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Red Lodge | Mar 03, 2011 10:35 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Somewhere in the California desert, the Mohave ground squirrel is safe from solar panels, for now.

After being sued over concerns for the critter, the developer Solar Millennium withdrew plans for its 250-megawatt solar station. It’s just one of a flurry of legal protests to several large-scale solar plants planned for construction on public lands in Nevada and California. The Sierra Club is fighting the Calico Solar Project in California on behalf of the desert tortoise. The Quechan tribe doesn’t want a different proposed solar project in the Imperial Valley adversely affecting its ancestral land. Several additional suits grind ahead.

Solar image NRELSetting aside the legitimacy of these suits, they bring to the fore the issue of developing renewable energy sources on public lands. Now, while the future of solar energy in six southwestern states is under consideration, and wind energy guidelines are being established (two issues currently open for public comment), is the time to commit ourselves to striking a balance.

The Department of the Interior manages one-fifth of this nation’s land mass and more than 1.7 billion acres offshore, both of which amount to a massive amount of renewable energy production potential. The Bureau of Land Management manages nearly 21 million land acres in 11 western states with great wind power prospects, and about 29 million acres that would be well-suited for solar power production. Geothermal power is a possibility on 140 million acres in the western states and Alaska. Excluded from consideration, of course, are all national parks, wilderness areas and most national monuments.

Two years ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order “making the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy top priorities.” Since then, opposition to pursuing that mandate has derailed national, and many state-based, commitments to developing renewable energy resources.

I don’t often find myself suggesting that environmental groups get real, but something has to give.

Let’s not forget why we need to domesticate our energy sources: America exports hundreds of billions of our hard-earned dollars annually to buy the oil we need to keep our power turned on. Let’s remember why we need to diversify away from our traditional domestic energy sources: coal mining and burning is deadly and destructive. Natural gas drilling is increasingly using “fracking,” a controversial mining technique whose ruinous powers, including groundwater contamination, are now beginning to be exposed. And extracting oil shale uses upwards of three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil (the last time I checked, water was not an elastic commodity in the West).

I’m not advocating paving paradise to put up a parking lot, or that the Mohave ground squirrel be sacrificed at the altar of alternative energy, or that the Endangered Species Act be flouted or circumvented. Nor am I suggesting that every project that comes along be rubber-stamped.

A pro-active, collaborative approach in which the least hotly-contested sites are vetted for development, perhaps with the help of reputable groups like the Sierra Club and the National Congress of American Indians, might be worth a try. Just as we carefully consider uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and drilling in Bridger-Teton National Forest (two other issues now open for public comment), we need to look at renewable energy development on public lands as a possible threat to that environment, and continue to do careful environmental assessments, and to consider additional objections through a rigorous public comment period.

We still must be tireless stewards of intact wildlands, which contribute immeasurably to species adaptation and carbon sequestration, made necessary by greenhouse gas expulsion and climate change. We need to consider that, while the immediate benefits of a federal project may be felt by a select group of people (say a solar plant for fueling million of homes in California), it actually does contribute to solving a national problem.

Alongside our conservation efforts, we need to be committed to honoring the “multiple use” mandate imposed on certain public lands. And we need to be thoughtful when applying our wildlife regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, which specifically states that the designation of critical habitats can “take into consideration the economic impact” of limiting the uses of those areas.

In short, we have to take some risks to reap the rewards of being fossil fuel-free. We have to be willing to work through the paradox of compromising some of our natural bounty in order to save it, and we have to do it now.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of solar panels courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Mar 07, 2011 11:14 AM
"I’m not advocating paving paradise to put up a parking lot, or that the Mohave ground squirrel be sacrified at the altar of alternative energy, or that the Endangered Species Act be flouted or circumvented. Nor am I suggesting that every project that comes along be rubber-stamped."

Yes you are! That's exactly what you are advocating: You want to pave paradise and put up large scale, industrial power plants; You clearly value new energy (which we consume at the highest levels in the world) and your convenience over the well-being of the Mohave ground squirrel; and you are apparently miffed because somebody who knows about and cares about the landscapes threatened by large-scale solar development has the audacity to challenge some of these projects that are sited inappropriately.



Heather Hansen
Heather Hansen
Mar 09, 2011 09:53 AM
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Nolan. I admire your idealism. There was a time I may have responded similarly. The problem is, if you look at some environmental news from this week alone (another mountaintop mine permit approved, the BLM assuring oil and gas leasers that they will not be obstructed by the new Wild Lands policy), it's ever clearer that it will be business as usual if we don't fight for change. That fight includes easing the process for renewable energy. The existing big energy lobby is certainly going to keep fighting for what they want. Doing nothing is not a choice. What do you suggest we do to limit toxic energy sources? Pretend Americans are going to wake up one day and stop driving or heating our homes? All ideas are gratefully accepted. Thanks, again.
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Mar 09, 2011 01:57 PM
And thank you for your response as well. Heather, this IS "business as usual". Industrial solar development is not about stopping climate change, it's about profits for private corporations by exploiting public resources and shifting risk to the taxpayer. It's a time-worn formula and it is exactly the mindset that has gotten us into this mess. We are maintaning an unsustainable lifestyle (for a little while longer) by continually exploiting nature. What to do differently? Dial it way back. Learn to turn off the switch rather than seeking new power sources.

Global climate change is here now. We can no longer pretend that we are going to stave it off. We already pushed that boulder off the mountain and no matter how far it goes or how long it takes to reach the bottom, we will have to live with it. So it goes...In the meantime, we should try to tread lightly and give other species a fighting chance to survive this man-made catastrophe. By doing so, we might just learn some skills and values that will help US to survive as well. I wish you the best of luck.

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