Green energy, sportsmen and public lands

On May 7, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was in Nevada celebrating the opening of the Silver State North Solar Project. This 50-megawatt photovoltaic facility will power thousands of Nevada homes, and it employed nearly 400 people during peak construction.

Notably, it is also the first large-scale project located on federal public lands to come online and is one of 29 industrial renewable energy projects that have been approved for public lands.

This is good news, right? Renewable energy development is a good option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traditional power plants, and it seems logical to use public lands for wind and solar development.

At the same time, I am an avid hunter and angler. Public lands are where I spend most of my time – and dedicating large areas of the lands that belong to all Americans to a single use is a concern. Expansive solar and wind facilities could have serious impacts on fish and wildlife habitat and limit our access to these lands. Conservation should be included as a cost of doing business in the price of developing public land for renewable energy.

As we’ve learned since childhood, every choice has its own set of consequences, and the best options are those that reduce overall impacts and provide reasonable trade-offs to those impacts. We have an opportunity to ensure this happens as the renewable energy boom gathers speed. A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers are taking the lead on providing reasonable returns from private industry’s use of our public land resources, and Sen. Dean Heller was an original supporter of the proposal.

The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act (S. 1775) would create a pilot program to establish an equitable system for leasing public lands for wind and solar development. Right now, wind and solar developers pay fees for the use of National Forest or BLM lands, but they don’t pay royalties. The process for acquiring wind and solar sites isn’t even competitive. S. 1775 would create a royalty system on the value of renewable power produced – not unlike the system for fossil fuels.

Some of the funding generated would go to counties or states where the development occurs as well as to the permitting agencies to cover administrative costs. But perhaps more importantly, 35 percent of royalties collected would be dedicated to protecting and restoring the fish and wildlife habitat and water resources affected by renewable energy development. This is a huge step forward from federal leasing for oil, gas and coal – not a dime is dedicated from those endeavors to offsetting potential harm to fish and wildlife.

Public lands across the windy West and sunny Southwest make up a vast reservoir of potential power, and developing this resource “smart from the start” is a stated goal of our federal government. Opening a new facility such as the Silver State North solar project is an important step toward.

But this proposal takes the next big step. If and when National Forest and BLM tracts are used for wind or solar generation, this legislation would ensure fair payment, equitably shared. And it would make protecting fish and wildlife habitat one of the goals of renewable energy development on public land.

We shouldn’t have to make an either-or decision between cleaner energy and healthy public lands with abundant fish and wildlife. With passage of the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, we won’t.

Larry J. Johnson, president of the Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife Inc., writes from Reno.

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