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In California, quest for cleaner power hits tortoise-sized speed bumps

Golden State lawmakers ask which is more important: building the nation's largest solar-energy farm or protecting a fragile ecosystem?

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The development of a 400,00-mirror solar-energy farm in the Mojave Desert has been slowed by environmentalists concerned about the habitat of the threatened desert tortoise.

Reed Saxon/AP

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On a strip of California's Mojave Desert, two dozen rare tortoises could stand in the way of a sprawling solar-energy complex in a case that highlights mounting tensions in the United States between wilderness conservation and the quest for cleaner power.

Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy has been pushing for more than two years for permission to erect 400,000 mirrors on the site to gather the sun's energy. It could become the first project of its kind on US Bureau of Land Management property, leaving a footprint for others to follow on vast stretches of public land across the West.

The construction would come with a cost: Government scientists have concluded that more than 6 square miles of habitat for the federally threatened desert tortoise would be permanently lost.

The Sierra Club and other environmentalists want the complex relocated to preserve what they call a near-pristine home for rare plants and wildlife, including the protected tortoise, the Western burrowing owl, and bighorn sheep.

"It's actually a good project. It's just located in the wrong place," says Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group.

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