will be followed.
Indian law attorney Troy Eid noted in a recent article that the Solar PA is an umbrella agreement to guide BLM in the permitting process to reduce time and mitigate potential challenges to projects. Also, he wrote, the Solar PA calls for early and ongoing communications with tribes and to include them in the process.
In addition to the cultural issues, environmentalists worry that utility-scale projects take a toll on sensitive desert ecosystems.
Emmerich, of Basin and Range Watch, noted that wildlife are attracted to the reflective panels, which from a distance appear to be a water source.
“We found about three times the amount of avian mortality on the solar energy sites than other areas,” he said. “Something is killing birds.”
Emmerich said the main theory is that the solar panels mimic a lake and the birds fly into the panels. Either the collision or dehydration kills them. He said the Desert Sunlight Project south of Joshua Tree National Park reported some of the most alarming numbers in that particular category.
Desert tortoises are also affected by habitat loss, he said.
Then there’s the carbon impact. “When we damage or destroy a desert ecosystem, we don’t have this anchor that actually absorbs and sequesters CO2,” said Emmerich. “That’s one of the main reasons that we build these things, to stop climate change.”
The clash between renewable energy projects and tribal cultural protection isn’t limited to Western deserts.
In 2017, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management halted an offshore wind energy project in Nantucket Sound after vigorous objections from many groups, including the two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes in Massachusetts. Tribal officials said the proposed Cape Wind would have damaged waters and aquatic life, imperiled traditional cultural practices and properties and destroyed what one tribal leader called “irreplaceable underwater archeological sites.”
Golding, of the Quechan Tribe, said tribes aren’t opposed to renewable energy development if it’s done properly.
“It’s possible that there are spaces can be identified where this kind of development can happen,” Golding said. “But many projects choose not to inquire or to listen to the concerns that are raised during the development process.”
Golding also said the destruction of cultural patrimony in these lands affects tribes’ ability to negotiate in the future, since the evidence of their existence over the past millennia would now be gone, “especially for tribes that aren’t inhabiting their aboriginal territory.” That includes many tribes whose land bases were reduced to small tracts of trust land.
“Development like some of the renewable energy projects would further eradicate the evidence that we’re here first,” he said.
Emmerich agreed with Golding that there are better ways to build renewable energy plants that don’t involve tearing up pristine deserts. One alternative: brownfields. Those are properties such as abandoned gas stations, dry cleaners, industrial properties, strip malls, and commercial properties where chemicals have been used. Although some can contain hazardous materials, others can be more easily cleaned up for redevelopment.
“It’s a far better alternative to developing pristine habitat or bulldozing ancient cultural sites,” Emmerich said. “A lot of them already have transmission lines going up to them — it seems like a no-brainer right there.”
Also, agricultural land in California’s Central Valley that contains large amounts of selenium and other agricultural runoff salts may soon sprout solar panels, Emmerich said. In Nevada, old lime pits that will require geologic time to recover also could be used. All of these lands are already disturbed, he said.
He added that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified approximately 15 million acres of brownfields in the United States.
The barrier, Emmerich said, is money. “Utilities and the developers want the quickest return.”
The BLM defends its process.
“All projects on BLM-administered public lands are required to comply with applicable laws and regulations, including measures to avoid, minimize, or mitigate impacts to identified natural and cultural resources,” said a spokesperson with the BLM’s California Desert District.
The district includes the Riverside East and Imperial East Development Focus Areas, where many solar and wind projects are being built.
“As part of its process for reviewing proposed projects, the BLM consults with all relevant federal, state and local parties, including federally recognized Indian tribes and the State Historic Preservation Office,” the statement said.
Although Biden’s tribal policy plan pledged that tribes would have a greater say in managing public lands, transition officials did not respond to questions seeking specifics on how the administration would balance its drive to build renewable energy infrastructure, which would require millions of acres of land, with tribal cultural concerns.
Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores said she hopes Biden will hold to his word to work with Indian Country and revisit the entire span of policies that could have an impact on tribal sacred and cultural sites. Flores said she understands change won’t happen overnight but was hopeful the Biden administration would “eventually within the next four years, make some changes for the betterment of Indian Country.”
“Just as with any other policy, those policies are living documents,” she said. “You have to readdress them to see if they’re meeting the needs of the issues and the people.”
Debra Krol covers issues related to Indigenous communities in Arizona and the intermountain West. Reach the reporter at debra.krol@AZCentral.com or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.
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