There is a civil war going on in the environmental movement. No blood will be spilled, but like the conflagration that nearly destroyed the Union in the 19th century, disagreements over the use of public lands for alternative energy production is not likely to be settled by compromise. Somebody will win and somebody will lose.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wants to “accelerate renewable energy project siting and development” on public lands, according to her campaign website. To that end, she has called for a “tenfold increase in renewable energy production on public lands and waters within ten years.”
For environmentalists more concerned about conserving public lands than bending to the crony capitalists profiting from climate-change disaster-mongering, that’s a declaration of war.
“Democrats now lay claim to being the principal protectors of the public lands, accusing Republicans of wishing to ‘privatize’ them. But it is the Democrats giving away the public lands wholesale for but a pittance in leasing fees,” said Alfred Runte , a respected historian of the conservation movement and author of “National Parks: The American Experience .”
For Runte, Clinton’s plan means a drastic reshaping of the purpose of public lands.
“It’s taking over our public lands — meant for biological conservation — for the idea of climate change,” he said. “It’s very troubling to me.”
The moves now endorsed by Clinton could mean that tens of millions of acres of national forests, wildlife preserves and even national parks could become home to giant solar and wind farms.
And Clinton rightly points out that all this new energy production will need to reach the grid. “A major barrier to renewable energy development on both public and private lands is the ability to build transmission lines to get that energy to market,” Clinton’s proposal states.
So, in addition to abusing the land itself, she is proposing to “streamline the federal permitting process and create a dedicated White House transmission office tasked with expediting federal agency reviews” for new transmission lines that will further mar the landscape.
To date, the temptation to simply turn over public land to crony alt-energy capitalists has been held somewhat in check.
In 2014 the Bureau of Land Management rejected a proposed solar farm between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.
But the sunny states of the Southwest have been a special target for alternative energy development on public land, and if Clinton is looking to expand, that’s where it is most likely to happen.
If the former secretary of State is serious about this proposal, she needs to fill in the blanks quickly.
“She is talking about the full-scale development of public lands,” said Runte, who served as an adviser on Ken Burns’s PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
About 40 million acres of public land have been designated as appropriate for solar development , Runte pointed out, and 300,000 acres are already developed or in the process of being developed.
As we have seen in Vermont with the siting of wind farms, this proposal will pit green against green — those dedicated to expanding renewable energy above all other conservation values, versus those whose paramount concern is protection of the land.
Siding with the alt-energy crowd are the crony capitalists who stand to profit from sweetheart leases and federal subsidies. But anyone who visits a national park, preserve or forest is an interested party.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread,” Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire . “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
Where, exactly, would a President Clinton build wind and solar farms to increase production “tenfold?” What would she do to mitigate the corresponding increase in birds deaths — conservatively estimated at more than half a million, including hundreds of eagles, yearly — from wind turbines?
The voters who enjoy the wild, the spare and the original of our national park system, and those who live and work nearby, deserve to know.
John Bicknell is executive editor of Watchdog.org, a nonprofit journalism project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.