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Balancing renewable energy projects & public lands stewardship

America is on the verge of a renewable energy gold rush. Hundreds of applications for wind and solar projects have been filed on public lands. I think this is long overdue. We need sustainable energy to help us reduce global warming pollution, and we need it fast. But if we don’t handle this boom carefully, unspoiled wildlands will get trammeled in its wake. Right now, we have an opportunity to start the clean energy era off right.

It begins with agreeing which sensitive areas should remain undeveloped. Wind and solar power are pollution free, but they are not impact free. They leave an industrial footprint on the land, and some pristine places would be forever altered by their presence.

That’s why my friends at the NRDC got together with Google Earth and started mapping out public lands where renewable development is not appropriate. Some of the spots colored in on the map are obvious–national parks, wilderness areas, and national monuments where energy development is already prohibited by law or federal policy.

But the map also illustrates places where development should be avoided, even if it isn’t illegal. These include the hundreds of state parks that visitors rely on for hiking and other recreation. They also include proposed wilderness areas being considered by Congress, such as the 9.5 million acres of stunning scenery in Southern Utah that I hope gains protection through America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.

The remarkable thing is that even when you set these areas aside, there is plenty of land to develop solar and wind projects. The state of California recently did a similar mapping process and found that when it removed all the environmentally sensitive lands, California still has renewable potential of about 500,000 MW–that’s greater than the state’s peak demand.

But we can’t begin the new energy future by only saying where we can’t build renewable projects. We also have to agree on where we can. The lands best suited to wind farms and solar plants are those that have already been disturbed. Up and down the Rockies, there are hundreds of oil and gas fields that are now defunct. In my home state of California, there are thousands of acres of old farms that went bust. And now more than ever, there are private lands that have been carved up for subdivisions that never got built.

These already distressed lands may not satisfy all renewable developers. But hopefully, with so much public land available, they will make reasonable compromises–like not building in a bighorn sheep migration path when they can gain access to other lands instead.

I see two persuasive reasons why the environmental community and the renewable sector can work in unison. The first is credibility. People support renewable projects because they think they are green, and that includes sustainable land use. The second is urgency. Our nation needs to begin the transition away from dirty fossil fuels now in order to stave off the worst impacts of global warming. Controversies and lawsuits over siting will only delay the process.

We spent the last eight years locked in a battle with an administration that sparked rampant oil and gas drilling on our lands. Those days are over. Bush is gone, and Americans recognize the need for clean energy. We have a fresh start, and we have the chance to get the balance between generating sustainable power and caring for our lands right from beginning.