Letter From the Desert: Liz Warren's Plan to Privatize Public Lands

Observations on the bipartisan enthusiasm for destroying the desert

It’s been a preoccupied few weeks, as evidenced by the fact that this is the first Letter From the Desert since November 10. All is well with our household, or at least as well as all can be given everything going on outside our household. Early this month I spent a couple of days in the Bay Area, saw a couple of friends and had a job interview. I got the job. It is a promotion for me, but was decided in an open hire process, in which I had formidable competition. I feel fortunate and now I really have to save the desert to justify people’s faith in me. It’s daunting.

The new job title is viewable here if you’re interested in that sort of thing. I got the promotion just in time to work on the expected massive revision by the You Know Who administration of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which all of us in the conservation biz expect will be essentially apocalyptic, a massive giveaway to the energy industry, stripping protections from National Conservation Lands and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and putting solar and wind on wilderness boundaries and in general undoing about a decade of unpleasant consensus-building here in the desert. Which is no surprise coming from an Interior Department run by David Longly Bernhardt, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Westlands Water District.

What was a surprise was that Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released a plan this month for producing renewable energy on public lands that in certain important ways is more dangerous than anything the Tr*mp administration dares to propose.

We’ll get back to the lyrical paeans to desert life with the next Letter. For now, I’ve got something I have to get off my chest.

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When the powers that be propose privatizing public lands — that is, taking lands that belong to all of us and handing them over to individual corporations — there’s usually a hue and cry from progressives and environmentalists. Warren is no exception. In fact, she introduces her public lands plan by decrying recent attempts to sell off public lands:

The Trump administration is busy selling off our public lands to the oil, gas and coal industries for pennies on the dollar — expanding fossil fuel extraction that destroys pristine sites across the country while pouring an accelerant on our climate crisis.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We must not allow corporations to pillage our public lands and leave taxpayers to clean up the mess.

A laudable sentiment. It’s worth noting that many of the lands she’s referring to aren’t actually being sold outright. We The People retain title to those lands. They’re just trashed. They are stripped of ecological value, denuded of vegetation and wildlife, and poisoned. Then the lease runs out and we are left, as Warren says, to “clean up the mess.” She’s right to speak out against that.

But then, in a passage that could have been penned by a focus group of energy company CEOs, she writes:

[I]t’s not enough to end our public lands’ contribution to climate change. We have an enormous opportunity to make them a part of the climate solution, and for both economic and environmental reasons, we should take it. A decade ago, there were zero major solar power projects on public lands. Today, the Bureau of Land Management has approved 11,000 megawatts of renewable wind, solar, and geothermal projects — enough to power millions of American homes. It’s a significant proof-of-concept. But to make a real dent in the problem, we’re going to need a whole lot more.

As President, I will set a goal of providing 10% of our overall electricity generation from renewable sources offshore or on public lands.That’s nearly ten times what we are currently generating. 

In the California desert, development for renewable energy is the leading cause of de facto privatization of public lands. Warren would increase that by a factor of ten.

The process goes like this.

Desert tortoise near Baker, CA. Photo by Mike Baird.

Step one: a stretch of desert is open to you for hiking and camping. You can enjoy the spring wildflowers there. You can contemplate the dark night skies. And more importantly, the wild animals and plants that live there can live out their lives. The desert tortoises and golden eagles and bighorn sheep, the coyotes and Gila monsters and cactus wrens and Gambel’s quail and kangaroo rats and pepsis wasps and Eleodes beetles are free to go about their business. Joshua trees and Mojave yuccas and creosote and blackbrush and sagebrush and cacti drink in late rains and store them against the certainty of summer. The desert ecosystem persists, and sometimes even thrives.

Step two: a company and a public land management agency announce that that stretch of desert has been slated for development as a solar power factory. Consulting firms make sure the biologists they hire are all locked into Non-Disclosure Agreements, then prepare persuasive-sounding documents obscuring the environmental damage the project would cause.

Step three: the relevant land management agency, usually but not always the BLM, steers the company through the environmental assessment process. The BLM has the power, indeed the responsibility, to deny destructive projects. How many proposed renewable energy projects in the California desert have been denied by the BLM? I can think of just one, and one more in Nevada. Dozens are approved for every one denied.

Step four: the project is approved. The “public” land is fenced off. If there are known to be tortoises or some other sensitive species in residence, biologists make an attempt to remove them all. If they find far more endangered animals than expected, the US Fish and Wildlife Service obligingly rewrites its scientific opinion of how many the company can kill without threatening the species’ survival. “Wait, did we say 40 tortoises? We have reviewed the science and it turns out we meant 400.” Similarly, a few valuable or rare native plants may be removed with the intention of transplanting. Otherwise, as shown in this photo (courtesy Basin and Range Watch) of a solar development project in the western Mojave Desert, native plants are either bulldozed or mowed so short that they will certainly die.

Those are Joshua trees in that bulldozed pile. Among other things. Might be a few Mohave ground squirrels and such in there too.

Step five: power generating infrastructure is installed and comes online. If all goes as planned, the land is de facto corporate private land for the next several decades.

Step six: the corporation’s lease ends and is not renewed. The people take back possession of the parcel, but all ecosystem value — all the vital and wild diversity of the place — was bulldozed to death after the fence went in. The life force of the desert has been privatized, but we eventually do get the land back that that wild desert used to live on. About like renting a house to someone who burns it down and moves away: yes, we get the land back but that’s cold comfort.

Tens of thousands of acres of the California Desert have already been privatized in this manner. Warren thinks it’s not happening fast enough.

And yes: her intent is to address the climate change emergency we all of us face, including the plants and animals in the California desert. I get that. Answering that rationale for ecological destruction has been the focus of the California desert conservation movement since at least 2007. And we figured out long ago that desert landscapes are worth more to the world’s survival as intact ecosystems than as bulldozed real estate for energy companies’ power plants.

The deserts of the southwest are the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48, and the second largest intact ecosystem in North America. They are crucial in their present form for the survival of wildlife into the next few centuries. They hold populations of plants and animals that are tailor made to thrive elsewhere in the West after climate change takes hold. They sequester carbon when left alone, and disgorge thousands of years’ worth of sequestered carbon when bulldozed.

Meanwhile, study after study shows that the developed parts of California provide enough potential energy generating surface for solar and wind — on rooftops, over parking lots, on freeway verges and landfills and reservoirs and the thousands of square miles of other ecologically useless area that we’ve already essentially nuked for our convenience — that area is more than enough to power California without burning a single lump of coal, a single liter of natural gas. And if it’s true in California, it’s likely true in most other parts of the country.

None of this is obscure information. It’s not hard to find any of this stuff out. The only reason to advocate destroying habitat for renewable energy generation is that that path is more immediately profitable for energy companies sold on short-term thinking. Which makes me wonder precisely where Elizabeth Warren is getting her information from.

We’re fighting desert destruction under the current administration, and we fought it under Obama, and we’ve fought it under at least four administrations prior. This is nothing new. It’s just sobering to be reminded that whether politicians are reactionary or progressive, precious few of them seem to think our home has any value other than as a blank spot on the map.

We know better. We know the value of this place. We know how important this fragile desert is. We can win the fight to protect it. And we must, because the outcome of a presidential election is unlikely to do it for us.

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