Bill Meadows Written Testimony for California Desert Protection Act

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Testimony of William H. Meadows, President, The Wilderness Society on S. 2921, the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

May 20, 2010

Chairman Bingaman and members of the committee, thank you for scheduling this hearing on this important bill regarding conservation of the California Desert and renewable energy permitting.

The Wilderness Society is a national non-profit conservation organization founded in 1935 with over 500,000 members and supporters. Our mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.

Let me start by expressing my deep appreciation to Senator Feinstein not only for all of her work consulting stakeholders and crafting this balanced bill, but more broadly for her distinguished accomplishments championing the preservation of America’s natural heritage.

From Joshua tree forests to endless acres of spring wildflowers, from inhospitable salt flats to life giving streams, the California desert provides a multitude of variety where plants and animals flourish, including such noted species as bighorn sheep, Mojave ground squirrel, and desert tortoise.

This landscape also benefits mankind in numerous ways. It provides places for a wide array of recreation and relaxation, substantial economic benefits from tourism and new residents, and has the necessary conditions for appropriate development of much needed renewable energy. These lands also help connect us with our past as they include many significant Native American sites, relics from America’s pioneer history, and even noteworthy traces of our 20th century progress, such as historic Route 66.

The California Desert Protection Act of 2010, which The Wilderness Society supports, comprehensively addresses the many needs of both society and nature in one of our country’s most dramatic landscapes.

Title I of the bill would designate two new National Monuments, create three new wilderness areas, expand four existing wilderness areas, protect over 70 miles of wild and scenic rivers, and designate a new Special Management Area. It would also transfer some Bureau of Land Management holdings to adjacent National Park Service units and protect the native groundwater of the Mojave Preserve.

The new monuments and BLM wilderness will be important additions to the National Landscape Conservation System and expansion of the National Park units will continue our nation’s tradition of protecting our most spectacular natural national treasures.

You have heard testimony from some who say that the protection of these lands will significantly harm the prospects for renewable energy development in the California desert. Our review of the bill in the context of other efforts currently underway indicates that this is patently not the case. In fact, the BLM is now assessing the suitability of 351,000 acres in the California desert for potential solar energy development zones. This acreage is significantly more than experts estimate is needed to meet California’s renewable energy portfolio goal. Also, the BLM is moving forward expeditiously with key projects across the west that will result in 5,300 megawatts of new wind, solar, and geothermal power. Neither the BLM study areas nor any of the projects in process are precluded by the land designations in Senator Feinstein’s proposal. Further, no existing or designated energy transmission corridor would be adversely affected.

Title I also designates five new National Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas which would permanently give off-road vehicle users places to ride. Though The Wilderness Society is not supportive of permanent designation of off-road vehicle areas, the bill as written enables the BLM to manage these areas in a manner that protects their natural resources and non-motorized recreational opportunities.

Ideally, The Wilderness Society would like to see a few changes made to Title I of the bill as it moves through the legislative process.

First, regarding the management language for the national monuments, the bill currently contains provisions stating that monument designation does not preclude, prevent, or inhibit the maintenance, upgrade, expansion, or development of new energy transport facilities within the monuments (Sec. 1304 (f)(1) and 1404(e)(1)). We recognize the need for new electric transmission facilities in the region, but we believe this language is overly broad and unnecessary as the issue of energy transmission is addressed in other sections of the bill. We do not oppose the provisions allowing for maintenance, upgrade, expansion and development of energy transport facilities within existing corridors. The monument management language also contains ambiguous provisions that could be interpreted to require all existing off-road vehicle use within the monuments to continue (Sec. 1304(a)(1) and 1404(a)(1)). It is our hope that this will be revised to make its intent to designate off-highway vehicle routes through the management planning process clearer.

Next is the issue of releasing the entirety of the Cady Mountains Wilderness Study Area (Sec 1503 (b)(1)). The bulk of this released WSA would be designated as part of the Mojave Trails National Monument but as written, the monument management language would leave this area at risk from new utility corridors and motorized vehicle routes. Preferably, we would like to see this area designated as wilderness or otherwise protected from potential negative impacts.

Sec 1603 (b)(1) and (2) of the bill prohibit the permanent closure of any off-highway vehicle routes within the Special Management Area. It is our strong belief that the BLM should be allowed to actively manage OHV use within the Special Management Area and that this authority include permanent closure of routes due to natural or cultural resource damage or public safety concerns.

Finally, Senator Feinstein’s proposal requires the BLM to survey lands adjacent to the newly designated National Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas for potential inclusion in those areas (Sec. 1801 (f)). We would like to see the potential expansion of the recreation areas more tightly limited.

Title II of the bill would clarify the BLM’s solar and wind energy permitting processes and includes efforts to improve permitting of wind and solar energy projects on public and private lands. The bill recognizes the need for additional policy, guidance, and procedures for focusing federal resources on the most economically and environmentally viable renewable energy development proposals. The bill includes a strong provision that reinvests new revenues in important land acquisition programs. The bill also affirms the government’s authority to reject poorly-sited projects at any point in the time-bound permit process it establishes. While the bill is a step toward responsibly addressing renewable energy development, The Wilderness Society would like to see several changes to this title as the bill moves forward.

Regarding the renewable energy permitting process, we would like to see the bill’s tight deadlines in Section 202 relaxed, instead requiring the Secretary to establish achievable deadlines and report to Congress on the effectiveness of those deadlines once established. Additionally, Section 202 should afford greater discretion to the Secretary to determine and update the legal framework most appropriate to govern commercial wind and solar energy production on federal lands. While this legislation seeks to enhance the current system that relies on rights-of-way grants, we are very concerned this approach would, in effect, codify an unproven system with known shortcomings.

The categorical exclusion of wind and solar testing facilities in Section 207 should be removed as it is unwarranted and unnecessary. According to the BLM, wind and solar site testing facility authorizations have been processed in a year or less on average, and the agency already has authority to execute such exclusions based on professional judgment under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The baseline metric for calculating fair market value for solar in Section 201(k)(2) should be removed, and instead the bill should clearly spell out that the agency’s responsibility and discretion for determining an appropriate valuation system that ensures a fair return. We believe the National Agricultural Statistical Service tool, which was designed to price land in agricultural production, could significantly undervalue the commercial value of land used for solar generation.

Chairman Bingaman and members of the Committee, thank you for your consideration of our comments and we look forward to working with you and Senator Feinstein to both improve and pass this important legislation.