May 21, 2010

Sen. Dianne Feinstein presses ahead with monuments bill

Desert Sun

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)

It may not happen this year, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday she will succeed in protecting an additional 1.5 million acres of California land from development.

“I'll get it passed,” the California Democrat told reporters after appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

She was there to promote a bill she has authored to designate two new national monuments and add lands to three other federal parks and preserves in the state.

Feinstein's proposal has drawn support from the Coachella Valley, where it is seen as a potential boon to the $1 billion tourism industry.

The proposed 134,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument would abut the western boundary of Joshua Tree National Park and include Big Morongo and Whitewater canyons, the San Gorgonio Wilderness and 23.6 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The bill would also keep the Whitewater River free-flowing and expand Joshua Tree National Park by 2,900 acres.

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the committee, said he called the hearing because the 180-page bill touches upon a broad scope of issues that will inevitably raise concerns.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee, didn't wait long to express her reservations.

“I do have some concerns about this bill before us — primarily the message concerning renewable energy on federal lands,” she said.

Murkowski worries the bill would encourage “Not In My Backyard” opposition to alternative energy projects that could turn investors away at a time when the nation should be weaning itself off foreign oil.

“I am worried that investors will be gun-shy,” she said.

Feinstein drafted the bill after learning in February that an 800-megawatt solar energy project was being proposed for the southern part of the Mojave Preserve. The proposed facility would sit on 8 square miles of land purchased for conservation with federal and private funds, she said.

“A beautiful valley would be destroyed, effectively. The whole valley,” she said.

Rather than construct the solar energy project there, Feinstein said, there are 350,000 acres of federal land the Bureau of Land Management has identified as “solar study zones” — more than enough, she said, to meet the state's future needs for solar power.

None of the 1.5 million acres proposed for protection extends to those study zones, she said.

The bill would not interfere with the nine solar and three wind projects that the BLM is seeking to “fast-track,” nor would it impact applications for solar power plants that could generate 4,803 megawatts of energy, which are under review by the California Energy Commission, she said.

Feinstein also has recommended that the BLM establish an additional solar study zone on a vast expanse of land directly north of Edwards Air Force Base.

BLM supports bill

The bill, which has no co-sponsors, was generally supported Thursday by the BLM, the Defense Department and the National Forest System.

BLM Director Robert Abbey said the Interior Department supports the goals of the legislation, but raised concerns about some of the changes that Feinstein has proposed to streamline the solar and wind energy application process.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn told the committee the designation of large monuments and wilderness areas as off-limits to development may help protect nearby military installations from encroachment.

She said, however, further study is needed to determine the impact that steering development to other areas would have on the military's mission requirements.

Faye Krueger, acting associate deputy chief of the National Forest System, said the department supports the goals of the legislation but recommended several minor changes in how the areas would be managed.

The committee also heard testimony from proponents of the bill that included the Wildlands Conservancy, Southern California Edison and the California Association of 4WD Clubs.