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September 10, 2009

Mojave is large enough for preserves and solar power production

By Kierán Suckling

Senator Feinstein is right to propose two new national monuments in the Mojave Desert to protect them from intensive energy development and other incursions. Connecting Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, Feinstein’s proposal will create one of the world’s great nature reserves. It is a natural outgrowth of the sweeping California Desert Protection Act the senator authored in 1994. She should be congratulated for continuing to be a champion of California’s desert heritage.

Conservationists have long viewed the gap between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve as a potential disaster and tremendous opportunity. If these lands are degraded — or worse, turned into tract homes — the national park will be cut off from the preserve. Wildlife that already have to manage getting over or under Interstate 40 cannot simultaneously negotiate a sea of houses, small roads, or industrial-scale solar energy facilities.

If the lands were consolidated and protected, however, wildlife, endangered species, and recreationists would be able to freely traverse some 3 million acres of connected habitat. Encompassing 3 million acres of Joshua-tree-covered mountains, hidden streams, sublime desert valleys, and endangered species including the desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep, the newly connected landscape would be one of the largest and most important preserves in the country.

With the grand idea in mind, the Wildlands Conservancy spent $40 million in private funds and leveraged $18 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase and donate more than 600,000 acres to the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. It was the largest charitable land gift in U.S. history.

The landscape was saved — at least, until the Bush administration ordered the Bureau of Land Management to expedite development of these donated lands for energy development. The agency is currently processing 130 applications for solar and wind energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave, including many on or adjacent to the donated lands.

To honor the intent of the Wildlands Conservancy gift, Feinstein asked Obama’s new Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to suspend energy development on the gifted lands. Inexplicably, Salazar refused, so Feinstein is developing legislation to protect these lands from large-scale development by establishing two national monuments that will connect Joshua Tree to the Mojave Preserve.

Critics complain that developing these lands for wind and solar energy is more important than protecting them. But the Bureau of Land Management owns tens of millions of acres in Southern California, while the California Energy Commission estimates that just 100,000 to 160,000 acres of desert lands are needed to meet 33 percent of the state’s 2020 renewable energy goal. Surely alternative energy development can be funneled onto 50,000 to 100,000 acres of degraded public land and another 50,000 acres of leasable private lands without trashing a world-class wildlife preserve.

There is simply no conflict between protecting the Wildlands Conservancy donation, establishing a new world-class preserve, and rapidly increasing wind and solar energy development in the desert. The Center for Biological Diversity has mapped out BLM lands that would be suitable for solar and wind energy development. By overlaying essential lands such as preserves, wilderness, roadless areas, wildlife corridors, critical habitat areas, and endangered species recovery zones onto detailed, on-the-ground knowledge of lands degraded by past agriculture, isolated by roads and housing developments, compromised by adjacency to highways, etc., the Center has developed an initial estimate of where alternative energy develop should be sited.

The good news is that we can likely go beyond the California Energy Commission’s goal of producing a third of the state’s renewable energy goal from desert solar and wind power by 2020. And we don’t have to trash our pristine landscapes while doing so.

We urge Senator Feinstein to proceed with her monument proposals and ensure they are protected from all forms of abuse, not just energy development. After all, roads, off-road-vehicles, cows, and mines have done more damage to the Mojave Desert than solar and wind power. We urge the Bureau of Land Management to stop playing catch-up with energy speculator permit applications and take a leadership role by clearly determining in advance where energy development should and should not go.

The stars are aligned. We have a sympathetic Congress, a powerful congressional leader, an informed president, alternative energy entrepreneurs waiting for direction, and conservationists with a lifetime of desert knowledge. Now is the time to act.

Photo © Robert Thomas and Margaret Orr, California Academy of Sciences