The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released a Draft Program Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) that will determine the future of solar energy development on federal public lands across 11 western states. The BLM anticipates permitting approximately 700,000 acres for utility-scale solar development. The agency’s preferred alternative would make available 22 million acres of public lands for those projects, restricting solar development to lands within 10 miles of transmission lines. Working closely with partner organizations, BHA engaged in the previous scoping process for this PEIS and will continue to push the BLM to safeguard fish and wildlife habitat, including migration corridors, and to consider the interests of hunters and anglers when evaluating utility-scale solar development on public lands.
While acknowledging the multiple-use mandate of the BLM and the Energy Act of 2020, which instructs the Secretary of the Interior to “seek to issue permits” for wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects on public lands, BHA will submit additional comments and continue to demand a highly scrutinized permitting process that excludes priority landscapes with critical habitat for fish and wildlife, ungulate migration routes, lands purchased through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Wild and Scenic River corridors, sage-grouse core areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, Lands with Wilderness Characteristics, and many additional categories (see page 9 of the Solar PEIS Scoping Comments submitted last March by BHA and 14 other conservation and hunting orgs for an extensive list).
While BHA recognizes the multiple-use laws that govern our public lands, we seek to ensure that any public land development proposals take into consideration the value of fish and wildlife habitat, migration corridors and potential impacts to hunting and fishing to ensure responsible siting of projects. This includes renewable energy as well as extractive industries such as oil and gas drilling and mining. BHA does not broadly oppose any energy development or other industry use of public lands, but always seeks to shape regulations for those projects so that they avoid impacts to wildlife and priority habitats on our public lands.
With solar arrays popping up across the west at an alarming rate and a regulatory landscape that is disjointed and in flux, BHA and our partner organizations welcome this opportunity to represent the interests of hunters, anglers and public land enthusiasts in the development of the Solar PEIS to provide a comprehensive, landscape-level, smart-from-the-start approach to effectively balance resource management and conservation needs with new, renewable energy on public lands. We are encouraged to see our recommendation to include all 11 Western states included in the latest PEIS so that prior mistakes can be avoided, like the BLM issued right-of-way for Sweetwater Solar, an 80MW solar project in southwest Wyoming sited in general habitat for Greater sage-grouse, winter range for mule deer and pronghorn, and a known migration route. Under BLM’s existing exclusion criteria for the Western Solar Plan, such a project would likely not have been permitted, and we recognize the value of the PEIS’ expansion of exclusion criteria to additional states along with our additional recommendations based on the best available science and land management planning.
BHA believes new policy and collaborative approaches are needed to build on previously disturbed land, build-out micro-stations to minimize remote transmission, and combine renewable power with other land uses, like agriculture or rooftop solar to minimize the adverse impacts from utility-scale renewable energy development on public lands. These new approaches would reduce habitat fragmentation, loss of sagebrush ecosystems, loss of connectivity to seasonal habitats for other aquatic and terrestrial species and avoid negative impacts to big game and fish passage and migration while also alleviating human land use conflicts.
With the recognition that our energy needs must come from somewhere, and that renewable energy development on our public lands has been prioritized both by administrative and congressional action, BHA will continue to work closely with partner organizations in the hunting, fishing and conservation space to ensure that the interests of hunters and anglers are prioritized.
Public comments on the Draft Solar PEIS can be submitted through April 18th and more details can be found here with the BLM.