Summer 2011

Volume 15, No. 1

Western Lands Project
P.O. Box 95545 Seattle, WA 98145-2545 (206) 325-3503 westernlands.org

Big Solar’s huge footprint

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estern Lands Project continues to be very active on the

In This Issue:

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Big Solar’s huge footprint

issue of industrial-scale solar development, viewing these habitat-devouring projects as the single biggest threat to the integrity of our public lands. Solar Done Right, the coalition we co-founded, has worked steadily to advance our dual message: (1) our public desert lands must not be converted into permanent industrial zones, and (2) sound alternatives for solar development exist, including distributed generation in the built environment and large and small facilities on degraded, even contaminated lands. Because of the total transformation of these sites, their single-use status, and the impossibility of future restoration, these projects result in what we have called “virtual privatization.” It was essential that Western Lands and others step into the vacuum left by the national environmental groups, which have generally acquiesced to big solar on public lands. For the sake of supporting renewable energy, they choose not to emphasize the damage posed to land they might normally defend, nor to lend their considerable voice to promoting alternatives.

Bad Trade at Bumping Lake

Not a pretty picture
The politics and policies that support Big Solar are daunting. Interior Secretary Salazar has applied missionary zeal to siting industrialscale renewables on our public lands. The Bureau of Land Management has been put in charge of this initiative, and is identifying lands and issuing permits for utility-scale solar plants, with pending proposals now in the dozens. In 2008 the BLM and the Department of Energy began a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS)—a huge, high-level Continued on page 

Western Lands protests plan amendment to facilitate solar in California Desert USFS may sell rec. site near Jackson, WY; Public lands and the current Congress

Western Lands Update • The Newsletter of the Western Lands Project • http://westernlands.org

Solar…
From page 1 planning effort ostensibly aimed at identifying public lands most suitable for solar development, designating “Solar Energy Zones” in six sunny states, and taking out of consideration sensitive lands and habitat. By all accounts, the intention was to address concerns regarding the run on public lands that had characterized the BLM program up to that point. Salazar claimed to have gotten the message and said that the Administration wanted to make solar on public lands “Smart from the Start.”

were seen as a starting point from which to progressively narrow the areas eligible for development. No one was prepared, therefore, when Interior and Energy issued the draft PEIS in December 2010, declaring that the agencies’ Preferred Alternative would keep open 21.5 million acres of public land for solar development applications. Rather than narrow the field of suitable lands, BLM is proposing to expand it, no doubt in response to the solar industry’s ceaseless call for “more flexibility.” Herein lies the very essence of our public land paradigm: it’s all well and good to protect it—until someone with money and power wants to use it, or government policy focuses on a new way to put the land “to work.”

Wrong from the Start
The Western Lands Project and Solar Done Right submitted comments on the eleven thousand-page PEIS in the form of a report called “US Public Lands Solar Policy: Wrong from the Start.” In it, we utterly repudiate the agencies’ approach and, unlike the major environmental groups, we reject the false inevitability of industrialscale solar on undeveloped public lands. “Wrong from the Start” lays out a detailed case against the individual and cumulative impacts of these projects; the built-in energy and economic inefficiencies; and indeed, the questionable legality of the BLM’s approach. One glaring failure in the EIS is in the extremely narrow range of alternatives BLM is analyzing—all are public-landbased, industrial-scale approaches. Right now, the BLM’s effort is the closest we have to a national solar energy policy, and yet not considered in the EIS is a full or partial option of distributed generation (DG) in the built environment and/or development of solar facilities on already degraded, even contaminated lands.

Industrialization of the desert will be permanent. Photo: Basin & Range Watch

In that vein, the focus of the PEIS, as advertised, was to be 676,000 acres of Solar Study Areas in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado with potential for solar development— from which unsuitable lands would be eliminated. Grassroots activists knew some of the areas would have to be removed because of their sensitivity, and the SSAs 

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This one of three Ivanpah solar plants will consist of tens of thousands of pole-mounted mirrors aimed at a 400+ foot-high power tower. Photo by Erin Whitfield.

A key consideration is that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that as an agency formulates the range of alternatives it will analyze in an EIS, it cannot exclude appropriate options simply because they may be outside its own jurisdiction. This would include DG, as well as damaged lands in and out of BLM jurisdiction. To that end, in a scoping letter sent to the BLM before publication of the draft PEIS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged the BLM to consider DG. Moreover, EPA included a reminder that EPA itself had identified more than 15 million acres of degraded and contaminated lands across the country that may be suitable for renewable energy development. Indeed, the EPA has a program called RE-Powering America’s Land that specifically focuses on these areas and provides maps and detailed descriptions on its website. There is vast potential for point-of-use solar PV installations throughout our built environment, on residential and commercial rooftops, over parking lots, at waste

facilities—anywhere space is available. But as we slowly get policy turned toward this lowest-impact, most sensible approach, one has to ask why the RE-Powering program is not central to our renewable energy policy, and why— if we really want to be smart—we’re being so dumb. The sad truth is that there is no neces-

No one was prepared for the government’s preferred option to open up 21.5 million acres of public land
sity for targeting biologically-rich public lands and stunningly beautiful open spaces with this intensive industrial use. It’s just the “easy call,” the result of attitudes better suited to the era of the Westward Expansion than to the 21st century. You can download a copy of “Wrong from the Start” at http://tinyurl.com/avazqv

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Bad Trade At Bumping Lake
Rick McGuire

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ith five large taxpayer-subsidized reservoirs already supplying water to

the mostly corporate-owned farms of the Yakima valley, one might think that there would be enough to go around. But no amount of water ever seems to be enough for agribusiness, and 3,000 acres of ancient forest at Bumping Lake in the Wenatchee National Forest east of Mt. Rainier may soon be drowned to provide more. Although not a “land trade” in the sense we’ve come to know all too well, the state of Washington and federal government are offering sweeteners in the form of promises to build fish ladders to attract support for the deal, along with the possibility of some sort of conservation easement for privately owned timberlands in the Teanaway River area near Cle Elum. flat ground. Much of the area is relatively brush free, and a walk through groves such as these is an all too rare experience these days, one that will be no more if the existing low dam at Bumping Lake is replaced with a large one, drowning all of it to store more water for Yakima irrigators. While adding fish ladders in the Yakima basin has its attractions (there are currently none) they offer at best an uncertain prospect for restoring fish runs. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and fish face many other problems there. Most of the water in the Yakima is taken out to grow low-value crops such as hay and animal fodder, and much of that water is lost through unlined canals, aerial spraying, and wasteful flood irrigation. But agribusiness would rather get more water than make what they already have go farther. A gallon of water grows ten or more times as much food in Israel as it does in the wasteful Yakima Valley. Another potential part of a deal to flood the forests at Bumping Lake might be some sort of “protection” for private timberlands in the lower Teanaway watershed north of Cle Elum. The area in question comprises the former Boise Cascade lands there— about 40,000 heavily cutover acres with hardly a tree to be found over 40 years old. Proponents of a new dam at Bumping are offering a conservation easement in the Teanaway that would not affect ongoing logging, but would forestall housing development. While no one wants

The results of many past deals such as this have been that the destructive parts go ahead, while the parts that are supposed to “mitigate” the damage are authorized but no money is appropriated.
Sadly, a number of larger staff-driven environmental groups seem to have signed on, while on-the-ground grassroots group are doing all they can to keep the forests at Bumping Lake standing. Celebrated by late Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas in his classic work “Of Men and Mountains,” the forests at Bumping are some of the most impressive now remaining in the Cascades. Species from both sides of the mountains grow there, with many large Douglas firs, red cedars, true firs, hemlocks, and a few ponderosa pines. The Bumping forests are remarkable for growing on nearly

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Spectacular ancient forest at Bumping Lake could be inundated in a deal favoring agribusiness. Photo: Walter Siegmund

to see development in the Teanaway, the recent collapse in the market for exurban McMansions has greatly lessened that threat, there and elsewhere. Whatever small benefits such an easement might provide would in no way balance out the loss of 3,000 acres of ancient forest at Bumping Lake. The results of many past deals such as this one in the Yakima basin have been that the destructive parts, like the dam at Bumping, go ahead, but the parts that are supposed to “mitigate” the damage, like the fish ladders and other proposed habitat measures here, are authorized but no money is appropriated. Such an outcome seems all too likely here: destroyed forests

at Bumping Lake, and an aspirational tradeoff that never happens. The taxpayers are already providing plenty of cheap water to Yakima agribusiness. The real problems are uncontrolled well drilling for sprawl development in the upper valley, and wasteful water use all around. The North Cascades Conservation Council and Western Lands Project will be doing what we can to keep this bad trade from destroying some of the best forests left in the Cascades. Rick McGuire is a long-time forest activist, North Cascades Conservation Council board member, and member of the Western Lands Project.

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Western Lands files protest on plan amendment to facilitate Big Solar

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The BLM failed to consider several important issues that clearly demonstrate industrial solar is inappropriate for the Chuckwalla Valley.

n May 1, we formally protested a Bureau of Land Management amendment to

the California Desert Conservation Area Plan that would designate an area of public lands in eastern Riverside County as suitable for large-scale solar energy development. The amendment would pave the way for the proposed Desert Sunlight Solar Farm on more than 4,000 acres in the Chuckwalla Valley. When BLM adopted the management plan for the California Desert Conservation Area it deferred any determination of whether solar energy development should be permitted on particular areas within the CDCA, so the plan requires amendment before the agency can issue any permit for such development. ing populations at the relocation sites. The relocated tortoises often introduce disease and create additional competition for food and other limited resources in the desert. The EIS was issued before an inventory of cultural resources and consultations with tribes were completed. The Chuckwalla Valley was used by several tribes during pre-historic times and the EIS acknowledges that sacred sites, traditional cultural properties, and traditional use areas could all be found within the project’s footprint. These important sites would be lost forever once the project is developed. The proximity of Joshua Tree National Park is yet another reason the Chuckwalla Valley is unsuitable for industrial solar. The Park lies less than two miles to the west of the proposed project area, and 4,000 acres of photovoltaic panels would severely compromise wilderness values and scenic views in the eastern part of the park. The National Park Service voiced this concern and others in its comment letter on the proposal, but Interior Secretary Salazar’s zeal for Big Solar probably nullifies any impact their concerns might have on the decision. There is no official deadline for the BLM’s response to our protest, but we expect a decision soon, given the agency’s focus on accelerating these developments.

BLM prepared an Environmental Impact Statement to analyze the potential impacts of constructing, operating, and decommissioning Desert Solar’s proposed 550-megawatt solar photovoltaic energy farm. The EIS also analyzed whether to amend the CDCA Plan to designate the Chuckwalla Valley public lands suitable for solar energy development. We protested the amendment because the BLM failed to consider several important issues that clearly demonstrate industrial solar is inappropriate for the Chuckwalla Valley. The EIS misrepresented the impacts a solar project would have on wildlife, including desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, and burro deer. The analysis almost certainly underestimated the number of tortoises on the project site; tortoises found during initial construction at a similar solar site in the Ivanpah Valley exceeded BLM’s estimate for the entire construction period. The desert tortoise is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and the current approach to mitigating impacts on the species is to relocate them. Yet wildlife biologists have concluded that these efforts are not only ineffective, but even harmful. In addition to the 50 percent mortality rate for captured and relocated tortoises, the practice also imperils exist-

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Forest Service may sell popular recreation site

est with your opinion on this proposal via email at r4_b-t_info@fs.fed.us.

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n a misguided effort to raise funds

for renovating administrative offices in Jackson, Wyoming, the Forest Service is looking at selling 40 acres within the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A 40-acre parcel would be cleaved from the 200-acre Lee Administrative Site near the town of Wilson at the base of Teton Pass. Forest Service laws and regulations generally prohibit the sale of National Forest land, but the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act of 2005 (“FSREA”) permits sales of administrative sites up to 40 acres that are no longer needed for management purposes. The proceeds of such sales are reserved for funding the construction, upkeep, and maintenance of FS facilities rather than placed in the general treasury fund. Although the 200-acre parcel was once the location for a ranger station and campground, today the site is heavily used by backcountry and cross-country skiers, hikers and mountain bikers. The site provides habitat for moose and other wildlife and a portion of the site is within the Palisades Wilderness Study Area. Several adjacent private parcels have conservation easements prohibiting future development. Unfortunately, the land was grandfathered in under FSREA eligibility because of the earlier ranger station use. If it weren’t for the budgeting issues with the Jackson administrative offices, it is hard to imagine that the Forest Service would be considering this proposal—but even in lean times, selling off important recreational land to fund construction projects is shortsighted, and certainly counter to the spirit of the Forest Service’s mission. Western Lands is working with local citizens to oppose the sale. You can contact the Bridger-Teton National For-

Public lands and the current Congress
We’re sorry to note that Senator Jeff
Bingaman (D-NM) is retiring next year. In his capacity as Chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Bingaman has consistently resisted bills proposing to give away public land and circumvent environmental laws. The worst of the last decade’s quid pro quo land bills—designating wilderness on one hand and giving away public land on another—might have succeeded had it not been for Bingaman’s opposition. A bill for Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands, for instance, was full of egregious provisions, including the establishment of local control over federal lands and mandatory, lopsided land trades with local ranchers. Bingaman and his staff meticulously extracted the worst parts of the legislation, and the bill that eventually passed for the Owyhees was dramatically different from the original. Another quid pro quo bill for southwest Utah was similarly defanged. His presence is critical now, because terrible proposals coming out of the House will be blocked in his Senate committee. Bingaman has stood firm against bad legislation to which many of the national environmental groups acquiesced, and in doing so has been an indispensable defender of our public lands. We thank him for his principled work.

We will miss retiring Senator Jeff Bingaman. Photo: International Rivers

For the tenth time since 2005, a land exchange bill has been introduced that would trade 2,400 acres of national forest land in Arizona to Resolution Copper, a joint Continued on page 

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For more frequent short news updates visit our website at westernlands.org, and our Facebook page at facebook.com/ WesternLandsProject

venture of British-Australian mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Resolution would take ownership of public land in the Tonto National Forest that has been protected for its recreational value under an Eisenhower-era Presidential Order. In exchange, the company would offer about 5,300 acres scattered across 6 counties. Sponsored by freshman Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), the current bill would bypass environmental analysis for the exchange. The San Carlos Apache and several other tribes oppose the project on the basis that it will harm important cultural sites and deplete water resources. The Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club has also worked against it. Resolution has bought local support by offering benefits to businesses and communities in exchange for silence or support.

Another sleeping monster has reemerged in the form of the Sealaska land
bill sponsored by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. The bill is being touted by supporters as one that would bring clo-

sure to land claims owed Sealaska Native Corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In actuality, it would throw open the original boundaries of the already vast area in which Sealaska could claim land, and in doing so would give the corporation ownership of about 80,000 acres in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. The bill has been the target of fierce opposition from many communities. They must contend not only with Sealaska’s entrenched political power, but with the unique logistical difficulties of working together across their scattered geography, where you can’t just hop in your car for a meeting, but more likely a small plane heading your way at an opportune time. Myla Poelstra of Edna Bay, one of the affected communities, testified before a Senate committee in May that Sealaska clearcuts “from mountaintop to sea” and is going after the last of the best in the Tongass. The Forest Service opposes the bill. Murkowski claims the jobs it would create are essential, but it is known that Sealaska plans to export the timber it removes with minimal processing.

New Look
You’ll see we have a new logo and newsletter design, both thanks to our colleague Chris Clarke. He also revamped our website to great effect. Chris is a longtime environmental journalist, writer, and person of talent. His blog, Coyote Crossing, covers the Mojave and a wider world of nature, politics, and thought. Chris is also a founder of Solar Done Right. See his work at faultline.org.

Western Lands’ Development Manager Emily Crandall is currently at home managing development of her new son, Porter. Emily and husband Drew welcomed him into the world on May 7! 

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