Straightening out mixed messages on solar

Some are telling a story that says we cannot protect fragile wildlands in the California desert if we are also working to address climate change. That is simply not true.

The reality is that we can and must do both, but it must be done carefully.

Climate change, caused by polluting types of energy such as coal, oil and natural gas, threatens to harm our nation’s special lands, from the Mojave Desert to the woodlands of Maine. Guarding our wildlands includes taking action to advance the full range of clean energy alternatives to address the root cause of climate change, from energy efficiency and rooftop solar to the large-scale energy projects. Finding a solution is a promise we need to keep with future generations.

States and communities are recognizing the need to take swift action to move away from coal, natural gas and other fossil-produced electricity. California, in particular, has made the strongest commitment in the nation with a commitment to generate 33% of the state’s power from renewable energy by 2020.  This leadership, and the public’s strong support for renewable energy, is resulting in renewable energy projects being built in the state. Our involvement will help ensure that the places we care about most are protected from the unavoidable impacts of these big projects.

One thing is very clear—there are some lands that are unsuitable for development. For that reason, we have worked closely with regional conservation partners, biologists, land planning specialists, sportsmen and others to identify lands that should not be considered for development while identifying more appropriate places to develop instead.

We also continue to advocate for energy efficiency measures, regulatory advancements needed to accommodate more distributed solar panels, development on abandoned farm land, and redevelopment of contaminated lands as we work to ensure large scale projects are sited in appropriate places.

These experiences are being built into policies aimed at shaping solar development on public lands—to help avoid the problems we have come to expect with oil and gas development. Through the Bureau of Land Management’s solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, we are working across six southwestern states to focus future development in zones prescreened to minimize sensitive resources.

And a similar effort is being led by our partners, working with the State of California, counties, the general public, and other stakeholders to develop an overarching renewable energy and land/wildlife conservation plan for the California desert called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). Partnerships like these will continue to be the most effective means to find an appropriate balance between meeting some of our energy needs in the California desert while ensuring key resources are preserved.

As we work to advance “smart from the start” solar development policies we also continue to advocate for the protection of key wildlands in the California desert.  With our partners, we strongly support Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act of 2011, which will protect over 1.5 million acres of national monuments and wilderness.  This legislation builds on the Senator’s successful 1994 desert legislation that protected over 7 million acres of national parks and wilderness, which The Wilderness Society played a key role in getting passed.  Our efforts on solar energy siting have helped guide projects away from the conservation areas in this important legislation.

Safeguarding our public lands includes permanent protections such as wilderness and other designations, but also taking action to advance the full range of clean energy alternatives.  If we fail to act, and act quickly, the irreversible impacts of climate change on the Mojave Desert—and all of our nation’s ecosystems—will be disastrous.  

As is often the case with hotly contested public lands policy, the solutions to these thorny issues are not black or white but varying shades of grey.  It will take all of us – national and local environmental groups, counties and citizens – working together to find solutions that preserve the vibrant California desert of today that we know and love for the generations that follow.