A shortfall in Mojave protection bill


From an aesthetic perspective, vast solar arrays stretching for thousands of acres across the desert aren’t pretty. But what they do for the environment and for U.S. energy independence can be downright beautiful. Which is why, though we’d be happy to see about 1.5 million acres of the Mojave Desert preserved under a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, it’s disappointing that the California Democrat didn’t include more meaningful support for renewable energy.

In her bill introduced Monday, Feinstein would create two national monuments covering more than 1 million acres of fragile desert ecosystem, including land that is home to such sensitive species as the bighorn sheep and desert tortoise. The bill would confer lesser protections on hundreds of thousands of additional Mojave acres and designate more than 300,000 acres for use by off-road vehicles.

Though the legislation also includes some provisions to aid solar-power development -- rights to construct transmission lines along existing utility corridors and a potentially quicker permitting process, for example -- it does nothing to set aside land for such development or help the solar industry obtain them. The state has pledged to generate a third of its power from renewable resources by 2020, and the rest of the nation also is looking to the desert as fertile land for power generation. That has touched off a land scramble to protect the interests of recreation, the military, endangered animals and renewable energy. Any bill that controls huge segments of Mojave land should be more comprehensive, making certain that the public need for nonpolluting energy also is met.

Fortunately, the interests of conservation and environment-friendly power generation aren’t mutually exclusive. Much of the land that Feinstein aims to preserve is in the eastern portion of the Mojave, and the solar industry is more interested in areas of the western desert, where the sun burns hotter and there is easier access to transmission lines. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been studying four parcels totaling 350,000 acres outside the proposed monument as possibly suitable for solar and wind projects, but is just beginning the process of environmental review, which could easily knock much of that acreage out of consideration. Solar industry leaders are concerned that one of the parcels might be too remote to be useful.

Environmental protection isn’t just about land conservation anymore -- renewable energy is just as crucial. Feinstein’s legislation should include a multi-agency approach to finding land in the Mojave to meet competing needs. It would be a strange day when we devoted 300,000 acres to dune buggies but nothing to the energy sources that would fight global warming, reduce air pollution and provide a key source of power.