By Janet Zimmerman
More than 11 square miles of private land and prime habitat in eastern San Bernardino County have been set aside for the desert tortoise - which is sliding toward extinction - to offset the impacts of future renewable energy projects and other development.
While environmentalists were pleased with the conservation, they accuse Cadiz Inc. of establishing the preserve to appear more environmentally sensitive and win favor for its widely opposed plan to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert and pipe it to cities across Southern California.
Cadiz’s new “conservation bank,” on the southeastern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, is separate from its proposed water mining operation in a valley to the south, between the preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.
Critics of the pumping project, including Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association, say it would deplete the ancient aquifer and dry up seeps and springs for the desert tortoise and other creatures in the surrounding Fenner Valley. And that has cast a shadow on the newly declared preserve land.
The conservation bank “doesn’t alleviate or minimize or mitigate the damage that will be caused by the Cadiz water project,” said Shteir, senior program coordinator for the group, one of several that sued unsuccessfully to block the water project. “We feel that this recent effort is an attempt to greenwash that project.”
Los Angeles-based Cadiz established the 7,400-acre conservation bank earlier this month through the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The concept is similar to cap and trade, with developers buying mitigation credits in the bank if their project affects the tortoise or its habitat, rather than having to search for property on their own.
The desert tortoise is a hardy species, able to live years without water and survive temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But their numbers have dwindled since the 1950s as their habitat was swallowed up by development. They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.
Since then, the battle over their territory has grown even more heated as utilities hustle to meet a mandate that one-third of their energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Solar and wind energy projects have been approved for almost 48,000 acres of the California desert and applications on more than 70,000 acres are pending, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
The conservation land is made up of a dozen separate parcels around Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 95 west of Needles. It is part of the 70 square miles Cadiz has owned in the Mojave since 1993.
“This is a way we can harmonize our other land uses while providing land benefits,” said Scott Slater, the company’s president and CEO.
The conservation bank stands to be profitable for Cadiz.
With quality habitat and privately owned parcels hard to find, desert land that once sold for less than $1,000 an acre now sells for five times that, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which also sued to block Cadiz’s water project.
“These lands would be hard to develop and this is one way they can make money off these lands and also look environmentally sensitive,” she said.
Slater denied any financial motives for setting up the Fenner Valley Desert Tortoise Conservation Bank.
The company doesn’t need the mitigation land for any of its projects, spokeswoman Courtney Degener said. Depending on where a project is located, the developer must acquire one to four acres of mitigation land for every one acre disturbed. More....