The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the nation's most aggressively litigious environmental groups, has not challenged the Ivanpah project. It signed a confidential agreement not to oppose the project in exchange for concessions for the desert tortoise — mandating that BrightSource buy land elsewhere for conservation.
The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters' opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club's national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.
Federal officials, solar companies and environmental groups argue that the urgency brought on by climate change has forced difficult trade-offs.
"We did the best we could," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an interview. The goal, he added, has been to make sure the projects are "the least environmentally intrusive."
In the case of the Ivanpah project, for example, environmental groups were able to convince BrightSource to reduce the project's overall footprint and preserve a sensitive area near the foothills of the Clark Mountains.
"We didn't make them perfect," Wald, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the solar projects. "We didn't eliminate their environmental impact because you can't eliminate the environmental impact. But we made them better."
Opposition instead has come from the federal government.
The National Park Service has voiced the strongest complaints about the scale and siting of solar projects. California's desert parks — Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve — have the most acreage affected by the development.
The Department of Defense also has raised questions. The Pentagon has the China Lake weapons testing facility, Ft. Irwin, Edwards Air Force Base, Twentynine Palms Marine base and the Chocolate Mountain Naval Aerial Gunnery Range.
The military, whose pilots often trace the contours of the desert floor from 200 feet, is concerned about maneuvering around 460-foot solar towers. The Marines have asked the companies for more information about the glare produced by a vast carpet of solar reflectors.
The Federal Aviation Administration has voiced concerns about the heat plume rising from the Ivanpah towers and about the installation's possible radar interference.
Schramm, who retired last December as superintendent at Mojave National Preserve, found himself at odds with the Interior Department, his own parent agency, in defending the 900 species of plants and 300-plus species of animals in the preserve, especially the desert tortoise.
"For the life of the projects, that habitat is lost to the desert tortoise. It's 'Pack your bags, you're leaving,'" he said. "So while you are trying to recover the species, you take away the habitat?"
Schramm sees the vast desert, with a tenuous constituency that cares about it, as a pawn in a high-stakes financial gambit played out by multinational companies.
"Some of these projects are going to fail," he said. "These are big businesses chasing federal dollars — they don't care if they fail. They got what they want."
Should that happen, he said, the species that rely on the arid and austere Mojave will be out of luck.
"If these companies pull out and attempt to restore the land — if they can — it will take a long time," he said. "It will be 100 years. It might be 200 years. That's how long it would take to restore the desert."
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.