As the San Benito County Board of Supervisors begins to consider approval for a massive solar energy plant on the floor of Panoche Valley, representatives of Audubon California today expressed serious concerns about the potential such a project could have on sensitive birds and habitat. Audubon California has listed Panoche Valley as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance because it hosts more than 12 sensitive bird species, including the Mountain Plover, which is currently under review by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to be listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (photo by Glen Tepke)
“While it’s vital that we pursue alternative energy development, it’s equally important that we avoid the same kinds of mistakes with renewable energy that we made with coal and oil production,” said Dan Taylor, Audubon California’s public policy director. “While there are a lot of other places where we can build solar farms, there aren’t other places like this for these birds – this valley is vital habitat.”
This week, the county Planning Commission will take public comment on a draft environmental impact report that details environmental damage for four different project alternatives.
In addition to the Mountain Plover, Panoche Valley is also celebrated for its high concentrations of wintering raptors and enormous sparrow flocks. California Bird Species of Special Concern here include Burrowing Owl, Grasshopper Sparrow, Northern Harrier, and Loggerhead Shrike. Audubon Watchlist birds include the Sage Sparrow and the Long-billed Curlew. Birds of prey commonly observed include Prairie Falcon, White-tailed Kite and Golden Eagle, a California Fully Protected Species.
Grassland birds are among the fastest declining birds in North America – 48 percent of species are of conservation concern and 55 percent are showing significant declines.
“There will be those who will say that this is just another valley, the kind of open space that you can find anywhere anyway, but that’s just not true,” said Taylor. “It’s important that Board of Supervisors understand the important conservation issues at stake with this decision.”
The entire proposed area for Solargen’s project is almost 5,000 acres. The draft environmental impact report looks at four different project alternatives, including one at about 1,000 acres, or 1.6 square miles. Even at the smallest size, the project would have irreversible, immitigable impacts on wildlife and habitat.
Audubon chapters from all over the region visit this valley regularly for field trips and bird surveys, and are perhaps most knowledgeable about the importance of this habitat for birds. Several of these chapters, including Fresno, Monterey Bay, Golden Gate and Santa Clara Valley Audubon are taking an active role in the public review process for the proposal to raise awareness about potential impacts to birds.
“If you don’t think that 1.6 square miles is a lot to sacrifice, try walking 1.6 square miles in one direction, then turn right and walk another 1.6 miles. Do that two more times, and imagine all the habitat you’ve just walked around wiped out,” said Taylor.