10:00 PM PDT on Monday, October 25, 2010

By DAVID DANELSKI
The Press-Enterprise

U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar on Monday approved plans for a solar plant on 10 square miles of public land near Blythe in eastern Riverside County over objections from Indian tribal members worried about losing sacred sites.

Salazar said the solar array would be the largest in the world and provide enough power for about 700,000 average American homes. “We are opening a new chapter in renewable energy,” he said.

Building the 1,000-megawatt complex of parabolic mirrors and heating elements will produce as many as 1,000 construction jobs, Salazar said in a conference call with reporters.

The Blythe development is the sixth solar project Salazar has approved in recent weeks. Of the others, three are in San Bernardino County, one is in Imperial County and one is in Nevada.

When completed, they would produce enough electricity for up to 2 million homes, Salazar said. Construction on all of them is expected to be under way by the end of the year, and the first power could be flowing in 2011, said Bob Abbey, U.S. Bureau of Land Management director, during the conference call. The BLM oversees the public land leased to the developer.

Solar Millennium, based in Germany, will build the Blythe project.

Rachel McMahon, a government affairs director in the company’s Oakland offices, said the first work at the site northwest of Blythe will include additional surveys for Native American artifacts and other cultural resources. The first construction work will be to improve water wells, build an access road and install a temporary power line.

Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, a Chemehuevi tribal elder, said Monday he will continue fighting to stop the project because it affects sacred places such as the Kokopilli, a 50-by-200-foot image of a human playing a flute that was made by clearing gravel and stones from the desert floor.

“We are devastated completely,” Figueroa said.

BLM and Solar Millennium officials say the Kokopilli image won’t be affected but acknowledge that an access road will pass nearby.

Archaeological surveys turned up chipped stone flakes, evidence of tool or arrowhead making, at about three dozens areas within the 9.8-square-mile site, BLM officials have said.

At least four desert tortoises, a species listed as threatened with extinction, were found on the property, as well as kit foxes, badgers and burrowing owls. All must be moved out of harm’s way, according to BLM officials.

Salazar emphasized that each project approved so far has undergone thorough environmental analysis, despite an expedited review process that allowed them to qualify for federal stimulus dollars.

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