California clean energy project reportedly threatens thousands of protected Joshua trees

A California-based renewable energy company is reportedly planning to cut down thousands of protected Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert to make way for a solar project that will generate electricity for nearly 180,000 homes in coastal areas instead of the affected communities.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Avantus plans to build the Aratina Solar Project on 2,300 acres near Boron and Desert Lake, California, two cities in Kern County.

Residents of poverty-stricken cities are angry about the project not only because of the construction dust, but also because the land where the solar plant is to be built is home to endangered desert tortoises.

County officials reportedly ignored residents' concerns and approved the project unanimously.

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“Let's destroy the environment to save the environment. That seems to be the mentality,” Deric English, a teacher at Boron Junior-Senior High School, told the LA Times. “It's hard to grasp.”

California's efforts to generate clean energy have been fraught with controversy, and the Aratina project is a testament to the compromises state and local authorities are willing to make in their endeavors.

To develop solar and wind fields that help reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change, projects like Aratina involve the destruction of undeveloped land and harm to wildlife and endangered plants.

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The projects also affect small nearby communities that lack the political power to stop such projects.

The Times spoke to a person familiar with the project who reportedly did not want to be named because he or she was not authorized to speak about the Aratina project.

The person told the publication that clearing crews would begin clearing the Aratina project site, which includes Joshua trees, on Monday.

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To reduce the visibility of tree-clearing operations, workers on site have machines to chop up the trees instead of piling them in heaps or loading them onto trucks and driving them away.

Fox News Digital reached out to Avantus and Kern County for comment on the project but did not immediately receive a response.

Nevertheless, the company discusses on its website what impact the project will have on the Joshua trees in the region.

“Avantus is working to conserve native Mojave plants like Joshua trees while preserving California's ability to meet its clean energy goals – and the economic and climate benefits that come with that,” the company said. “While trees will be impacted during project construction, far more Joshua trees are threatened by climate change due to rising greenhouse gas emissions, which the Aratina Solar Project directly addresses.”

In the environmental impact statement for the project, posted on the Kern County website, Avantus stated that there are approximately 4,700 Joshua trees on the site, with more than 500 of those trees being 18 feet tall.

A person familiar with the project told the LA Times that the company plans to destroy 3,500 Joshua trees.

The company also addresses the impact Aratina will have on local wildlife, saying it has a “positive track record” with wildlife agencies and environmental organizations, and has received support for previous projects from the Sierra Club, Audubon California, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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“We design each project to avoid or minimize potential impacts on threatened or endangered species and ensure that appropriate mitigation measures are taken where necessary,” the company said.

Regarding concerns about dust generation, the company states that it will use dust suppression to control and minimize potential impacts on construction workers and surrounding communities.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the Aratina project in October 2021, and according to Alexander Sundquist, who contacted county officials before the decision, the project involves $3 million in sales tax and $73 million in property taxes.

As the publication reported, county officials claimed that Avantus has set aside $1.4 million to protect Joshua trees in other areas of the state. The company also reportedly acquired grazing rights on 215 acres of federal land in the county and plans to work with authorities to preserve the land.

The company has remained silent about where the power will be delivered, but the Times reported that the company has signed contracts to deliver some of its power to Silicon Valley Clean Energy and Central Coast Community Energy, both nonprofits that provide green energy to homes.

California lawmakers passed the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act in 2023, which prohibits killing trees without a permit. However, the Aratina project was approved by state authorities before the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act was passed and before the state declared the Joshua tree a candidate for protection under the state Endangered Species Act.