Sunday, September 16, 2012

Desert Conservation Proposal Languishes in Washington

A gridlocked Congress has sat on top of a proposal to conserve desert wildlands for two years now, and it appears that the only hope for Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protetion Act of 2011 (S. 138 - originally introduced in 2010) may be a Presidential designation under the Antiquities Act.   Although a Presidential monument designation is sure to draw fire from opponents, the Antiquities Act of 1906 has been used by Republicans and Democrats alike to protect natural treasures and Congress' indecision over land stewardship is unlikely to be resolved soon.

Public lands are caught in a political spectrum that has trended toward destruction and away from conservation, with Utah Governor Herbert looking to seize treasured public lands and dole them out to private companies, and a Presidential candidate that wants to ramp up fossil fuel extraction in every corner of the country.

The Obama Administration's mark on desert wildlands so far has been regrettable  with a disastrous "fast track" solar and wind energy policy that prioritized industrial-scale development of public lands and largely ignored wildlife and cultural concerns, part of the"all of the above" energy strategy that has also opened Arctic waters to oil drilling.  Even as the Administration attempts to moderate its destructive approach with the "Solar Energy Development Program," it appears some projects are still being given a "fast track" approval on some of the most ecologically sensitive lands in the desert, such as a proposal by First Solar to build the Silver State South solar project in the Ivanpah Valley, and K Road Power's Calico Solar project in the Pisgah Valley. 

But last year, the Secretary of Interior sent a report to Congress highlighting 18 backcountry areas worth protecting, including the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow Monument proposals contained in Sentator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act.  The report could be a warning shot to those creating road blocks the Capitol building -- do your job or we'll do it for you.  In the report, Secretary Salazar acknowledged that the Administration's "all of the above" energy policy is a burden on natural resources that should be balanced out by conservation measures. 
"It is important that we strike a balance that protects our Nation's special lands at the same time that we are initiating major new renewable energy projects on public lands, keeping our Nation's oil and gas development opportunities robust, and providing critical minerals and other development-focused uses of our public lands." -- Secretary Salazar, 10 November 2011 letter to Congress
The Old Woman Mountains seen from Route 66.  Much of this desert would be protected as part of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.
Other desert conservation proposals contained in the report to Congress include wilderness designations also included in Senator Feinstein's legislation (Soda Mountains, Golden Valley, etc),  the Gold Butte area in southeastern Nevada, and portions of northern New Mexico along the Rio Grande.  What seems to be missing is a proposal to save the Otero Mesa, a desert grassland in southeastern New Mexico. The area could is targeted for mining and fossil fuel extraction, but also represents one of the largest intact swaths of Chihuahuan Desert grassland.  What is clear from the backlog of conservation proposals is that Washington has a lot of catching up to do, as the public continues to enjoy and treasure public lands that could be irreversibly damaged by corporate interests.  Wall Street has had its pick of public lands -- it's time to listen to the citizen and scientific groundswell advocating for proper stewardship of our public lands.



1 comment:

  1. I sure hope that someone in Washington on the conservationist side takes a very close look at any presidential proclamation being considered. Those things do not appear out of a vacuum, they are the results of intense behind the scenes politicking.
    The renewable energy industrialists and their Wall Street supporters have been getting a lot of breaks all along in this whole process while the conservationists' side always seem to get the "you know what" end of the stick.

    I do not see that scenario changing in this instance either, not with bad job numbers and an election coming, and incumbents in fear for their jobs, and tons of cash available for scurrilous attack ads saturating the airwaves.

    Yes, the Devil is in the details, and unless the conservationist stakeholders in the debate keep their eye on this juggling ball, the wilderness just may end up getting short shrift, again as usual.

    I never doubt the ability of this administration in particular, to sacrifice wilderness upon the altar of so called green energy development.

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