Balancing renewable energy development with conservation on Nevada’s wildlands

Southern Nevada desert.

Jim Stanger

New land management plans could decide the fate of Nevada’s most treasured wild places.

There is a certain richness found southern Nevada’s Mojave Desert; a flavor that draws you deeper into the awe-inspiring salt flats, meandering canyons and expansive valleys that define the region. Far removed from the lights of Las Vegas, these lands represent one of our nation’s largest and most fragile desert refuges.

They are home to a diverse range of plant and wildlife species found only in the region, but they also contain world-class wind and solar resources. This clean energy potential poses both opportunities and challenges as we work to balance energy development with conservation.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently updating its southern Nevada management plan, which governs how these and other issues are addressed across three million acres of public lands. The new plan is considering ways to balance the multiple uses of our public lands, from preserving wild places to promoting renewable energy development.

The BLM’s “multiple use” mission tasks the agency with managing various activities and resources, but not all at the same place at the same time. Through landscape level planning, the BLM can find the right places for renewable energy, motorized recreation and other activities while setting aside other sensitive lands for conservation.

Gold Butte, Nevada. Credit: David Bly.

Preserving lands with wilderness characteristics

Among southern Nevada’s remaining unprotected and special places are lands with wilderness characteristics. These are the increasingly rare BLM lands that are untouched by human impacts such as off-road vehicle trails or large power lines.

Lands with wilderness characteristics provide hikers, campers and hunters with exceptional places to experience the sights and sounds of nature, and have the added benefit of harboring important wildlife habitat. The way that the BLM manages these places will be a defining feature of conservation in southern Nevada.

Unfortunately BLM’s draft plan leaves much of southern Nevada’s lands with wilderness characteristics unprotected. Under the agency’s preferred alternative, the BLM would only manage around 15 percent of the lands that meet requirements for having wilderness characteristics. BLM even missed large expanses of lands with wilderness characteristics altogether.

If left unchanged, the plan could compromise the unique values on these public lands, such as opportunities for quiet recreation and habitat for the desert tortoise, a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.

Solar panels. Credit: Jchantraine, Wikimedia Commons.

Planning for energy development

The draft plan makes progress in refining areas open for wind and solar development, though additional areas important for wildlands and wildlife should be closed to development.

Several new “Solar Energy Zones” for large-scale projects are also proposed under the plan, and The Wilderness Society supports this approach. BLM should refine the proposed zones to limit conflicts with wild places and sensitive wildlife habitat. These zones should focus on areas where projects are more likely to succeed, close to existing transmission lines and roads.

BLM is also refining “corridors” designated for transmission lines in the region, and the draft plan proposes some helpful changes. The Wilderness Society strongly supports BLM taking advantage of this opportunity to improve its West-wide Energy Corridors, and we urge the agency to go further in adjusting the corridors to better protect wildlands while facilitating responsible renewable energy development.

With the right changes, this plan could be a win for Nevada’s Mojave Desert wildlands and our clean energy future. BLM must rise to the challenge and appropriately balance renewable energy development and protection of wild places in the final plan.