Under the program alternative, the BLM proposes to exclude specific categories of land from utility-scale solar energy development. Right-of way exclusion areas are defined as areas that are not available for location of ROWs under any conditions... The identification of exclusion areas allows the BLM to support the highest and best use of public lands by avoiding potential resource conflicts and reserving for other uses public land that are not well suited for utility-scale solar energy development.This is good news and a marginal victory for conservationists, but there is fine print -- any solar energy projects proposed for these lands before October 2011 will still be processed under the normal policy, and precedent has shown that they will likely be approved. There are still two pending solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley -- First Solar's Stateline and Silver State South projects -- and several solar and wind projects pending on lands within the boundaries of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument. The exception for pending applications will ensure continued destruction of ecologically and culturally important lands.
Another class of land designation will be specific desert tortoise habitat connectivity areas, but these areas will apparently still be open to receive energy applications. According to the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement:
Developers that propose utility-scale solar energy projects in variance areas that overlap priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat identified on USFWS maps will be required to meet wit the BLM and USFWS early in the process as part of the previously mentioned preliminary meetings to receive instructions on the appropriate desert tortoise survey protocols and the criteria the BLM and USFWS will use to evaluate results of those surveys.As noted in my previous post, the protections for desert tortoise habitat have been significantly weakened from the earlier draft of the proposed solar energy policy, which would have barred developement that would leave this protected species with a corridor less than 3 miles, or on land that hosted more than two tortoises per square mile. The policy now leaves the conservation standard unclear, and open to definition by political appointees and corporate interests, which is essentially the status quo we faced before this policy was drafted. Here are some of the passages in the final policy that leave much more to be interpreted (section 220.127.116.11.1):
The project can be sited and constructed to allow for adequate connectivity corridors as determined by the BLM and USFWS that ensure that the project does not isolate or fragment tortoise habitat and populations;
The project will result in minimal translocation of adult and sub-adult tortoise to acceptable locations (>160 mm Midline Carapace Length) as determined by the BLM and USFWS
A closer look at the design features for projects within the proposed Solar Energy Zones suggest wildlife protections there are even less defined. Many of the recommendations are worded very passively, urging companies "monitor" or "consider" impacts on wildlife. These design features are generally not a departure from current standards employed during the siting and construction of solar energy facilities on desert habitat, which have already resulted in dust control issues, spreading of diseases to wildlife, and increased threats to endangered species.
Of course, as with any policy, so much rests on how it is interpreted and enforced at the local level and in Washington. If I were reading this Solar Energy Development policy without the context provided by the past few years of solar energy siting, review, and approval, perhaps the policy would seem more constructive -- a step in the right direction. But with the built in ambiguity and exceptions for pending project applications -- which can be sold from one company to another -- I only see more years of worry and destruction of our desert wildlands.