Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

No Room for Energy Production on Public Lands in the West

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2011. No Room for Energy Projection on Public Lands in the West. Larch Company, Ashland, OR

by Andy Kerr

Producing energy on public lands reduces our addiction to foreign oil. It also ruins the values for which the American people should hold them dear. Public lands should provide goods and services that the private lands cannot provide.

Wind and solar power facilities are industrial development in natural landscapes as much as oil, gas or coal fields.

Most public lands are open to energy exploitation. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t appreciate most of our public lands, because most of our public lands are deserts.

“All of the U.S. petroleum needs could be met if we dedicated about 1 percent of the land area of the United States—which equals about 4.5 percent of our deserts, or about 39,000 square miles—and erected solar collectors on the land, which would not be harmed one bit,” said energy expert David Freedman.2  Freedman knows energy, but not deserts.

39,000 square miles is about the size of Kentucky, 25 million city blocks or 11 Yellowstone National Parks.

169,000 square miles of the 48 states is developed land—larger than California. Of course, it’s not all solar-suitable roofs, but enough of this area would support solar energy production to avoid ruining 39,000 square miles of desert.  

“Green” energy developers believe they are doing the lord’s work because their energy doesn’t emit carbon and warm the atmosphere. Renewable energy development in the wrong place destroys wild places and wildlife. A better distinction is light-brown versus dark-brown energy. The darkest green electrons are those produced on the roof of the building that uses them.

A few species that characterize the tree-free landscapes of the American West—the desert tortoise of the Mojave Desert; the prairie chickens of the great grasslands, and the sage grouse of the Sagebrush Sea. Each is a “canary in a coal mine”—if they aren’t viable, neither are most other species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Consider the sage grouse and the threats it faces from energy development—brown or green.
Each spring adults gather where males put on magnificent displays of bravado, strutting, puffing out their chests and making lots of noise. Like human males, they seek females. After mating, the females go off to nest somewhere between a few hundred feet to four miles, and perhaps ten miles or more from the mating ground.

After the eggs hatch, the chicks and mom walk to brood-rearing areas—moist areas of succulent wildflowers and insects for food. They require a cover of sagebrush and grass to hide them from predators. Dispersal corridors should be at least one-mile wide to protect sage grouse from predation.

After chicks have fledged in late summer, the family flies off in the fall to loafing habitat (birds don’t live to work).

Finally, winter’s onset moves them to areas where either big sagebrush towers above the snow or where the wind blows the snow off the ground and sagebrush.

At every stage of their life, sage grouse require sagebrush habitat that has little or no human disturbance.

Sage grouse generally avoid sagebrush up to two miles from of a road (human disturbance) and a half-mile on either side of a power line (perches for predators). Sage grouse fly into fences and die. The Sagebrush Sea has millions of miles of roads, utility corridors and fences.

Current sage grouse populations are 8% of historic numbers. Sagebrush habitat has been reduced by half; most that remains is on public land.

Adding up the sagebrush that sage grouse need, they cannot afford to lose any more of it. If human take care of sage grouse we will also take care of other wildlife and watersheds in the Sagebrush Sea.

If our children are to see sage grouse, we must leave room for them, thereby leaving no room for energy development of any kind on public lands. Despair not.

“[S]olar systems on roofs, parking lots, and other developed land across the nation could generate all the electricity we need—now, in 2030, and 2050—without building on the nation’s open spaces” says the Solar Energy Industries Association. “At the same time, decentralized solar power will reduce the vulnerability of our electric system to attack or natural disaster.”2

Energy philosopher Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute makes a compelling case that we can have as many miles driven, hot showers and cold beers as now, using 10% of the energy we currently use.3

Utility-scale power can be varying shades of brown electrons shipped long distances to sell to customers. Such plants and powerlines are vulnerable to terrorists. Decentralized power is not and doesn’t terrorize sage grouse either.

Andy Kerr ( of the Larch Company ( consults for conservation organizations. A deciduous conifer, the western larch has a contrary nature.

1 Freedman, S. David. 2007. Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith
2 Solar Energy Industries Association. 2004. Our Solar Power Future: The U.S. Photovoltaics Industry Roadmap Through 2030 and Beyond. Washington, DC.