Interior secretary’s goals are to boost power projects, preserve land

10/10/2009 at 10:09 am Leave a comment


U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar vowed Friday to step up the pace of alternative-energy development on the nation’s public lands but also to take care in preserving unspoiled terrain important to wildlife.

“We want to scale up the pace of environmentally appropriate projects, and I emphasize environmentally appropriate,” Salazar told reporters gathered outside of the federal Bureau of Land Management office in Palm Springs, where wind turbines could be seen in the distance.

Salazar was in Palm Springs to announce the opening of a special renewable-energy office at the BLM complex there. It’s one of four sites in the West that will have a specialized team to swiftly review applications for wind, solar and geothermal projects on BLM-controlled land. The Obama administration had dedicated $41 million in stimulus funds to help kick clean-energy development into high gear.

The BLM, which is under Salazar’s administration, currently is processing more than 500 applications for renewable energy projects, including 62 wind and 63 solar projects sought in the bureau’s California Desert District, which covers much of eastern Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Salazar acknowledged that several of the projects proposed in San Bernardino County are on former railroad land that was acquired largely with donations raised by the Oak Glen-based The Wildlands Conservancy and donated to the federal government for conservation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has said she wants to protect that acreage through legislation creating a new national monument.

“We have been working closely with Senator Feinstein to protect the ecology” while expediting clean energy, Salazar said.

Both goals can be achieved in drawing the monument boundaries, Salazar said.

In an interview after the news conference, BLM Director Bob Abbey said his agency is sensitive to the concerns about energy development on the donated lands.

“These lands were acquired for a particular reason, and we are well aware of it,” he said.

Abbey said his staff has been providing Feinstein’s office with detailed information about land that could be part of the monument. Some of the donated land could be developed for renewable energy — with the support of preservationists — in a compromise that calls for protecting other areas.

Abbey emphasized that energy development proposals will be studied in depth to ensure they avoid the most important places for wildlife and cultural resources, such as archeological sites.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for clean energy,” Abbey said. “But there has to be a greater good. … It’s a difficult challenge, but I feel our staff is up to it.”

April Sall, conservation director for The Wildlands Conservancy, said she was pleased to hear federal officials say they will work to preserve the most sensitive land as they expedite energy development.

But she added that she doesn’t yet know whether her organization would support such a compromise.

“It depends on if we agree with the boundaries,” she said. “We want them to do it right.”

Renewable energy is a high priority for President Barack Obama.

Besides the $41 million boost from the economic recovery initiative, the BLM is dedicating 62 staff members who will be reassigned from elsewhere or newly hired, Salazar said.

The effort in California will be headed by Greg Miller, a 21-year BLM veteran who began his career as a wildlife biologist.

The government’s goal is to get ready for construction by next year projects that could create 5,300 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 1.8 million homes, Salazar said. The Department of Interior and the BLM are studying about 1,000 square miles of public land nationwide that, if developed, could produce as much as 100,000 megawatts, he said.


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