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for people who care about the West

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 (sarah@hcn.org).