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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to the Mojave Desert this September to announce a multi-agency effort to boost renewable energy development in the desert.

But first, she had to go on a hike.

“We went out into the Big Morongo (Canyon) Preserve,” she told reporters. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands, and 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being amazed, too, on a 2008 visit to that same preserve with a couple of California conservationists. I thought I knew the dry desert, its banded sunsets and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of seeps and birds, where a couple of times we stopped to behold a desert tortoise munching on purple flowers.

It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had hoped to string a transmission corridor. The city planned to call it the Green Path North, as it would haul geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable-energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North mostly fell victim to market forces—but not before it sullied the utility’s reputation locally. The proposal had the effect of uniting off-roaders, rock-climbers and conservationists in protest against the careless industrialization of the desert for energy projects—even clean-energy projects.

The new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration among federal, state and local governments; the solar industry; Native American tribal leaders; and environmentalists, is an attempt to get ahead of such careless proposals. An analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, both public and private, it sets aside habitat for desert species like the tortoise and bighorn sheep. It should guide developers toward land rich with transmission, but absent cultural and natural resources.

Jewell called it a “road map” that can be used for more renewable-energy development around the country. As she stood against a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, describing how the Obama administration means to “double down” on public-lands renewable energy development, the 8,000-page document went online.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort, as have Native American leaders and national park advocates. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, says she hopes it means that “we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.”

Energy developers, too, should be happy, as the plan promises to end the uncertainty that has wasted so much of their time and money. Two weeks before the plan’s release, for example, the California Energy Commission had belatedly approved the Palen Solar Power Plant, a collaboration between California-based BrightSource Energy and Spanish developer Abengoa. The commission had rejected the project last December, partially on the grounds that its peculiar technology—fields of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on a 750-foot high tower—would create hazards for birds in the Colorado Desert. A similar BrightSource solar plant on California’s border with Nevada seems to be creating an ecological “megatrap” that kills birds.

But in mid-September, the commission changed course: The project could go ahead, but at only half of its proposed size. Then, on Sept. 26, the developers suddenly withdrew their application. The delay had cost them a federal tax credit and, quite possibly, their power purchase agreement with a major California utility.

The Desert Sun called the cancellation “shocking,” accurately summing up the general reaction to the announcement. But the real shock should not have been that Palen was canceled, but that the project was ever considered an appropriate idea for a place where it could do so much damage.

Will the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of solar and wind on desert lands by 2040, prevent more ill-planned projects that stutter and fail? Everyone I talked to who’d come to hear Secretary Jewell speak said they were optimistic.

But a conservation plan is only as good as the people who make it happen on the ground. It’s worth remembering the lesson of the Green Path North: No energy project can be green without the support of the people who will have to live alongside it. And environmental ideals mean little if they aren’t backed up by genuine care for the local landscape.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. She is a contributing editor for the magazine.

Published in Community Voices

President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Interior, Sally Jewell, is historic––not for who she is, but for who she is not.

She is a mountaineer; an ultra-marathon runner; the CEO of REI, the outdoor-gear giant; and a former bank executive and oil company engineer. She appears to be some kind of archetypal über-woman of the Pacific Northwest, jogging up Mount Rainier on coffee breaks.

Jewell’s résumé is as richly complicated as the heady concept of “ecosystem management,” and it sounds like she has plenty of experience in both arenas. Those interested in “ecosystems” will look toward her years with REI and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association; those leaning toward “management” will note her careers in the petroleum and banking industries.

Another Seattleite (former Mayor Richard Ballinger) has been interior secretary before (albeit 100 years ago), and so has a woman, Gale Norton. But what sets Jewell apart is that she is not, and has never been, a politician. For many decades, the Secretary of the Interior has been the plum post of the classic Western politician: men (usually) like Donald Hodel, Cecil Andrus, Harold Ickes, Ken Salazar, Stewart Udall, Bruce Babbitt and Dirk Kempthorne. All shared a background in politics, either as an elected official or by dint of holding some position high in the apparatus of government or partisan machines.

Interior is bloody political turf, because the stakes are so high, and the money is so big. Land is wealth, and the Interior Department manages millions of publicly owned acres, from sagebrush scablands to national treasures such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. The land includes oil and gas and wildlife and rivers and ski resorts and other precious resources. When folks compete to divvy that up, they do it with sharp knives.

The mere fact that Jewell is President Obama’s candidate shows that a more mature view could be emerging about the department’s role and mission. Jewell knows there is more than one way to wrest wealth from land. Yes, there’s a place for using the land to provide food, fuel and fiber. America needs all that.

But in the modern world, other values rise like cream to the surface as well. Jewell’s billion-dollar company, REI, is part of a much larger outdoor recreation industry. America’s great public landholdings are valuable not only for crude oil, natural gas and livestock feed, but also for providing scenic getaways for weary urbanites, fishing and hunting spots for blue-collar families, streams for salmon and a host of other species, and clean water for millions of people.

Plus, our public lands are increasingly understood to provide a priceless setting for business owners and other investors. Economists are getting better at putting dollar signs on that, but it still represents a shifting mindset. The glimmering chrome-and-fir-tree temple of REI in downtown Seattle is testimony to the fact that recreation and quality-of-life dollars add up to real money.

It’s hard to trace Jewell’s record to assess how she might approach natural resource disputes in our public lands. But clues point toward a mind that understands the value of consensus and fair solutions.

Jewell’s kneejerk critics, like Utah’s Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, will immediately scent an environmentalist conspiracy in anything that smells more like pine needles than gas fumes. That kind of thing gets him re-elected in Utah, but his views don’t represent the broader American experience.

In her home state of Washington, Jewell’s reputation is that of a pragmatist, not an ideologue. She’s supported efforts like the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, a classic example of centrist groups, representing both conservation and agriculture, getting down to brass tacks to compromise and solve serious problems. In consequence, local farmers will get the water they need for irrigation, and valuable runs of sockeye salmon will be restored.

Hard-core folks on both extremes throw rocks at solutions like the Yakima plan, which accept the need for collaborative conservation in order to get things done.

Can Jewell’s kind of professional experience survive—let alone accomplish good things—in today’s Washington? Is the fortitude that got her to the highest peak in Antarctica enough to help her endure the posturing and politics of Congress? A good guess is that Jewell’s appointment—a refreshing departure from the old politics—signals that Obama is setting the stage for a new kind of conservation legacy. And if she is confirmed, Ms. Jewell can count on one thing: She is headed for the adventure of a lifetime.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Kalispell, Mont.

Published in Community Voices