« Return to this article

Know the West

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