Tribe Fights Giant Solar Energy Project

     SAN DIEGO (CN) - The Quechan Tribe claims the Secretary of the Interior rushed through approval of a giant solar power project in the desert and ignored potential damage to the tribe's cultural artifacts and the desert's sensitive flora and fauna, including an endangered lizard that appears in the tribe's creation story.
     The 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project will spread 28,360 "SunCatcher" dishes across 6,360 acres of public land, about 14 miles west of El Centro.
     The Department of the Interior approved Tessera Solar's proposal in an Oct. 13 Record of Decision (ROD).
     "The public lands that are the subject of the Imperial Valley ROD are within the traditional territory of the Quechan Indian Tribe and contain cultural and biological resources of significance to the tribe, its government, and its members," the tribe says in its federal complaint.
     "The tribe and its members also have an interest in preserving the quality of the land, water, air, fauna, and flora within the tribe's traditional territory, within and outside the reservation. Specifically, the tribe is concerned with impacts to the habitat of Flat Tailed Horned lizards on lands proposed for development, as the lizard is a central part of the tribe's creation story."
     In making its "fast-track" decision, the Secretary of the Interior and others omitted reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Federal Land Policy Management Act and other laws, the tribe says.
     "Interior arbitrarily placed the IVS Project on an artificial 'fast-track' in order to achieve the applicant's goal of obtaining millions of dollars of federally available financing that purportedly required project approval prior to the end of 2010," the tribe says.
     "Despite Interior and the applicant's efforts to 'fast-track' the review of the IVS Project, Congress did not waive or limit the applicability of any federal laws or regulations related to compliance with NEPA, the NHPA, FLPMA, or other laws with regard to the IVS Project. Full compliance with applicable federal laws is mandatory."
     Tessera Solar will buy 6,600 acres of flat-tail horned lizard habitat to offset land lost to new roads, structures and traffic through the desert, the Bureau of Land Management said in announcing the project, one of the first solar energy developments to be approved on public land.
     The Quechans, a Yuman-speaking people, have lived in the Mojave Desert for "thousands of years," during which they and their "tribal ancestors traditionally occupied, traveled, traded, and utilized resources within a broad geographical area located within the desert lands of modern-day [western] Arizona and Southern California," according to the complaint. Today the tribe has about 3,500 members.
     The tribe's 45,000-acre reservation sprawls across the Mojave Desert around Interstate 8, and to the south borders on Baja California, Mexico. The area has long been identified as a prime location to develop utility-grade solar energy projects.
     "The IVS Project is only one of many large solar and renewable energy projects located on California desert lands that have recently been approved, or are under consideration for approval, by Interior," the complaint states. "Approximately 1 million acres of land are currently proposed for foreseeable solar and wind energy utility development on Southern California desert lands."
     The tribe wants the project enjoined and the Record of Decision vacated.
     It is represented by Frank Jozwiak with Morisset Schlosser in Seattle and Bryan Snyder of San Diego.