by James Navarro
© Krista Schlyer
The lines etched around wildlife biologist Jeff Aardahl’s eyes mark the decades he has spent roving California’s deserts. For many of those years, he was employed by the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and charged with unraveling the secrets behind the region’s elusive wildlife. But lately, he’s been passing the daylight hours by the glow of a computer screen.
Aardahl is part of Defenders of Wildlife’s team of renewable energy experts, who are trying to piece together what an 11,000-page document outlining the federal government’s plan for solar energy development on public lands means for the desert’s future.
“Those of us who cherish what remains of our natural and cultural heritage on public lands in the West and Southwest should be concerned with this plan,” Aardahl says. “We expected it to shed some light on how the BLM intends to develop solar energy responsibly for wildlife. Instead, it raises more questions than it answers.”
In December last year, the BLM released a draft plan for where to build large solar power plants on public lands. The proposal is the latest in federal efforts to ramp up electricity generated from clean, renewable sources like the sun and wind. It would carve 24 solar-energy zones out of more than 600,000 acres across six western states. The agency says it aims to jumpstart development by steering solar-energy developers to sunny lands with less potential for the kinds of wildlife and environmental conflicts that can mire a project in controversy.
But conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, have been quick to point out that not all the proposed zones fit the bill and have offered suggestions for better places. “The Pisgah and Iron Mountain zones in California are not right for this type of industrial-scale solar development,” Aardahl says. “These places provide habitat for threatened desert tortoises and contain pristine lands that have been recommended as wilderness.”
Instead, renewable energy experts want development driven to places near existing roads, cities and power lines, and the opportunity to “recycle” abandoned agricultural lands and contaminated industrial sites, called brownfields.
However, they see the BLM’s plan as a first step. “The last wave of solar power projects were processed on a somewhat chaotic first come, first serve basis,” says Kim Delfino, Defenders’ California program director. “A zones approach to solar-energy development on public lands, if designed correctly, could lead to faster siting in the long run and less harm to wildlife and the environment. But to get this right, the BLM must keep development to the appropriate zones and do a thorough environmental review of the environmental impacts.”
Defenders is largely concerned that the BLM’s plan to allow development on an additional 21 million acres outside these zones would encourage a solar energy “gold rush” on public lands. “Opening so many places will do nothing to solve past problems,” Delfino adds. “In fact, it’s a move that threatens to undermine the effort to provide guided development in the desert and could lead to continued strife and conflict in the future.”
BLM hosted a series of public meetings across the region to discuss the plan with local communities and take public comment on the proposal. Matt Clark, Defenders’ Southwest representative in Tucson, Arizona, was one of several Defenders’ staffers who rallied members and supports to turn out to the public hearings and speak up for wildlife.
“We took advantage of this opportunity to voice our concerns with the plan and offered suggestions to improve it,” Clark says. “We deserve a clean energy future that’s smart from the start—a future that avoids the costs and controversies that have resulted from poorly planned energy development in the past. It’s in everyone’s best interest, including the development community’s, that BLM’s solar program be designed up front to avoid conflicts with sensitive wildlife, cultural resources and scarce water resources. The BLM’s draft plan is not there yet. But with some basic improvements, I’m fairly confident that it can get us there.”