March 24, 2009

Interior secretary: Rules allow donated land to be considered for renewable energy projects

The Press-Enterprise

U.S. Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar has declined Sen. Dianne Feinstein's request for a halt in processing applications for renewable energy projects on Mojave Desert land donated to the federal government for conservation.

Salazar, in a March 19 letter released by Feinstein's office Monday evening, said U.S. Bureau of Land Management rules allow the donated land to be considered for solar and wind energy and other development.

"I assure you that every effort will be made to avoid the most environmentally sensitive and valuable areas," Salazar wrote.

Feinstein, a California Democrat, looks forward to working with Salazar and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to find the best locations for energy projects, said her press aide, Laura Wilkinson, in an interview Tuesday.

Feinstein still plans to introduce legislation to protect the donated land, Wilkinson said.

At issue is about 600,000 acres between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. The acreage was acquired with $40 million raised by The Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen, and $18 million from a federal water and conservation fund.

Conservancy representatives said that when the land deal was negotiated, then-President Bill Clinton and other officials assured them the land would remain undisturbed.

"It's a real disappointment," said David Myers, executive director of the conservancy. "I suppose the word of the federal government isn't worth much."

Energy companies are seeking free land from the government, he said. "Our acquisition of this land is now subsidizing the destruction of it," he said.

Myers said he is grateful that Feinstein is fighting to preserve the land.

In a March 3 letter, Feinstein urged Salazar to stop the BLM from processing applications for 15 solar energy projects sought on the donated land. The BLM is a division of the Department of Interior.

"Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for (energy) leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert," Feinstein's letter said.

In response, Salazar said renewable energy is a priority and that efforts are under way to establish energy-development zones in less sensitive areas.