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Don’t let clean energy projects stain national parks

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently outlined the Obama administration’s plans for renewable energy, emphasizing a goal for the United States to become a top producer of solar and wind power. Alongside California’s goals to produce half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, it is clear that the “gold rush” of clean energy development on public lands will continue.

With many of us wanting a clear path toward a sustainable energy future, such goals should be generating wide public and political support. But they’re not, and for good reason.

The Interior Department has made missteps in proposing and approving industrialized renewable energy development on some of California’s most impressive desert landscapes, forever harming the same lands it is entrusted to protect. There is no clearer example of this than the proposed Soda Mountain Solar project, which would be built only a stone’s throw from the Mojave National Preserve.

After 38 years with the National Park Service, I recently retired as superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is home to rare wildlife, world-class recreational opportunities and iconic views that extend for miles. California’s desert is also home to two other world-famous national parks, Death Valley and Mojave National Preserve. Bordering these parklands are other Interior Department lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

When I was with the Park Service, visitors would often ask why the bureau would approve large-scale energy projects that marred scenic areas or damaged important wildlife values that they had just learned about from a park ranger. The public was rightfully upset at the Interior Department for investing in conservation efforts in national parks, then approving ill-conceived development next door. Renewable energy firms also were upset because the agency encouraged them to develop these lands, turning them into scapegoats with those who would otherwise readily support solar and wind projects.

The Soda Mountain project, which is nearing a final decision by the department, is a perfect test to see if it has learned from its mistakes. It recently developed new policies to ensure decisions are made to protect “landscape-scale” values that include our national parks. That effort seems hypocritical given that the department is considering approval of Soda Mountain, which would destroy bighorn sheep habitat and wildlife migratory corridors, increase light pollution, and irrevocably harm the area’s impressive scenic and recreational values.

The project is opposed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management’s own advisory council, along with hunters, off-road enthusiasts, chambers of commerce and local governments.

The solution is simple: Move this misguided project to already identified areas without such varied and drastic conflicts. The project’s developer, a subsidiary of Bechtel Development Inc., however, does not want to budge.

The Interior Department has its policies and its responsibility to avoid harm to our national parks. On the other side, it has a multinational corporation lobbying for an exception to the rules.

It should be an easy decision for the department to reject the Soda Mountain Solar proposal and move without delay toward building support for our ambitious renewable energy goals. It is my hope that the agency realizes that the public’s trust is at stake, and chooses to wisely manage our incredible desert lands.

Mark Butler recently retired as superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park.