Brush Fire Heading Towards Carrizo Plain Nat’l Monument Spreads to 1,800 Acres

Crews from CAL FIRE, including two air tankers, two helicopters and one dozer, as well as fire crews from Santa Barbara County Fire and Santa Maria City Fire, are all on scene trying to contain the flames. The reports started coming out with 500 acres under threat, and it is now up to 1800 acres.”This fire is burning very actively we’re going to trying to get it picked up as soon as we can,” said Rick Todd with Santa Barbara County Fire.

Within hours the fire raced up the hillsides, blackening hundreds of acres of dry grass. Now the flames threaten the Carrizo Plain National Monument to the Northeast, “We do have a few structures dotted out through there additionally there’s some communications equipment up on top of Carrizo peak or one of the peaks there and as it moves to the east if it continues to do so we have some oil fields that will be impacted out there,” said Todd. KION News

By Sam Womack/Staff Writer swomack@santamariatimes.com | Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010 1:00 am |

A tanker plane drops retardant Saturday on the Cotton Fire west of Cuyama Saturday. //Mark Brown/Staff
Throughout the night, fire crews have been battling a brush fire north of New Cuyama that grew to an estimated 1,500 acres Saturday.
Officials predicted that the blaze would tear through the brush overnight because of the steep terrain, but “we’ll go after it hard tomorrow morning,” Battalion Chief Bill Fisher, with San Luis Obispo County Cal Fire, said Saturday.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, the wildfire, known as the Cotton Fire, was only 15-percent contained, Fisher said.
It sparked to life Saturday just after 9:15 a.m. along Highway 166 near Cottonwood Canyon Road, about 40 miles east of Santa Maria.
It spread west and blackened about one-half mile of vegetation along the north side of Highway 166 in San Luis Obispo County.
A western wind started in at about noon Saturday and pushed the flames northeast over the hills and into the Carrizo Plain National Monument area, which is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The protected area is home to diverse communities of wildlife and plant species, and is an area culturally important to Native Americans, according to the BLM website.
The fire continued to head east into federal land and a northwest wind was blowing from 15 to 20 mph Saturday evening, Fisher said.
It is burning in light grass and brush, but with strong winds, the fuel burns fast and presents a danger to firefighters, Fisher said.
Airplanes and helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on the flames all day Saturday and into the night, he said.
Fisher added that fire crews and bulldozers had made good headway on the flanks, or sides, of the blaze during the day, but that the front of the fire had an open lane.
Approximately 250 fire personnel were assembled to battle the blaze as of 7 p.m. Saturday and plans were in motion to set up a command center in New Cuyama, according to Michelle Puckett, a BLM fire representative.
No one was injured in the fire fight, no structures were threatened and the cause is under investigation, she said.
Farther into the preserve, there are a few oil fields and small structures in the canyons, according to fire officials.
Coincidentally, at 1 p.m. Saturday, fire crews were also sent to the Washburn Ranch in the Carrizo Plain National Monument area, near Highway 33 and Soda Lake Road.
As of 7 p.m. Saturday, the Wash Incident had burned approximately 400 acres and was 65 percent contained, according to Rod Hezlund, a BLM fire representative.
Posted in Local on Sunday, May 16, 2010 1:00 am Updated: 11:34 pm.

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Grazing Will Remain a Controversy on Carrizo Monument Under the New Plan

SLO Tribune: Finally, A Plan for the Carrizo
The plains monument has its first management guidelines, which will direct it for 20 years
By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

Nearly a decade after it was created, the Carrizo Plain National Monument has its first resource management plan.
The plan uses grazing as a management tool for helping rare plants and animals and provides additional protections for those parts of the monument that have wilderness qualities. The plan will determine how the monument is managed for the next 20 years.
Jim Abbott, the Bureau of Land Management’s state director, formally approved the plan Saturday at a celebration at the monument, which attracted more than 400 people. Many were drawn by one of the most spectacular wildflower displays seen at the monument in years.

Tucked into San Luis Obispo County’s southeast corner, the monument covers about 250,000 acres, 206,000 of which are managed by the BLM. Other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game, own holdings within the monument and helped write the management plan.
“The plan is really a major achievement for the various parties,” said Scott Butterfield, Carrizo program manager for the Nature Conservancy. “It’s amazing that everyone has come together to recognize the importance of the place.”
The plan is generally being greeted with support. However, the issue of grazing continues to attract some controversy.
Historically, the monument was heavily grazed. Now, cattle along with prescribed fires and other tools are used to create a habitat that is beneficial to the many rare and endangered plants and animals that live there.
The starkly beautiful Carrizo Plain is often described as California’s Serengeti, because it contains the last remnants of the grasslands that once covered the Central Valley. It also contains Painted Rock, a significant Native American rock art site, and highly visible sections of the San Andreas Fault.
Many environmental groups have praised the management plan. These include the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. They particularly like that the plan gives added protection to 60,000 acres where roads and motorized vehicle use is minimized.
Other groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity say the management plan is a good start, but they don’t want any grazing to be allowed. They contend that scientific evidence shows grazing is harmful to endangered species.
The monument was created in 2001 in the final days of the presidency of Bill Clinton. It has been managed using cooperative plans drawn up in the late 1900s.
The BLM began drafting a new resource management plan in 2003. That effort foundered because of controversies over grazing and oil drilling as well as the death of monument manager Marlene Braun in 2005. Efforts to write a management plan were restarted in 2007.
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

As this article points out, grazing will remain a controversy. There are no scientific studies that show that grazing is beneficial to the Plain. It was over this issue that Marlene Braun found herself locked in a struggle with her supervisor, Ron Huntsinger, and the top BLM California bureaucrats, Jim Abbott (now director of BLM California) and Mike Pool (appointed by the Obama administration as Deputy Director of Operations in DC).

****UPDATE****
Carrizo Plain Management Plan Unveiled
Thursday, April 22, 2010
by MATT KETTMANN

The long-awaited, first-ever management plan for the Carrizo Plain National Monument — a 200,000-plus-acre, grassland-covered landscape in southeastern San Luis Obispo County known as “California’s Serengeti” — was released earlier this month and prescribes wilderness protection for some areas while using livestock grazing on other spots to aid native plant and animals. While the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations applauded the plan, the Center for Biological Diversity decried the grazing, arguing that such practices harm species such as the rare kit fox and giant kangaroo rat. Those who’d like to visit the Carrizo while helping to improve the habitat for pronghorn antelope and tule elk should sign up for Los Padres ForestWatch’s fence removal weekend, May 1 and 2, by emailing info@lpfw.org.

Comments

The Sierra Club together with the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch and Western Watersheds Project all lodged protests about the proposed RMP see http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/mediali…
Cal and Letty French, (tel 239-7338 Prefer e-mail
lettyfrench@ gmail.com) from the Sierra club are also leading the next weekend on the CPNM.

John_Weatherman
April 22, 2010 at 3:40 p.m.

The Beauty of the Carrizo Plain National Monument

Recently the local news has been abuzz with the spectacular wildflowers on the Carrizo. I want to share a few sites that provide some extraordinary photographs and articles about the experience of visiting the monument. Mike Baird’s photos of Soda Lake and the monument are very different from the usual views. Bill Bouton posts spectacular views.

Professor Boardman’s Bioblog discusses a range of environmental issues and science questions, but now has some of the loveliest photos of the CPNM I have seen. She also has photos of Antelope Valley in another post. FlickRiver also has some amazing pictures of the yellow hills.

The author of Tracks and Trails CA has some wonderful memories of receiving an email with the now famous photo “God Spilled the Paint” of the Carrizo in bloom, being so drawn to it, and finally visiting. There are outdoor sites that monitor the CPNM and its rain. This year it got plenty.

For hiking the Temblor Range, see details at SummitPost.org. For Rock Crawlers who want to visit the monument, there is more info. Bill Ward has some interesting pics of his camping trip to the Carrizo.

Often photos show the mountains, but these posts on Flicker show the plains and the areas that go from flat to hills.

The Taft Independent ran an article a couple of weeks ago about Spring time on the Monument. It has details about things to see if you want to visit the monument.

The monument is also a great area for birders.

I love reading accounts of “first visits” to the CPNM. Dave Gardner has a nice story and photos, as do Richard Wong and Kimberly Perkins.

The Theodore Payne Foundation brings you the 28th annual wildflower hotline.

For Kit Fox video, there is a YouTube post.

Life Magazine even took a turn.

If you can’t get out to the CPNM, enjoy the vicarious views!

Salazar says Reform Due for Oil and Gas Leases on Public Lands

Taft: Interior Secretary Salazar Launches Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms
Reforms Will Make Oil Drilling Tougher on Public Lands, Carrizo Plain
January 8, 2010

Citing a need to improve certainty and order in oil and gas leasing on U.S. public lands, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced several reforms that the Bureau of Land Management will undertake to improve protections for land, water, and wildlife and reduce potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming protests and litigation of leases. Interior will also establish a new Energy Reform Team to identify and implement important energy management reforms.
“The previous Administration’s anywhere, anyhow policy on oil and gas development ran afoul of communities, carved up the landscape, and fueled costly conflicts that created uncertainty for investors and industry,” said Secretary Salazar. “We need a fresh look – from inside the federal government and from outside – at how we can better manage Americans” energy resources.
Les Clark of the Independent Oil Producers Association told the Independent that the IOPA opposes these new guidelines and said that the government is just making it more difficult for oil producers to lease and explore for oil on public lands.
According to Salazar, the new guidance BLM is issuing for field managers will help bring clarity, consistency, and public engagement to the onshore oil and gas leasing process while balancing the many resource values that the Bureau of Land Management is entrusted with protecting on behalf of the American people. “In addition, with the help of our new Energy Reform Team, we will improve the Department’s internal operations to better manage publicly owned energy resources and the revenues they produce.”
Many of the reforms that the Bureau of Land Management will undertake follow the recommendations of an interdisciplinary review team that studied a controversial 2008 oil and gas lease sale in Utah.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy issued a statement about the new policy and said, “The Department of Interior’s decision takes a step backward in ensuring that our families have reliable access to affordable American energy. Our local communities are blessed with abundant resources that can be responsibly developed, creating good, well-paying jobs and promoting domestic energy production. Rather than promoting this, Interior’s additional layer of bureaucracy could instead lead to higher energy prices at a time when hardworking Americans are already shouldering high costs.”
Under the reformed oil and gas leasing policy, BLM will provide:
Comprehensive interdisciplinary reviews that take into account site-specific considerations for individual lease sales. Resource Management Plans will continue to provide programmatic-level guidance, but individual parcels nominated for leasing will undergo increased internal and external coordination, public participation, interdisciplinary review of available information, confirmation of Resource Management Plan conformance as well as site visits to parcels when necessary; Greater public involvement in developing Master Leasing and Development Plans for areas where intensive new oil and gas extraction is anticipated so that other important natural resource values can be fully considered prior to making an irreversible commitment to develop an area; Leadership in identifying areas where new oil and gas leasing will occur. The bureau will continue to accept industry expressions of interest regarding where to offer leases, but will emphasize leasing in already-developed areas and will plan carefully for leasing and development in new areas.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said the increased opportunity for public participation and a more thorough environmental review process and documentation can help reduce the number of protests filed as well as enhance BLM?s ability to resolve protests prior to lease sales. A comparison of the new guidance with current policy can be found here.
“The new approach can help restore certainty and predictability to a system currently burdened by constant legal challenges and protests,” said Abbey. “It will also support the BLM’s multiple-use mission, which requires management of the public lands to provide opportunities for activities such as recreation, conservation, and energy development?both conventional and renewable.”
BLM will also issue guidance regarding the use of categorical exclusions, or CXs, established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and that allow the bureau to approve some oil and gas development activities based on existing environmental or planning analysis. Under the new policy, in accordance with White House Council on Environmental Quality guidelines, BLM will not use these CX’s in cases involving “extraordinary circumstances” such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety.
Salazar also issued a Secretarial Order establishing an Energy Reform Team within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management that will identify and oversee implementation of energy reforms.
“The creation of the new Team focuses on our important stewardship responsibility in the management of the nation’s energy resources,” said Wilma Lewis, Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “Through its work, the team will promote efficiency and effectiveness in the development of renewable and conventional energy resources, so that we can be properly accountable to the American public.”
Under the Assistant Secretary’s direction, the Energy Reform Team will provide greater coordination and improved accountability to ensure the orderly, efficient, responsible and timely development of public resources critical for our national energy security. Through its own efforts, as well as by considering good ideas from stakeholders, industry, and the public, the Team will help ensure that Interior is a responsible steward of the public resources it manages and obtains fair value for energy resources owned by the public.
The new oil and gas leasing guidance and CX guidance will be implemented once BLM has completed final internal reviews.
According to Forest Watch, the Carrizo Plain National Monument, in San Luis Obispo County, has also experienced increased pressure from the oil industry. In 2006, an oil tycoon announced his intent to drill an exploratory well inside the Carrizo Plain National Monument boundary. His lease eventually expired before he was able to do so. In 2008, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum announced its intent to explore for oil on the valley floor of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. That proposal is still pending.

http://www.taftindependent.com/News/ViewArticle/1666

Secretary Salazar is drawing heat from the oil industry. His stance has angered and surprised the industry.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Business groups fear the administration’s action will discourage domestic energy development, by adding new red tape to the permitting process for oil and gas drilling. In a letter to Mr. Salazar last week, the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a lobbying group that represents manufacturers, credited the 2005 law with reducing drilling-permit backlogs and boosting natural-gas production.

The Bureau of Land Management will have to reign themselves in. From the WSJ article quoted above:

Mr. Salazar’s action follows litigation from some environmental groups and criticism from the Government Accountability Office that the BLM has often misinterpreted and violated a 2005 federal law. The legislation was designed to speed oil and gas drilling in the West by allowing federal land managers to waive extensive environmental reviews normally required.

Republicans sent a letter of complaint about the reforms.

Environmental groups who have been fighting for curbing of the leases are generally pleased. The Billings Gazette quotes Salazar as saying that the Bush Administration treated public lands like a “candy store.” Previously Salazar had halted land sales that were to take place in Utah, so this latest reform is additional good news for places like the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

In Memoriam: Anne McMahon

A great environmentalist and writer passed away this weekend. Anne McMahon, who worked with the Nature Conservancy during the period that Marlene Braun was the monument manager for the Carrizo Plain National Monument, but who left TNC shortly before Marlene died, was a champion for justice. She worked for Representative Lois Capps before moving to her job as Federal Programs Manager for the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco. In the Los Angeles Times article about Marlene’s death, she was one of the few willing to be quoted. A small notice appeared yesterday in the CalCoast News. There is a topix comment thread on which you can leave a comment if you like, to remember Anne.

If you would like to read Anne’s article about the Carrizo, “A California Gem,” the Wilderness Society has reposted it.

Anne, may you rest in peace.

Update:
Please make donations in Anne’s name to North County Watch (http://www.northcountywatch.org/).

Update:
Local political player hailed as dedicated
Anne McMahon, who died Saturday at 57, worked for the California Coastal Commission
By Bill Morem | bmorem@thetribunenews.com

Anne McMahon, 57, who died Saturday at her Santa Margarita home after a seven-month battle with cancer, was known for her keen intelligence and sense of humor.

Referring to her as “my dear friend,” Rep. Lois Capps said, “Anne was one of the first Congressional staffers (my husband), Walter, hired when he was elected in 1996, and she was a tremendous asset to the office and the constituents of the 22nd Congressional District.

“Anne was a wonderful writer,” she added, “having worked as a local journalist for several years before moving to politics. She also had a quick wit and generous spirit. It was truly a joy to work with her and an honor to be her friend.”
Click image to see caption

Anne McMahon was described as having a ‘quick wit’ by Lois Capps.

California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas hired McMahon three years ago to be the commission’s Federal Program Manager, acting as a liaison with a variety of federal agencies and Congress.

Douglas said that although McMahon “knew the Coastal Commission, its policies and its work, she was not familiar with the wide range of responsibilities and issues she would need to address in her new capacity. She stepped right in, and through her dedication, strong work ethic, good mind and fine people skills, she was able to catch on remarkably fast.

“In my 30-plus years with the commission,” he added, “I know of no one who joined our coastal family and earned the love and respect of her colleagues more quickly than Anne did.”

Jim Hayes, former journalism professor and writing coach for the Los Angeles Times, taught McMahon when she returned to Cal Poly for a degree in journalism after having raised a family.

“She was smart, shrewd and determined to learn. Annie — as her friends knew her — had a heart as big as the outdoors she loved so well.

She drove herself with passion for good causes and compassion even for those who failed her. She taught me that politics, played by honest people for the right reasons, could be a wonderful game. She ended up teaching me. She was one-of-a-kind.”

Former county supervisor David Blakely hired her as his board aide. “She had been with me through my political career,” the now-retired Blakely said from his home in Santa Margarita.

“First and foremost, she loved her family and right behind that, this little community.”

Toward that end, Mc-Mahon fought the development of the Santa Margarita Ranch, pointing out that almost a dozen environmental problems associated with the project couldn’t be fixed or mitigated.

“She was great to work with,” Blakely said. “You know how you’ve got some employees that you don’t have to worry about? She was one of those. She just knew what to do and did it. She engendered a lot of respect from county staff.”

Neil Havlik, natural resources manager for the city of San Luis Obispo, said McMahon’s love for the county was evident in her efforts with the Nature Conservancy to get an area of the Carrizo Plain designated a national monument.

“I don’t know who got Bill Clinton to sign the designation,” Havlik said, “but it wouldn’t surprise me if her hand were in there.”

When she tried to drum up support for a countywide green belt, she pulled in such disparate groups as the Farm Bureau, Cattlemen’s Association, Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Center.

“She was nothing but a lady,” Havlik said.

She is survived by her husband Peter Kincaid; sons Jono and Ryan; parents Bob and Janis McMahon; three sisters — Noreen, Megan and Michelle; and two brothers, Gerard and Dan.

No services are planned, although an Irish wake will be held at a later date.

Will solar energy plants cause irreparable harm to endangered flora and fauna?

http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/story/840092.html
Saturday, Sep. 05, 2009
Solar mecca
Plans to build three large energy plants on the Carrizo Plain could turn SLO County into a nationwide pioneer — but the proposals aren’t without critics, who say the industrial uses would cause irreparable harm to the area’s environment and wildlife
By By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County could become the nation’s leader in solar energy if three large-scale commercial solar plants are approved to start operating near the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Two are photovoltaic plants that use solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, they would be the two largest photovoltaic systems in the world.

The third would also be the world’s largest of its kind: a solar thermal plant that uses the sun’s heat to drive electrical steam generators.
Click image to see caption

The setting sun silhouettes existing transmission lines and a landscape of hills edging the Carrizo Plain. The lines would carry energy generated at three proposed solar plants to the California grid and are a key reason for the choice of location.

The plants could be online as early as 2013. Together, they would produce 977 megawatts of power, enough electricity to serve more than 100,000 homes. Not only are the plants large, they are also on track to be some of the first to come online, said Sue Kateley, executive director of the California chapter of the Solar Energy Industry Association.

“San Luis Obispo County could be the first to see the actual shovels in the ground,” she said.

Several factors are driving this unprecedented growth of solar power.

One is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ambitious goal of having 33 percent of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2020. State and federal tax breaks also encourage the quick development of renewable energy sources.

All three plants are still in the planning phase with state and county officials processing construction applications, but little seems to stand in the way of their eventual approval. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has signed contracts to purchase all the power they will produce.

The solar projects will pump millions of dollars into the county and help diversify an economy dominated by government and tourism jobs. Other renewable energy projects could follow.

But they will also carry a hefty environmental price.

Two of the plants will occupy nearly 10 square miles and feature millions of photovoltaic panels, concentrated in the top third of the Carrizo Plain, which covers hundreds of square miles.

The third plant will be a highly industrialized, steam-driven power plant covering one square mile and complete with nearly 200 mirror assemblies and 115-foot-tall cooling towers.

They will be built in one of the last remnants of grassland in California, an ecosystem so rare that it contains the state’s highest concentration of endangered plants and animals. They will also sit astride migration pathways used by tule elk and pronghorn antelope.

Public sentiment is divided on the issue.

Many welcome the plants, with some conservationists arguing that sparsely populated California Valley is the ideal location for the projects. Others lament the radical changes they will bring to a stark but beautiful place, saying they will take too heavy a toll on a host of species teetering on the brink of extinction.

A handful of people will be profoundly affected. More than 30 homes are in the vicinity of the plants, and several will be completely surrounded by photovoltaic panels.

Residents of California Valley will deal with increased traffic, noise and lights at night. Additional demands will be made on the area’s already scarce water resources.

But the biggest impact will be the transformation of a vast pastoral landscape populated by more cattle than people into a major commercial electrical generation center.

The effects three solar plants on California grasslands

Monday, Sep. 07, 2009
Tribune special report: Valley of life
Though the Carrizo Plain may look like a desolate, inhospitable landscape, the remote grasslands are actually home to California’s largest concentration of endangered species, many of which live in underground burrows and are very rarely seen
By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

To the motorist passing on Highway 58, California Valley can look like a whole lot of nothing — brown flatlands nearly devoid of vegetation and inhabited by the occasional cow or raven.

If you’re lucky, you can catch sight of a pronghorn antelope or tule elk grazing in the distance.

But to the trained eye of a biologist like John Davis, the valley is full of signs of a vibrant wildlife community living in the state’s last remnant of grassland. Many of the animals live underground in this treeless environment, coming out only at night.
Click image to see caption

Biologists from URS Corp. — a Santa Barbara-based construction consulting firm — walk in lines while conducting a survey for blunt-nosed leopard lizards on SunPower’s Carrizo Plain site.

Of all the effects the three solar plants will have on the environment of the area, none are as significant as the wildlife impacts.

“Wildlife is the big issue,” said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes the Carrizo Plain.

“The projects cover so much ground,” he added. “One of the major characteristics of the Carrizo is the multiple rare and endangered species found there.” The Carrizo Plain is the last remnant of grassland in the state.

The solar companies and the state Energy Commission are taking a coordinated look at wildlife issues. The effort has sparked controversy — the solar companies want some of the results of the study kept confidential because it may identify which lands they must purchase as mitigation and that could drive prices up.

Looking for lizards

Davis recently led a team of 24 biologists who were surveying a portion of the area that is proposed to be the site of SunPower’s California Valley Solar Ranch along the valley’s eastern edge.

SunPower hired Davis’ employer, URS Corp., a Santa Barbara-based construction consulting firm, to survey the more than three square miles on which the company will build the plant. One day recently, the URS team went looking for blunt-nosed leopard lizards, one of more than 70 rare and endangered animals that live in the area.

None were found — just as none of the lizards have been found on the other two proposed solar sites. But lots of other rare animals have been seen, including burrowing owls, San Joaquin kit foxes, coast horned lizards, the San Joaquin coachwhip snake and kangaroo rats.

Davis thinks the absence of the lizard is due to the fact that the valley is a marginal habitat for them. This site will be surveyed 12 times before biologists are satisfied that none live there.

“You can’t rule them out just because the habitat is marginal,” he said. “That’s why we do these presence/absence surveys.”

The biologists form a line, each person about 100 feet apart. They begin to walk. Occasionally, one stops to examine a hole in the ground or peer through binoculars at the landscape ahead.

The first thing that stands out is that the ground is full of holes. The holes range from large ones where kit foxes have made their dens or badgers have tunneled after ground squirrels to ones so small you could barely insert a pencil where pocket mice have made their dens.

But the most impressive are kangaroo rat dens — complexes, really. They feature numerous holes, both horizontal and vertical, leading to a network of tunnels. Areas of barren dirt mark where the rats have taken dust baths to eliminate parasites.

Some areas are covered with brown vegetative mats where the rats store red brome seeds, their burrs knitted together to prevent them from blowing away. The ground is also pockmarked with small pits where other grass seeds are stowed.

Davis stoops to measure the diameter of the holes. Biologists are uncertain exactly which species of kangaroo rat is making the holes — the endangered giant kangaroo rat or its more diminutive and more common cousin, the Heermann’s variety.

Before European Americans settled California, much of the Central Valley was covered with massive expanses of grass that hosted numerous herds of deer, antelope and elk.

Those grasslands were converted to farms and oil fields. Only the Carrizo Plain was spared because it lacked enough oil and water to be commercially viable.

This last fragile grassland remnant is so ecologically valuable that President Bill Clinton established the Carrizo Plain National Monument in the waning hours of his presidency in 2000 to protect it.

California Valley, comprising the plain’s northern end, was not included because it had been the most intensely farmed and is where the area’s few residents live.

Fox habitat

Of the myriad of rare species that survive in the Carrizo Plain, none is as important as the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. Populations of the little canine are scattered from the Carrizo northwest into Monterey County and Camp Roberts.

Ensuring that the three proposed solar plants do not block the fox’s migration routes, destroy den habitat or otherwise reduce its chances for survival will be the biggest challenge faced by the solar companies and state and federal wildlife managers.

“The kit fox is what we call an umbrella species,” said Dave Hacker, a state environmental scientist based in San Luis Obispo, who is monitoring wildlife issues associated with the solar farms. “If you can meet the conservation needs of the kit fox you can meet the needs of the other species in the area.”

Unfortunately, the proposed solar farms sit smack dab in the middle of the fox’s migration routes, as well as those of tule elk and pronghorn antelope. Because the fox is federally listed as endangered, its conservation needs far outweigh those of the elk and antelope.

Clearing a pathway

The two sprawling photovoltaic plants will have the biggest potential impact on the fox. Consequently, the companies say they have designed their projects to be as fox-friendly as possible.

Steps they plan on taking include raising the solar panels some 18 inches off the ground to allow the fox to move through the area and maintain a clear line of sight in order to avoid predators.

They plan to provide fencing around the plants that will allow the fox passage. Both photovoltaic plants have also scrapped plans to use concrete pedestals as foundations for their panel arrays in favor of sinking the foundation poles a short way into the ground.

Wildlife officials say this arrangement maximizes visibility for the fox. Not having to mix concrete also reduces water consumption.

Because the wildlife impacts are so important, the state Energy Commission has hired the consulting firm South Coast Wildlands to perform a wildlife corridor study that will look at the cumulative impacts of all three solar plants, said John Kessler, the commission’s Carrizo Plain project manager.

“The goal of this study is to provide and maintain an equivalent alternate corridor for wildlife as is utilized currently, considering the proposed project effects,” he said.

In spite of these efforts, the three solar plants will inevitably destroy or degrade wildlife habitat. The standard way to offset those impacts is to permanently conserve alternative habitat to replace it.

Ausra has options to purchase six square miles of nearby land to offset the environmental impact of its one-square-mile proposed solar thermal plant.

Similarly, SunPower is planning to use only about three square miles of the nearly seven square miles it has acquired, with the rest available for wildlife mitigation. First Solar has reduced the footprint of its project by 2,000 acres which would be available for wildlife mitigations.

The commission hopes to have the corridor study complete sometime this fall. The state Department of Fish and Game will then use the information to decide mitigation measures each plant must undertake.

“Wildlife cannot be worse off after these projects are built,” Hacker said. “That can be a challenge when you are looking at large-scale projects like these.”

Secret info?

The possibility that the solar companies will have to purchase additional land for wildlife mitigation has generated a controversy. The solar companies have requested that parts of the study be kept confidential.

They are afraid that if the study identifies certain properties for mitigation, the price of those properties could increase.

“This type of volatility could potentially have a negative impact on corridor mitigation activities, the interests of local landowners and the advancement of development of solar energy projects,” said Ausra spokeswoman Katherine Potter in a prepared statement.

California Valley residents are fighting the confidentiality effort as unnecessary. They say that property owners in the area are already well aware of the solar projects and would take them into consideration if they received any purchase offers.

Confidentiality would also limit public participation in the study, which has been valuable in increasing its accuracy, opponents say. A decision on the request is pending.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.