I took a drive up to Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown on Saturday to attend a meeting of a recently formed group called Save Our Desert, which is organizing fast and furious to oppose a company that is looking to put wind turbines on ridgeline locations in Pipes Canyon.
The company, Element Power, is a global renewable energy firm with U.S. offices in Portland. It has already gotten permission from the Bureau of Land Management to put up test towers topping out at 197 feet on Black Lava Butte, a moutain that rises more than 4,700 feet above see level.
The towers are part of a feasibility study the company is performing prior to deciding on whether to submit an application for the full project. I have not talked with the company yet, so have not heard their side. The environmental impact study they filed to put the test towers up is on the Save Our Desert website.
Cherry Good, a local resident who is one of the main movers behind the group, spoke at the meeting on Saturday, detailing a long list of ojbections to putting large turbines in Pipes Canyon. She started with the turbines’ impact on the desert plants and animals and kept rolling through the noise and fire hazards associated with wind turbines and the impact on property values.
Other concerns revolve around the canyon’s isolation. The key criteria for renewable energy development on public lands are a site’s proximity to existing infrastructure — that is roads and power generation needed for construction — and transmission lines, needed to take the power to urban markets.
Just putting the test towers on the buttes required flying them in by helicopter because no roads exist. Construction would require paving a road through the canyon, which Good said, is not very wide.
“The center of Pipes Canyon would cease to exist,” she said.
Getting construction material up to Pioneertown would also be a challenge, as anyone will tell you who’s driven up the two lanes of Pioneertown Road behind a slow-moving trailer — as I did Saturday.
If this project goes forward, it might not be the only one looking to put mammoth turbines on pristine ridgelines. Closer to home there’s the Cabazon Ridge project, which would put a string of wind turbines on private land along the ridge lines of Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, on the south side of Highway 111 going into Palm Springs.
There are already lots of turbines on the north side of 111, but the southside is where the mountains rise up, pristine and jagged. Cabazon Wind Energy LLC, which has filed an application with the BLM, wants to put somewhere between 42 and 52 wind turbines, all more than 400 feet tall, on the ridgelines.
This project has not gotten a lot of public attention and therefore has not sparked the kind of opposition Save Our Desert is currently mounting. I’m going to be gathering more information on both projects for a future article.
The people at the meeting in Pioneertown are dead set against the turbines and angry that the test towers were erected with no advance notice from the BLM or Element Power. These are the same folks who organized to defeat the Green Path North transmission project, an effort by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build a transmission line across the desert to bring renewable energy to the city.
Most of them moved to the high desert because of their love of desert landscapes and isolation from the rush of modern of life. Many of them already live off the grid, powering their homes with solar and wind energy.
Which is all to say when these people get organized they are a force to be reckoned with, and they know it.
“I don’t like the idea of speculators coming in here for profit and to make a cash cow out of Pioneertown,” said Randy Bristow, who’s lived in Pipes Canyon for more than 10 years. “This is a California scenic route. It’s beyond me that anyone would think about tampering with our desert.”
“We live two miles from the buttes,” said Max Thomas, a yoga teacher who’s lived in the high desert for 12 years and is off the grid. “To think that we would have to look at 400 foot towers on those beautiful mesas makes me sick. I’ll fight to the death to stop it.”