Should federal public lands be prioritized for renewable energy development?

The Wilderness Society just teamed up with Yale University to release a report promoting renewable energy development on public lands, and like the recent Michael Moore documentary Planet of the Humans, it’s stirring up controversy. The report suggests we should ramp up utility-scale renewable production on federal public lands, with a particular focus on Nevada’s desert wildlands, to help stem the damage to our planet’s climate. At Western Watersheds Project, we strongly agree that humanity needs to break its catastrophic addiction to fossil fuels. But even though the federal government holds title to millions of acres of public land, our western wildlands aren’t the best place to start.

Acres of flat roofs awaiting solar panels, Bay Area.

Western Watersheds Project advocates a “Keep it in the Ground” approach to federally-owned fossil fuels (on public lands and offshore), and providing a just transition for fossil fuel workers to well-paid jobs in less destructive sectors of the economy. Yet we all use energy, so it incumbent on us (and other conservation groups) to articulate a vision for America’s energy future that is both practical and sustainable for the environment. So what would a responsible transition to renewable fuel sources really look like?

It should start with distributed renewables – solar panels on rooftops of homes and businesses, modest community arrays in developed areas, building solar awnings to shade our vast, paved acreages of parking lots. These urbanized, developed environments have largely lost their habitat values already, so distributed renewable energy is an ecological “freebie” and also eliminates the need for big transmission lines. There is a simple explanation for why this win-win energy solution isn’t getting more attention and funding from Washington: The utility industry has armies of lobbyists lining up to scoop up federal renewable subsidies, leaving little left over for community-owned renewables. But a grassroots focus to infusing federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars could shift that balance of renewable power, giving local residents – particularly in underserved communities – an opportunity to become self-reliant on energy while putting Americans to work and kick-starting economic recovery.

Then there’s the need to increase efficiency – the “negawatts” that Amory Lovins so perceptively has championed for decades. If renewable energy production continues to be matched by skyrocketing consumption, then increasing renewables isn’t doing anything to solve our climate problems.

Once opportunities for renewables in urban spaces are exhausted, we can then step outward to “brownfields,” siting renewable projects in places like landfills, abandoned mine sites, or croplands already blighted from an ecological perspective. Overwhelmingly, brownfields are on private property, not public lands. Utility-scale renewable generation can be a cash bonus for private property owners. By contrast, industrial-scale renewables on public lands can be a net loss, eliminating wildlands, degrading or destroying wildlife habitats, and diminishing public access and recreation opportunities.

Dunlap wind project, Shirley Basin, WY

If we can’t generate all the renewable energy we need through distributed renewables, efficiency, and private lands, then and only then should federal public lands come into consideration. Public lands need careful screening, as The Wilderness Society acknowledges, to prevent the sacrifice of sensitive lands and important wildlife habitats. In Wyoming, just such an analysis was completed a decade ago, recommending excluding wind farms from sage grouse habitats and raptor nesting areas, and identifying a “green rectangle” of lands with no environmental conflicts. This analysis was templated in Oregon and Montana, and many Wyoming wind farms subsequently shifted away from environmentally-sensitive public lands. But no such analysis yet exists for Nevada.

The blind spot of the TWS report comes into sharp focus in offering the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone (SEZ), near Las Vegas, as an exemplar of environmental sustainability. Superficially, it’s plausible: The area is already partly developed, and endorsed for development by several national conservation groups. But taking a closer look, the lands bulldozed for solar farms were also a key habitat connection for endangered desert tortoises, and when Dry Lake’s Playa Solar Project was built, the BLM had to dig up and relocate twice the number of desert tortoises that were predicted to be displaced. Other Solar Energy Zones praised by TWS have important cultural and religious sites for indigenous peoples, and the Pahrump Paiute and Chemehuevi tribes opposed some of these renewable zones outright.

Crescent Dunes solar project, John M. photo, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

Planet of the Humans got it wrong in asserting that solar panels and other renewable energy generators require far more fossil fuels to build than they will produce over their lifetimes. In reality, it takes a few short years for renewable energy to recoup its fossil-fuel debt, and after that, every electron it produces over its lifespan (which can last 30 years or more) replaces dirty fossil fuels, or splitting atoms and producing radioactive waste. But Michael Moore’s film was right in framing biomass fuels as unsustainable, and the film’s central thesis — putting corporate interests in the driver’s seat of the renewable energy development, with conflict-of-interest hazards for environmental groups pushing this approach — is spot-on. By mixing truth with fiction, the film gives ammunition to fossil fuels apologists to prop up a dirty industry that does far more harm than good, while giving those who would like to uncritically greenwash the renewables industry justification for marginalizing the film as fake news and distracting the public away from its legitimate insights.

The Wilderness Society falls into the same trap by heavily touting the upside of utility-scale renewables on public lands, while downplaying the very real potential for major environmental problems when these projects are sited in ecologically – or culturally – sensitive areas.

It is imperative for conservationists to solve the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis at the same time. Myopic solutions that sacrifice one aspect of our planet’s biosphere to assist another are unsustainable and irresponsible. Eminent ecologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out that we need to set aside half the Earth for nature to solve the worldwide biodiversity crisis, and Senators have launched a “Thirty by Thirty” campaign to get our nation partway there by 2030. We’ll never get there by pushing industrial projects into our western public lands.


Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as Executive Director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds on public lands throughout the American West.




  1. Beeline Avatar

    Public lands have been degraded for many years by wave after wave of livestock, mineral and energy interests and more recently by off-road vehicle users at tax payers expense. The history of public land use and abuse seems shrouded in mystery. It does not get enough coverage. Thus public lands are very much out of sight, out of mind to most people.

    We are now seeing the effect of 40 years of anti-environmental propaganda which created the elusion of greatness of the capitalistic system. So how long can a society based on a false system survive when less than 5% of the earths population uses over 50% of the earths resources?

    Wind farms have existed on public lands since the 1980’s and the situation has only grown worse. Most of the environmental organizations went for the corporate, capitalistic paradigm and the situation got worse. It is as Michael Moore said, delusional thinking.

    Scientists could break through the elusion but they have been discarded. A metaphor would be driving a car and not paying any attention to the gauges that provide data on the performance of the vehicle. So when the temperature gauge lights up red- don’t pay any attention to it. Just keep driving and see how far you can go before the engine seizes up.

    To paraphrase Alduous Huxley- “Never have so many been manipulated, so much by so few”.

  2. irene w gilbert Avatar
    irene w gilbert

    Industrial development of renewable energy has been touted as the way to save the planet. In reality, we have provided so many subsidies and they have been abused to the extent that there is little funding for the real way to address global warming. Funding should go to conservation, energy efficiency and replacing oil, wood, and gas heating systems with heat pumps, microgrids, battery storage, rooftop solar and research into efficiency. Industrial wind in Oregon (Shepherd Flats) promised the wind developments were good for 30 years. They are replacing over 300 turbines with new blades after 8 years of operation. Oregon will have to deal with 900 non-recyclable blades. The subsidies previously provided will again be received. How many heat pumps or rooftop solar could have been installed for the $30 million in Oregon grants alone this development received. Add to that the cost and damage of the high voltage transmission lines the public is paying for. When are those who actually want to control climate change going to stop throwing money to subsidizing industrial wind and solar and start supporting locally generated, clean, green energy and research that reduces the need for energy? Utilities only give lip service to conservation and resist changes that reduce their control of the energy market. They are slowing down changes that are occurring in spite of their resistance. They keep pushing transmission lines while big companies are paying to leave the grid and produce their own energy.

  3. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Does “keeping it in the ground” apply to Interstate overhead transmission lines and Lithium mining for car batteries and other electricity storage?

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Destruction (continuing in the example of fossil fuels) of previously undisturbed lands is what has always made me balk at renewables. There’s also the idea of ‘green jobs’ that seem to put the focus first on jobs, and negates the intent of renewable energy.

    But this progressive model, start in areas that have lost their habitats values already, like city rooftops, parking lots, and landfills, is really the best way IMO, and (should) makes the most sense.

    “Mountaintop removal’ is heinous and not much farther removed from coal mining, IMO.

    Excellent post!

    1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
      Lyn McCormick

      I read a few year ago that the Green Party in Germany was being challenged for pushing renewables at the expense of the environment.

  5. Eric Smith Avatar
    Eric Smith

    I support what WWP is doing and for the most part I agree with their response to the Wilderness Society and Yale U. study. I do, however, disagree with WWP on the offer of public lands as a last resort.

    Erik states above that “even though the federal government holds title to millions of acres of public land, our western wildlands aren’t the best place to start.” I would counter there should be no “start” at all when it comes to disturbing any remaining wildlands and wildernesses.

    It has always been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement to leave something on the table that should never be there in the first place. It is a slippery slope and one that leads to corruption and co-optation of moral and political values, as well as the mission. One day you are fighting to prevent wildernesses from being destroyed, the next you are doing photo ops with corporations wanting to make a buck off the new green economy because you think it is the only way to “save” the environment. But what you are really saving is the very system that is destroying the natural world and what’s left of it; which, as you know, is very little.

    And this was one of the main themes of Planet of the Humans, that the large environmental organizations and NGO’s have taken the blue pill and dove head first onto industrial civilization’s proverbial slip-n-slide. That is why I strongly disagree with the following:

    “If we can’t generate all the renewable energy we need through distributed renewables, efficiency, and private lands, then and only then should federal public lands come into consideration.”

    First, what do we mean when we say “need?” The focus and priority of Industrial Civilization through Capitalism is turning wants (even those we didn’t know we wanted) into “needs” and making a profit while destroying the natural world and all life on this planet, including us (which, to their chagrin, includes them as well).

    It’s like with the Coronavirus pandemic and the corruption of the word “essential.” Many of the things deemed “essential” are not something we need (e.g., keeping the the airline and cruise industries alive) and many of things deemed “non-essential” are something we actually need (e.g., environmental regulations of the oil and gas industry).

    I think we (all humans) need very little of what is available today and we could very easily prioritize true needs from inessential wants and not spend time, energy, and resources (aka living ecosystems) on them. Do we need an electric car? No. I would even go so far as to say that we don’t need cars, but that’s just me.

    I don’t think what little of the natural world that is left stands a chance of survival if we continue to be willing to compromise with that which is destroying it. So, I would say to WWP what Earth First says, “No Compromise.”

  6. Michele Irwin Avatar
    Michele Irwin

    Great article! Does Wyoming have a report for where solar projects make the most sense?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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