For the love of wastelands


Every summer when I was a kid, my parents would load my brother, my sisters and me into our van and haul us from Colorado to eastern Wyoming and Montana, where we searched for fossils left by ancient inland seas. We drove to places with names like Froze to Death and Dead Horse Point, broke down in the middle of nowhere and wandered for hours across jumbled buttes and flats. I remember those landscapes as all meadowlark song and two-lane highways that ran in straight lines to unbroken horizons.

"Drive-through country," some might call it, but we loved it; its very emptiness was the thing that made it wonderful. These days, though, that country isn't quite so empty.

Even though the gas boom has slowed, coalbed methane wells, waste pits, roads and pipelines can now be found throughout the Powder River Basin, which straddles northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. Gillette, Wyo., overflows with new houses and diesel pickups clog the local roads and parking lots. It's not hard to look at this intense energy development as blight, since it slurps up groundwater, pumps unknown chemicals into the earth and chews up millions of acres to send greenhouse-gassy fuel to urban markets.

But there's another land rush on in Wyoming, just to the south. Developers are sniffing around rural communities like Slater, hoping to harness wind that blows so hard in some places, even turbines can't handle it. There's a similar boom in the desert Southwest, where companies are jockeying for 1.7 million acres worth of access to prime solar energy on BLM land, much of it in the Mojave Desert.

In 2010, the Interior Department plans to pour $50 million into initiatives that spur energy development on our public lands and offshore. In California, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona, the federal agency plans to set up new offices to process permits for renewable energy, while smaller permitting teams will operate in New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Oregon. Their objective: to speed up the granting of permits for renewable energy.

On the face of it, that's good news. Wind and solar power are undoubtedly cleaner than oil and gas, and it appears the United States is finally getting serious about climate change. But because renewables tend to be less-concentrated energy sources, they require a lot of space to produce enough power to sate our massive energy appetite. Large-scale wind projects will mean vast networks of roads and habitat fragmentation, which sounds a lot like what natural gas development does to the land. In the case of large-scale solar, whole landscapes will need to be scraped clean -- what one BLM official recently described to The Associated Press as "a potentially irreversible commitment of lands." Let's also not forget that harnessing renewable energy from remote places requires building giant new transmission lines to reach far-flung markets.

In the path of all this new development are the "wastelands" I loved as a child, landscapes that aren't wastelands at all, but home to rare plants and animals and to the West's mythic openness.

That presents a dilemma for Westerners who have long defended such places, but who now also must consider how these and other lands may be harmed by global warming. The problem is that we require so much power. Even if all 70,000 megawatts of solar projects proposed for Bureau of Land Management lands were built, we still wouldn't come close to scratching the surface. And our hunger for energy keeps growing.

Can we find ways to develop large-scale renewable energy plants and transmission without sacrificing unused landscapes? Fortunately, some examples suggest the answer can be yes. In Arizona, a Spanish company is moving ahead with a 280-megawatt solar project -- enough to supply energy to up to 70,000 homes -- on a former alfalfa field. The EPA has identified hundreds of polluted and former mining sites that would be suitable for both large-and-small-scale renewable energy development.

Those are the kinds of alternatives we should exhaust before we move on to industrializing our "empty" spaces. But there's another approach we seldom even discuss: Why not simply use less energy?

Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo., where she serves as assistant editor (

Large-scale solar
Pat Veesart
Pat Veesart
May 16, 2009 10:20 AM
Good article. Thank you.

I live on the Carrizo Plain National Monument - home to the highest concentration of T&E species in California. Just outside the Monument boundaries, three large-scale solar developers (in cahoots with the local power company: Pacific Gas and Electric) are proposing to cover almost 10 square miles of the last remnant of San Joaquin Valley grassland with industrial solar power plants. Many people consider this area a to be a "wasteland," but the pronghorn, giant kangaroo rats, a host of winter raptors, tule elk, shrikes, kit foxes, blunt-nosed leopard lizards, California condors, etc. do not - and neither do I.

The impacts of global climate change, brought to us by our own gluttony, will be felt by all species. The solution is not to destroy more rapidly disappearing habitat and drive more species to extinction; the solution is to stop wasting energy. After we have shrunk our need; after we have covered every roof-top and parking lot in urbanized areas with solar panels, maybe then we can talk about a few select places where large-scale solar and wind can occur with the fewest impacts.
using less
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek
May 16, 2009 02:04 PM
Your last paragraph, sheer heresy though it is, speaks volumes. Plenty of evidence supports your concept of using less: simply by improving efficiency in existing structures (residential and commercial) and upgrading standards for new construction, demand can be reduced by a few nuke plants' worth of output. There are some cool retrofits for various smokestacks to recycle energy lost as heat, too, that can obviate all kinds of new energy developments.

Keep up with all the good articles, and defending the wide open spaces that make people rush back to the comfort of their crowded comfort zones . . .
Conservation isn't an 'issue'
May 19, 2009 07:47 PM
It's not something spectacular for national environmental groups to wrap themselves around, or raise funds on. Conservatives follow Dick Cheney's lead and disparage it. But, bottom line is, we as a nation could, through a variety of methods, EASILY use 1/3 less energy than we do now.
We must accept some impact or a renewable America is a pipedream
May 18, 2009 12:42 PM
Make no mistake about it: conservation alone is no silver bullet solution like some folks here are inferring. Yes, conservation is often overlooked in favor of supply-side solutions. Yes, huge gains can be made through energy efficiency programs. I fully agree and support energy conservation efforts—in fact, some conservation should be made mandatory. However, we can’t fantasize away energy impacts by thinking all we need to do is conserve more. If we as a nation are really concerned about curbing our use of fossil fuels—a monumentally important direction for us to take—we need to have a serious discussion of where renewable energy projects and their associated infrastructure could be placed.

I agree we should look for places such as abandoned mine sites and alfalfa fields first, and although it’s a great goal, it’s naive to think we can “find ways to develop large-scale renewable energy plants and transmission without sacrificing landscapes.” A HCN issue or two ago there was an informative piece about resisting solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Of course, there are important ecological values there. Now we have a writer telling us there is even ecological value in “wastelands,” and of course Sarah’s right too. This is my point: nearly every single place has value and every single proposal will be in someone’s backyard and will be opposed and probably litigated by someone.

As environmentalists, we need to sit down at the table and play a CONSTRUCTIVE role in deciding where the best places are to build our new renewable energy system. Opposing every alternative energy project is obstruction, not constructive discussion. When environmental interests merely veto every renewable project, it has disastrous consequences for our world: We simply fall back on the same destructive fossil fuels we currently have in place. Resist solar development? More coal gets burnt. Resist a transmission line for wind energy from Wyoming to Vegas? More oil gets burnt. Come on guys, I don’t like energy impacts any more than anyone else, but if we want to get serious about a clean energy future, we need to accept some impacts.
Let's compromise
Pat Veesart
Pat Veesart
May 19, 2009 10:08 AM
I'll tell you what niko: If you and the rest of America are willing to replace your clothes dryers with clotheslines, drive smaller cars (MUCH smaller cars), walk/bike/bus/train to work at least two days per week, live in smaller houses (MUCH smaller houses), and use your pocketbooks to force industry to be more conservation-minded, then I'm willing to discuss the possibility of some limited large-scale solar and wind facilities; sited with the least impact to habitat. But unless and until we, as a society, make some serious progress towards energy efficency, I'll fight tooth and nail to stop any more habitat loss associated with NEW energy production. Stop the gluttony, then we'll talk.
I'm game
May 19, 2009 06:59 PM
You have yourself a deal, Pat. Your demands are perfect. In fact, we need to go farther. In a post-peak oil world, we need to reconsider importing bananas from South America and flying across the nation for a holiday. We're going to have to undergo significant lifestyle changes.
I'm fortunate enough to be able to do some of the things you're talking about. I live only a mile from work and don't need anything bigger than my modest house (but like most Americans, I can do more). However more importantly, I'm willing to do these things. Many Americans are not. I believe no discussion is constructive unless we can come up with some viable solutions. So what do we do to move our compromise forward?
Well, we can instate some mileage/emission standards like Obama is asking. We beef up efficiency standards for new appliances and new houses. This won't be easy politically, but it is possible. Somewhat more problematic is a gas tax and carbon tax. Until we take money out of politics, lobbyists are going to make this politically difficult (not to mention the problem that politicians pushing these important laws will likely face tough times getting reelected). But for the sake of argument, let's assume we can do that too.
Even with the strongest efficiency standards in place, we won't be able to force everyone to conserve. There are still existing houses and buildings that won't meet standards and it's hard/impossible to force existing building owners to meet new standards (picture kicking millions of Americans out of their houses. Never gunna happen). There are existing vehicles, and there will always be the freedom to drive to work if you want. I hope we drive prices of fossil fuel based energy through the roof, but there will always be gluttons who can pay those prices. Too much conservation is optional and always will be.

Fossil fuels currently supply 85 percent of the primary energy consumed in the United States. So how in the world can we conserve enough to not need more alternative energy than we have currently?

Help me figure out how our compromise is viable. The problem I have comes down the point I raised in my last post: If we sit around and resist renewable energy projects until Americans are no longer gluttons, we’ll be sitting around forever. While we sit around and obstruct alternative energy projects, we just burn more fossil fuels.
How About Distributed Generation?
May 19, 2009 07:38 PM
I'm glad to see this important issue getting discussed. I live out in the Mojave Desert near where a bunch of large utility-scale solar thermal power plants are being planned on public land. Thousands of acres of desert tortoise habitat will be scraped, and the company is trying to buy ranchers and farmers out for their water rights, because this power plant is really similar to a coal or natural gas burning power plant (or nuclear) in that it uses a lot of water to make steam to turn turbines to generate electricity. Folks around here are worried about groundwater in this already over-drawn basin. Nearby are springs with rare plants and pupfish at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

Trying to get involved, I went to a Congressional field hearing in Palm Desert, California recently, and was pretty appalled at how our representatives in the energy committee are already deciding to use all types of energy: "clean coal", natural gas, nuclear, and big corporate wind and solar power plants on remote pristine ecosystems, that, yes, will have to be "sacrificed."

The frustrating thing was that a local councilman from the city tried to explain to the committee how their town is already making local energy generation and use a reality, with rooftop solar loan programs and a test feed-in-tariff. If all houses and buildings were mandated to be energy-producing in the future, we could have all the energy we needed, produced without the need to construct distant power plants out in wildlife habitats, without the need for long public environmental review processes on federal lands, and without the need to supersize huge new transmission lines to join the remote solar/wind power plants to the cities, which will be costing $billions.

I noticed Gainseville, Florida is way ahead of the game, with Renewable Energy Dividends to make rooftop solar profitable for local homeowners and businesses. But this was quickly swept off the table by the congressional committee during this hearing. There are answers out there, but we are not getting to hear about them.
A modest Proposal
Pat Veesart
Pat Veesart
May 20, 2009 04:34 PM

I think you are on the right track. On top of energy efficiency measures for homes and business and raising fuel efficiency standards (and there is real progress being made under the Obama administration) that you mention, I propose the following modest measures:

1) Federal transportation dollars only be spent to repair/maintain existing road/highway infrastructure and to build and maintain rail/transit/bicycle/pedestrian projects. No more capacity increasing projects (i.e. new roads or road widening) for cars and trucks.

2) That at least the same amount of public funding (or other incentives) made available for the development of large-scale solar and wind facilities also be made available for the development of Distributed Generation (DG).

3) That the federal government implement a nationwide 50 cent per gallon gasoline tax, the money from which can only be used to develop, operate, or maintain rail/transit/bicycle/pedestrian systems/projects. While most of the money would be raised in urban areas (right where it is needed the most), there would have to some kind of equitable distribution mechanism to ensure that rural areas get their fair share of benefit from this.

We spend way too many of our transportation dollars on projects that increase vehicle use. If we were to simultaneously stop funding new roads, direct money to rail and transit, and increase the price of gasoline, we would see real, immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a shift away from private automobile usage, and development of a national rail system that isn’t the laughing stock of the world.

If we make money available for DG, we will see more DG developed and the need (or perceived need) for rural solar and wind facilities will be reduced accordingly.

Vehicles are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions; vehicles run on fossil fuels; fossil fuels are too cheap. By raising the gas tax and earmarking the money for rail/transit, we will see dramatic reduction is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and we will be providing alternatives to private automobile use. People would still drive, but they would probably choose the bus or train for at least some of their trips.

I doubt you will be running for Congress on this platform anytime soon. Politically, this will be hard to push through. But, these are real solutions that could be implemented immediately and that would have an immediate positive effect. Implementation of these measures (or others like them) would be a clear signal that Americans are finally willing to make personal sacrifices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not just cover more habitat with new power plants so they can carry on as if there is no tomorrow.
May 21, 2009 09:56 AM
Excellent ideas, Laura and Pat. I agree with Pat that many of these ideas are political hot potatoes, but we need to keep pushing these solutions. The public (and therefore our politicians) will gradually warm up to these measures if we keep up this discussion. We will start to see individual cities take on these measures, which will serve as great examples for other cities, and hopefully eventually all of America.

The important message is that we work hard on conservation—harder than we work on building a renewable infrastructure in America. But we can’t forget the second part of the equation. We need to work as hard as possible to mitigate impacts of renewal energy projects, but I’m afraid even in the best case scenario we will have to live with some impacts. In the long term, the environment will be better for it.
niko response
niko response
Jul 03, 2009 05:59 PM

I completely agree with you. In this day and age, it is unrealistic to believe that we can rely on conservation. (Not that I don't do my part to save energy - I do - but I can't expect most of America to be as neurotic as I am about turning off the lights and unplugging my electronics.)

A proposed wind farm in Washington state is facing this issue right now: so-called environmentalists opposing a clean energy project because it will interfere with the views from their second homes.

If you want to know more, go to, scroll down and click on "Policy Consultant attacks Friends of the Columbia Gorge for becoming enemies of clean power." It's a great speech, and raises the issues we're talking about here.