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Is "Green" Always Good?

 Two of 112 round wind turbine pads and access roads under construction in the desert east of San Diego. photo: Phillip Colla with aerial support from LightHawk

Is "Green" Always Good?

Embracing renewable energy is important, but without careful attention to siting, valuable natural and cultural resources bear the brunt of development. In the wild desert near California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego, conservationists and the local Quechan Tribe are concerned about the placement of a new 12,000-acre wind farm. They contend large projects like these change the desert from wild open space to industrial zones. They say rooftop solar should be encouraged instead, since it would more efficiently generate as much energy and could be situated much closer to the end users.

This summer, LightHawk donated a flight for Desert Protective Council (DPC) to collect aerial images showing the scale of construction covering sixteen square miles to accommodate 112 new wind turbines. This will help DPC protect the sensitive desert ecosystem from industrial development in the desert touted as a "green" energy strategy. What Terry Weiner, Desert Protective Council's lone staffer didn't know when she asked for LightHawk's help was that volunteer pilot Steve Parker would enlist his photographer friend Phil Colla, whose work has appeared in hundreds of publications in the U.S. and abroad, to capture the images for DPC.

  Wind farm construction bulldozes plants and the top layer of desert soil to make way for roads, turbine pads and materials staging areas. photos: Terry Weiner

Flying at Windmills

Having flown together for 15 years, Steve and Phil volunteered their skills through LightHawk to help Desert Protective Council (DPC) gather photographs of the Ocotillo wind project construction activities, which broke ground in May 2012. DPC volunteers have visited the site on public lands each day and were convinced that developers were damaging a higher percentage of the area than was permitted by the final environmental impact study.

Flying just after dawn, Steve and Phil made hundreds of aerial photographs geo-tagged every second to record latitude, longitude and altitude. After the flight, Phil stitched together the highly detailed images into large mosaics to replicate the view he and Steve enjoyed during their flight. These images will help determine if violations are taking place, and if so, can be used to persuade the federal court judge to stop the project from imperiling the desert's unique plants and animals.

Peninsular bighorn sheep. photo: Kathy Zelasko

The Ultimate Underdog

For life to survive in the desert, it must be pretty scrappy. The Peninsular bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) is a good example. Endangered now because of disease and habitat loss, this bighorn can get water from a cactus Gallagher-style by smashing it open to get at the watery interior. But, as more of the desert is being industrialized or eaten up by sprawl, there are fewer of the cacti the sheep rely upon for water in dry times. In addition, because of the wind project construction, the rumble of bulldozers and heavy equipment are disturbing these endangered sheep and their lambs while they graze the mountain foothills nearby.

Vehicles provide scale to show road width. photo: Phillip Colla with aerial support from LightHawk

Images Help Bring Justice to the Desert

DPC's Terry Weiner is using the aerial perspective to assess the true impacts of the wind farm project. "Photographer Phillip Colla was able to capture significant information, including scale and scope of the project, which just isn't possible on the ground," said Terry. With pilot Steve expertly maneuvering the Cessna through the hot desert winds, photographer Phil got images of roads with vehicles on them. While the development plan limits roads to 36 feet wide, some roads almost three times that size have been observed. Terry explained that with these images in hand, DPC can extrapolate the size of the remote roads by comparing them to the size of the vehicles. DPC will share these images with a judge in San Diego, 120 miles to the west, who has authority over the project.

The view from above shows important water pathways that replenish the desert. Construction creates obstacles for water movement and changes the ecology of the area. photo: Phillip Colla with aerial support from LightHawk

Desert Waterways

In addition to showing the human impacts on this fragile landscape, aerial images also help explain how water moves in the desert. As rainfall slides down the surrounding mountains and spills over the desert plains, it leaves behind drainages that are easy to spot from the air. These important pathways gather the desert's intermittent water so that it refreshes the plants and animals that have gained a toehold in the intense environment. When roads and turbine pads interrupt these drainages, water can be transformed from a life-giver to an erosion-causing menace.

After returning to the airport following a short, but productive morning of flying over the desert, Steve and Phil had taken 700 aerial photographs of the expansive desert. Terry hopes the images made during the flight will convince others that we should closely examine the siting of renewable energy projects, and more fully understand the impacts on irreplaceable landscapes and wildlife before giving industrialization a green light to proceed.

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