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WLP News No 28

WLP News No 28

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Western LandsUpdate
Western Lands Project Seattle, Washington
Summer 2010    Research, Outreach, and Advocacy to Keep Public Lands Public Vol. 14, No. 1
S
ince passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005,the federal government has been strongly promoting renewable energy projects on publicland, including large-scale solar facilities in partsof California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico,Utah, and Colorado. Companies are takingadvantage of fast-track federal permitting and hugetax incentives that will come to those who can present substantial plans by the end of 2010. The Southwest could be especially hard hit, with hundreds of thousands of acres of fragile desert paved in mirrors,if the projects planned there go through.Intuitively, large solar energy projects strike most people as sensible, an unquestioned public good,even benign. For public lands advocates, however, it ismuch more complicated.  The average proposed “BigSolar” project occupies 5,000 acres. Of the hundredsof projects lining up for permits, about 35 arecurrently on the fast track, and of those, 14 (plannedon about 50,000 acres)are in critical habitat forthe threatened desert tortoise.These facilities must alsohook up to transmissionlines, and hundreds of miles of new lines andextensions are planned.Where permits succeed,the projects will be built on public land rights-of-way, a temporary use.The solar plants haveestimated project livesof only 30 years. Yet the
Rethinking Big Solar on Public Lands
scale, intensity, and irreversibility of the impacts theseprojects will bring to public land essentially renderthem permanent. In fact, we consider the projects toentail “virtual privatization,” because they completely alter their sites and preclude all other uses and publicvalues.Some of the national environmental groups havecalled for large energy projects to be built on“already-degraded” public lands, or on privateagricultural land that has gone out of use. But forthe most part, they have acquiesced to the sacriceof large areas of public land they might otherwisedefend to accommodate a non-fossil-fuel energy policy they also support.We were more sympathetic to the dilemma beforewe found copious (if largely unpublicized) evidencethat better, far less damaging, and more efcient technology is available in the form of 
distributed 
solari.e., installationson rooftops and otherareas of the built environment. Thecommon “wisdom”has been that thesetechnologies cannot compete in cost-
The desert is perennially undervalued and too easily abused.Photo: Chris Clarke Continued next page 
 
Continued from page 1
If you would like to help push things in the right direction,please contact your representatives in Congress. Tell them you don’t want your public lands relegated to the status of an energy factory, and that the far better alternative of distributed generation must be our policy.
effectiveness and efciency with the large-scale solar developmentsthat’s what thepower companies would like the public tobelieve in order to protect their bottomlines, and it’s what they are telling membersof Congress every day. Yet this is not thecase at all.While Congress has put considerablepolitical will and momentum behindBig Solar, it has not studied distributedgenerationlet alone consideredpromoting and deploying it on the grandscale that could transform our energy use.Now 13 years into our organization’swell-established mission to keep publicland public, we know we cannot dedicateourselves wholly to the issue of distributedsolar technology, but neither can we ignorethe fact that there is an alternative to thedestruction of so much public land. Ourobvious course of action is one we oftentake: turn to the grassroots!While the big national environmentalgroups are issuing bland statements of concern about the dilemma of Big Solar,grassroots activists all over the desert Southwest spend their days studying,critiquing and dreading the arrival of theseprojects. In the nature of so many localactivists we have known, their passion hasdriven them to become experts and toseek an alternative scenario. Because wehave several years’ experience educatingpolicymakers on our issues, the WesternLands Project is now working with activistsin the desert to help them deliver theirmessage to Congress about the impactsof, and sane alternatives to, massive publiclands “renewables” development.  We aredemonstrating to congressional staff that there is another story to be told, and atremendous reservoir of information they can and must tap into.It’s unlikely we can turn things aroundcompletely, but citizens must act to spareas much public land as we can and bring abetter alternative, distributed generation,to the forefront.
You can read an excellent summary of the issues at writer-photographer Chris Clarke’s blog, Coyote Crossing: http://faultline.org/ index.php/site / item/desert_solar_faq/ 
The Mojave Cross.Photo: Gina Ferazzi LA Times-Newscom 
Western Lands Update           2   Summer 2010
 
Supreme Court Sends Back Mojave Cross Case
I
n late April, the United States SupremeCourt issued a knotted and narrow rulingin Salazar v. Buono, a case concerningthe display of a Latin cross as a warmemorial within the Mojave NationalPreserve in California.  Six opinions wereissued, none representing a majority of justices.  By a 5-4 decision, the Court remanded the case back to the district court, nding that the lower court used afaulty legal standard when it invalidated aCongressional land exchange involving theland on which the cross sits.The cross was rst erected in 1934, by private citizens, though on federal land.Plaintiff Frank Buono, a war veteran andretired National Park Service employee,rst brought suit in 2001, arguing that thePark Service permitting the display of thecross was a violation of the Constitution’sEstablishment Clause.  After the district andNinth Circuit courts ruled in Buono’s favor,Congress tried to keep the cross in placeby inserting language in a defense bill that directed the Park Service to make a landtrade with a local VFW post for the acre of land on which the cross sits.  Buono againbrought suit and the district and NinthCircuit courts ruled that the legislative end-run did not cure the Establishment Clauseviolation.Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion saidthat “the goal of avoiding governmentalendorsement [of religion] does not requireeradication of all religious symbols in thepublic realm,” and “the Constitution doesnot oblige the government to avoid any public acknowledgement of religion’s rolein society.” This opinion had the most votes, but not a majority, so it did not speakfor the court.  Even the ve justices that signed on to the judgment ordering theremand were split:  Three said that thedistrict court erred in holding that theland exchange did not conform with theEstablishment Clause while the two otherssaid the lower court should not have evenreached the issue because the plaintiff lacked the standing necessary to challengethe land trade.  (It is somewhat surprisingthat seven justices found that Buono didhave standing, as in the last 20 years or so,the court has generally narrowed standing).The judgment directs the district court to reevaluate whether the land tradeviolated the Establishment Clause.  GivenKennedy’s opinion, it seems likely that the lower court will allow the land tradeto proceed and the cross to remain.Nonetheless, despite reaching the SupremeCourt, the case may not have much of an effect on Establishment Clause law, asKennedy implied: “To date, this Court’sjurisprudence in this area has refrainedfrom making sweeping pronouncements,and this case is ill suited for announcingcategorical rules.”Western Lands Project, with PublicEmployees for EnvironmentalResponsibility (PEER), submitted anamicus brief in support of Frank Buono inthis case.
Western Lands Update           3   Summer 2010

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