Let's Be "Smart From the Start" With Solar, Wind on Public Lands

America's Western public lands are home to some of the best hunting, fishing and wildlife habitat in the world. They're part of what define America's outdoor heritage and fuel our outdoor recreation economy, responsible for about 6.1 million jobs and $646 billion in spending yearly. These same lands, however, also provide some of the best wind and solar resources our county has to offer.

Because of these resources, it makes sense that public lands play a leading role in President Obama's climate plan. Significant progress has already been made with permitting large-scale wind and solar projects. The steps the Department of the Interior has taken to preserve valuable fish and wildlife habitat as it plans for this increased renewable energy development should be commended. With public input, The Department of the Interior has identified low-conflict, potentially highly productive places for large-scale solar projects to be built. The department designated 19 solar-energy zones to avoid critical wildlife habitat, recreation areas and environmentally sensitive areas. The plan is a model for being "smart from the start" about renewable energy development on our public lands.

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management held the first of what will likely be many competitive auctions for solar development in a solar-energy zone in southern Colorado. No bids were offered, highlighting the complex economics of solar development are complicated. BLM officials said five companies had previously expressed interest in the site. The agency expressed confidence in the blueprint for development approved by the Department of the Interior in 2012.

However, the auction does the underscore the need for additional tools to ensure the success of responsible renewable energy development on our public lands.

Key among them are bipartisan efforts under way in Congress to ensure that revenues collected from renewable energy developers are reinvested in local communities, conservation efforts and access for hunting and fishing. The practice of sharing revenue collected from energy development with affected counties, states and to offset environmental impacts is already in place for oil and gas production on public lands and waters. A similar approach could be adopted for wind and solar energy by passing the bi-partisan Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act (H.R. 596/S.279). This legislation is sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.; and Reps Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., Joe Heck, R-Nev., Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. The bills are a common-sense approach to make sure funding is available to offset unavoidable impacts to hunting and fishing and nearby communities.

The Department of the Interior can also take steps to develop criteria for mitigating the unavoidable impacts of solar projects. This will add certainty and lay out clear expectations for development costs, while ensuring key hunting, fishing and wildlife habitat are protected and restored. Solar industry officials cited uncertainty about the ground rules as one possible explanation for the lack of bids in last week's auction. The department is expected to release draft rules on solar and wind leasing this winter, which will help provide more certainty for the industry as well as conservation, wildlife, and hunting and angling groups.

The Department of the Interior has come a long way in a short period of time to build a better way of developing the power we need to make the country safer, more secure and transition toward a clean energy future. Through smart planning, we can avoid the mistakes of the past energy production, including poorly planned oil and gas development, and safeguard our prized public lands while guaranteeing our hunting, fishing and outdoor heritage for generations to come.