Blocking solar power ... with national monuments?


If you follow basic media coverage of debates over whether to protect various bits and chunks of public land from development, you're probably painfully familiar with the following archetypal stances. We'll call them Merle and Becky.

Merle, a hardscrabble, hardworking local resident who may be involved in local government or small business and is eager for economic development (possibly clad in a cowboy hat, and likely with a long family history in the area going back three to five generations): "This is not an earnest effort to protect _______ (fill in: endangered milkvetch or old growth forest or scenery). It's a federal land grab, pure and simple. Not only that, but designating Cactus Stump Mountain as a wilderness/national monument will trample the local economy. We built this town on _______ (ranching or logging or mining or oil drilling etc.); these guys want to make local  ________ (ranchers or loggers or miners or roughnecks) an endangered species. Not only that, but they're keeping _______company from going forward with plans for _______, which would have brought _______jobs."

Becky, a representative of a regional or national environmental group (probably from far outside of town if not a different state from the one where the proposal is located, with little or no immediate personal stake in that particular landscape): "Cactus Stump Mountain is wild, rugged country beloved by hikers and backpackers and home to the state's last _________ (clump of endangered milkvetch or old growth forest or population of whozit foxes). And to be perfectly honest, ________ (ranching or logging or mining or oil drilling) now makes up only a tiny fraction of the local/regional/national economy, while ecotourism and low-impact recreation could bring this little community out of the doldrums. Why should Americans continue subsidizing the faltering ______ industry while our precious pristine landscapes are exploited for short-term local gain?"

But then again, in these horse-trady political times, Merle and Becky's roles are beginning to fray and break down, becoming Berles and Meckys as they blend into closer, stranger alliances that are not as easy to classify. (For context, check out Ray Ring's "Taking control of the machine," and our coverage of proposals for Utah's Washington and San Juan counties, and the Hidden Gems campaign in Colorado).  And sometimes, these new Berles and Meckys find extra unity by standing against a common enemy, resulting in novel possibilities for land protection.

An interesting example is Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2011, which is coming around to Congressional consideration along with a slew of other wilderness compromise bills now that lawmakers are through the quagmire of healthcare reform and budget negotiations. The measure would set aside 1.165 million acres of southern California desert surrounding the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks. Most significantly, it creates the nearly 950,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument, which provides permanent protection for former railroad lands whose purchase and conversion to BLM territory was funded with tens of millions of dollars from the Wildlands Conservancy and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That last is important, because it's part of why this isn't your typical land-protection bill.

The private groups who donated the bulk of the money for transferring the parcels into the hands of the BLM intended that they be held for conservation. The BLM, however, opened up the area to solar companies who wanted to build utility scale plants, which each can require the clearing of thousands of acres of land.  Opposition to such development has united hyper-conservative and liberal desert rats alike (see Judith Lewis' HCN feature  "High Noon"). Likewise many of the conservative, rural folks who vehemently opposed the 1994 Desert Protection Act shepherded by Feinstein -- which set aside about 8.5 million acres of the Mojave -- on the grounds that it would chill the local economy, are now apparently on her side because her bill will block industrial development that could hamper the region's new cash cow: tourism. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

With Republicans again in control of the House, Feinstein's former foes now count on her to protect their off-road vehicle playgrounds and block efforts to build giant solar plants in the desert.

"There has been a 180-degree turnabout in perception and attitude," said Gerald Freeman, owner of the Nipton Hotel near the Mojave Preserve ... tourism and a national park "prestige factor" has replaced the view that "environmentalists have stolen our land."

That's definitely not something you often hear from folks who have bitterly fought such environmentally motivated measures in the past. (Take, for instance, the continued antipathy for wolves, even though their return to the Yellowstone area has helped infuse surrounding communities with millions of dollars in extra revenue [pdf] from tourism). So it is that Berle and Mecky have blended into even more novel combinations and offshoots -- Blerky, Ckerly, Yerkle and more...

And it seems, based on the Chronicle piece, that Feinstein's measure actually has a decent chance, with U.S. Republican representatives from the districts containing the nominated land relatively neutral or pro-wilderness, not to mention the fact that

local GOP officials, who once protected strip mines, count on ecotourism to fill their tax coffers. Barstow, a San Bernardino County community that was once a hotbed of the anti-park insurgency, has endorsed Feinstein's bill along with more than 100 organizations and businesses, including city councils deep in GOP territory.

But even if it doesn't pass, Feinstein's fierce interest in this chunk of the Mojave is having a distinct chilling effect on the industry already, with both wind and solar power companies pulling proposals from the nominated areas left and right (prompting, perhaps, a high-fives all around among our Meckys, Berles, Blerkys, Ckerlys and Yerkles). "Any projects within the boundaries of her monument are considered too much of a risk right now to develop," Executive Director of the Large-Scale Solar Association Shannon Eddy told the Chronicle.

--Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor

Pete Flanigan
Pete Flanigan
May 06, 2011 11:56 AM
I consider myself an environmentalist who would love nothing more than protecting nature and also having new trails to hike with all these new wilderness bills. Still, the fact is that if we want to get out of oil/coal and natural gas, the only other viable options at the moment are nuclear or solar.

If we want solar, it makes the most sense to put it out in the desert or similar areas. No one wants a tradeoff between protecting the environment and energy but geez, can't we try and develop these areas in a responsible way for a renewable energy resource?

I find myself more on the side of developing these plants after each each case I read about solar being thwarted in all different types of environments. I think if we care about the environment, we have to give a little on this one. How badly have we screwed things up with coal and oil? Ultimately, I think its worthwhile to displace some tortoises if we can get real meaningful energy change by developing solar plants.
Bill Schieb
Bill Schieb
May 07, 2011 08:06 AM
I am a fan of deserts and of solar. I've spent time in the Mojave both for business and for pleasure. I don't understand why large scale solar is pushed so hard on public lands and not in the cities that use it. The sun shines bright in the Mojave, but it shines pretty non-stop in many of the cities around the area that would benefit from solar facilities in the Mojave.
 Why isn't there more development of solar in urban locations, particularly on roofs? When I fly over cities I see enormous amounts of roof, baking in the sun.
My best guess is large scale solar works better financially. It is easier to lease large desert tracts than manage many small leases of rooftops. Perhaps more work should be done looking at financial models that would move solar back into the cities.
I'd certainly like to hear what others may know about this. Perhaps a possible HCN article?
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
May 09, 2011 11:44 AM
Bill --
We've done a couple articles that will help answer your questions. For the first -- why there's all these proposals on public land (instead of private) -- check out Judith Lewis Mernit's piece, "High Noon":

On the second -- why haven't we built more solar on rooftops -- check out Judith's thorough exploration of distributed generation and the obstacles such development faces in "Let's get small":

I hope that helps. And you're right, it's probably high time for us to revisit this issue. We're mulling it as I write. :)

--Associate Editor Sarah Gilman
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
May 10, 2011 02:19 PM
Bill, you are so right--and Sarah, I hope HCN does revisit this issue--particularly in the wake of issuance of the big Programmatic environmental impact statement from the Bureau of Land Mgmt, proposing to keep open 21.5 million acres of public land for solar plant lease applications. Not only is there copious rooftop space for solar,(and, e.g., a bunch of land scraped for not-happening- subdivisions in Las Vegas Valley), but the Envl. Protection Agency has identified 15 million acres of heavily degraded lands available and potentially suitable for renewable energy installations. Check out the information on, website of a coalition working to get these projects off habitat-rich public land and onto roofs, parking lots, highway medians, and already-damaged land. This includes data on the increasing cost-effectiveness of rooftop PV over big, remote plants, and myriad other ways in which distributed generation has it all over Big Solar.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
May 10, 2011 02:33 PM
Janine--We've covered the brownfields initiative as well. Check it out here:
Bill Schieb
Bill Schieb
May 11, 2011 11:00 AM
Sarah -
Thanks for the links to previous, pertinent articles. I think it may be time to revisit this issue. Perhaps, the print magazine could focus on new topics and HCN's very nice web presence could be used for tracking previous topics.

There are also existing, active mining concerns on combined tracts of private and BLM land that may be attractive possibilities for partnerships. Reclaimed open-pits would certainly qualify as degraded land, and when near active mine sites are often kept off-limits to the public anyway. These areas could be good targets for large scale solar, benefiting the mine as well as others.

Regarding rooftop solar, I think more information on the practicalities of leasing would help clarify the issue. Can rooftops be leased for development to outside producers that could provide technical expertise on scales that would drop the cost? If such a deal is made, what happens if the building has a change of ownership or tenants? I also recall reading an article (I think in Solar Today, but I'm not positive) pointing out that many benefits available to house owners adding solar are not available to owners of rental units, which in this collapsed housing market may represent a significant amount of roofs.

Thanks for HCN's excellent coverage of these issues.