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August 21, 2014

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Balancing solar, environment

On Monday, the Nevada office of the Bureau of Land Management successfully held the first competitive sale of federal leases for solar energy development. The Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone just north of Las Vegas comprises six public land parcels, all of which received bids in Monday’s auction.

The Dry Lake zone is one of 19 Solar Energy Zones across the West. Based on their limited conflict with other resources and high solar energy potential, Solar Energy Zones are essentially blocks of public land that have been designated by the BLM for the purpose of developing solar energy.

I proudly served the city of Las Vegas for 18 years as a city councilman, and for four of those years I was the mayor. My time as an elected official exposed me to just how complex the relationship between energy development and local stakeholders can be, particularly when public lands are involved. On the one hand, energy development can create jobs and drive economic growth in local communities. On the other hand, the development creates new resource and service demands.

Federal law has recognized these demands for other forms of energy, such as geothermal, and provided a share of the fees to local government. The same should be done for wind and solar.

My perspective has also been shaped by the 5 1/2 years I served on the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners and the countless hours I have spent trekking Nevada’s public lands in search of bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn and mule deer. What I’ve learned over the years as a sportsman and as a conservationist is that if we want there to be fish and wildlife to pursue, we have to protect their habitat.

Energy projects, renewable energy included, can pose serious threats to fish and wildlife habitat. Even with well-sited projects, effects on the land are unavoidable. The potential for lower populations of fish and wildlife and fewer opportunities to hunt and fish due to energy development must be dealt with proactively.

In fact, wind and solar energy can be leased on Nevada’s public lands in such a way that not only offsets effects incurred at the project site, but provides for regional improvements to habitat.

In recent years, Sens. Dean Heller and Harry Reid, and Reps. Joe Heck, Mark Amodei, Steven Horsford and Dina Titus have championed a legislative proposal that would address the needs of communities and safeguard fish and wildlife habitat.

The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act proposes, among other things, to return a portion of the royalty revenues generated by wind and solar projects operating on public lands to the counties where the projects are sited and to a fund for fish and wildlife habitat conservation.

This legislation provides a common-sense path forward for public-land wind and solar energy production by generating real benefits to help offset the effects of development. To that point, a recent report by economists at the University of Southern Utah and Utah State University highlights the potential benefits of the legislation to states and communities across the West.

Specific to Nevada, the report projects that, collectively, counties that have public land wind and solar energy projects within their borders stand to receive more than $1 million annually in new income.

Under the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, a similar amount of money would be available for fish and wildlife habitat conservation and enhanced recreational access to public lands.

Monday’s lease sale is another step toward realizing Nevada’s renewable energy potential, but it is clear that the benefits to Nevada’s economy, communities and sporting heritage would be even greater if Congress passes the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act.

I applaud the members of our congressional delegation for their leadership on this important legislation and ask for their continued support. For the sake of hunters, anglers and rural communities throughout the West, Congress should pass the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act.

Ron Lurie is a former mayor and city councilman in Las Vegas.

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