LAS VEGAS -- Supporters of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy say the Bureau of Land Management may have impounded his cattle because of recommendations the agency made last month to preserve Gold Butte land Bundy has used without paying federal grazing fees.
The recommendations were included in a March 14 report -- just weeks before the roundup -- that addressed the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone northeast of Las Vegas.
As part of a federal initiative to develop large-scale solar energy power plants in western states, the BLM began studying the potential harm these projects could do to surrounding environments.
Recommendations in the Dry Lake report included ways to preserve Gold Butte from further environmental degradation, even though it is 32 miles east of the Dry Lake area.
Gold Butte, which covers roughly 350,000 acres south of Interstate 15 near the Arizona border, was initially designated as an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC) by the BLM in 1998 as part of a land management plan for the Las Vegas area.
That plan prohibited grazing by domestic livestock in areas of critical environmental concern primarily as a way to preserve the desert tortoise, which the federal government considers a threatened species. At the time, Gold Butte's assets were said to include cultural and historic resources, scenery and habitat for special status species such as the desert tortoise.
Last month's report, titled Regional Mitigation Strategy for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, had this to say about those assets on page 30:
"The resource values found in the Gold Butte ACEC are threatened by: unauthorized activities, including off-road vehicle use, illegal dumping, and trespass livestock grazing; wildfire; and weed infestation."
Though not stated in the report, the only alleged trespass livestock grazing in Gold Butte has been tied to Bundy.
Some Bundy supporters have used the Internet to opine that the BLM tried to hide the potential ties between the Dry Lake mitigation report and the cattle roundup because the agency removed from its website an explanation of the Bundy "Cattle Trespass Impacts" that included the following passage:
"Non-Governmental Organizations have expressed concern that the regional mitigation strategy for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone utilizes Gold Butte as the location for offsite mitigation for impacts from solar development, and that those restoration activities are not durable with the presence of trespass cattle."
But The Wildlife News, in a story posted Tuesday on its website and written by Ralph Maughan, downplayed the significance of this passage.
"This is bureaucratic language but all it means is that private groups like the Western Watersheds Project, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Friends of Gold Butte and Friends of Joshua Tree Forest don't think the solar power damage elsewhere can be mitigated here at Gold Butte because the damn cattle will tromp all over it" and defecate on the land, Maughan wrote.
"Yes, but, but, but are not then Bundy's cattle stopping the solar projects that (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid wants so much? Of course not. They are gleefully ripping up the desert anyway without wildlife mitigation near Gold Butte."
One reason Gold Butte was singled out in the mitigation report was that research performed by the National Park Service for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area suggests "under future climate change, high-quality desert tortoise habitat will remain in the Gold Butte ACEC while most of the adjacent desert tortoise habitat in the national recreation area will decline and disappear."
Another reason is that Gold Butte suffered multiple wildfires in 2005 and 2006 "and could benefit from restoration." The report stated that other ACECs in the region haven't had as many wildfires.
A third reason is that Gold Butte "is an important landscape corridor between Lake Mead and the Virgin Mountains for game species managed by the Nevada Department of Wildlife."
The report estimated it would cost $9 million over a 30-year-period -- the expected lifespan of a solar development right of way -- or $25.92 an acre to prevent further degradation of Gold Butte.
It also was estimated that even if all 3,591 acres of developable land in the Dry Lake solar energy zone was used for solar development, that would only generate roughly $6.6 million in mitigation fees from developers. That means the balance of the money to protect Gold Butte would have to come from other sources.
The report recommended that preventing further degradation of Gold Butte could be possible by "augmenting BLM law enforcement capacity sufficient to maintain ranger patrols in the ACEC, providing a monitor to track activities in and impacts to the ACEC, building the capacity to respond in a timely manner to activities that threaten resource values, and providing treatment for noxious weeds and maintaining fuel breaks to protect the area."
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