Solar, wind power growth prompts new protection effort for Mojave Desert

WASHINGTON, D.C.
December 22, 2009 12:02am
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•  Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduces legislation

•  ‘We must be careful about selecting where these facilities are located’

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein

A bill that its sponsor says would designate new lands in the Mojave Desert for conservation, enhance recreational opportunities, and streamline and improve the federal permitting process to advance large-scale wind and solar development on suitable lands has been introduced in Congress by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The bill expands the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which was sponsored by Ms. Feinstein, which protected more than 7 million acres of desert in Southern California and established Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

“I strongly believe that conservation, renewable energy development and recreation can and must co-exist in the California Desert,” says Ms. Feinstein.

The bill was prompted in part by the Bureau of Land Management accepting numerous applications to build “vast” solar and wind energy projects on former railroad lands previously owned by the Catellus Corporation that had been donated to the federal government or acquired with taxpayer funds for conservation, she says.

“We must be careful about selecting where these facilities are located,” the senator says.

Approximately $45 million of private donations, including a $5 million land discount from Catellus, and $18 million in federal Land and Water Conservation funds were spent to purchase the lands, with the intent of conserving them in perpetuity, Ms. Feinstein says.

“There are many places in the California desert where development and employment are essential and appropriate. But there are also places that future generations will thank us for setting aside,” she says.

Among other things, the bill designates two new national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

• The Mojave Trails National Monument would protect approximately 941,000 acres of federal land, including approximately 266,000 acres of the former railroad lands along historic Route 66. The BLM would be given the authority to conserve the monument lands and also to maintain existing recreational uses, including hunting, vehicular travel on open roads and trails, camping, horseback riding and rockhounding.

• The Sand to Snow National Monument would encompass 134,000 acres of land from the desert floor in the Coachella Valley up to the top of Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California.

Ms. Feinstein’s bill would also add adjacent lands to Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve, including 41,000 acres added to Death Valley National Park, including former mining areas where the claims have been retired and a narrow strip of BLM land between National Park and Defense Department boundaries that has made BLM management difficult.

It would also add almost 30,000 acres to the Mojave National Preserve that once encompassed the now defunct Viceroy gold mining operation.

It also would declare nearly 76 miles of four waterways as “Wild and Scenic Rivers” including Deep Creek and Whitewater River in and near the San Bernardino National Forest, and Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon Creek near Death Valley National Park.

It also designates five new wilderness areas including about 250,000 acres of BLM wilderness areas near Fort Irwin that had previously been designated as wilderness study areas until base expansion was completed.

The bill would also improve and streamline the process to permit large-scale wind and solar development on “suitable” public and private lands in the California desert, the senator says.

The Bureau of Land Management would be required to establish offices specifically focused on renewable energy development in each state with significant wind and solar resources on public land. These offices would be funded from the existing BLM permit improvement fund -- a fund that is currently only available to supervise the permitting for oil and natural gas development.

The legislation also would establish strict deadlines for solar and wind power developers to conduct necessary biological and cultural studies, ensure connection to the grid, and develop a plan for water. This would ensure that serious development proposals are moved to the front of the line -- and help put an end to unfettered speculation on desert lands, Sen. Feinstein says.

Drilldown


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