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4.5 Million Acres of Arizona's Public Lands Proposed for Fast Tracked Solar Development

BLM over-reaches on their Preferred Alternative, sets up potential conflict with future wilderness protections

In recent weeks, the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy released a much-awaited Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy generation on public lands across the Southwest. In Arizona, the initiative identifies more than 4.45 million acres of BLM lands in their preferred "Solar Development Alternative" (SDA), representing more than a third of the land under their jurisdiction. While various criteria were used by the agencies to exclude sensitive areas from the SDA, potential conflict does occur with AWC's database of citizen-proposed wilderness areas (go to map). In all about 11.5% of proposed wilderness areas – or about 500,000 acres – also include the SDA. The overlapping areas, while considered suitably flat for solar development, exemplify wilderness characteristics such as opportunities for solitude and non-mechanized recreation, naturalness, and lack of substantial developments. Many of these lands also bear significant cultural and archaeological resources that make them unique as potential wilderness areas.

Nonetheless, AWC applauds the BLM for addressing renewable energy development on our public lands. Solar development in Arizona generally makes sense and is considered a positive economic and green energy move. However, the issue at hand is not whether some public land may be appropriate for solar projects, but rather concern lies with the contradiction of goals and results offered by the BLM in their PEIS. The PEIS specifically outlines a mandate of..."Standardizing and streamlining the authorization process for utility-scale solar energy development on BLM-administered lands" and "Facilitating near-term utility-scale solar energy development on public lands." That's fine, but in the interest of streamlining and guiding how and where solar development should go, why does the BLM identify 4.5 million acres of land? This is in light of the fact that the agency's 20 year forecast predicts no more than 20,000 acres of solar development. Essentially, less than one half of one percent of the Solar Development Alternative may ever see a solar panel. That doesn't make sense.

There is hope. The BLM also identified a much smaller alternative in the PEIS for solar development. Called the Solar Energy Zones Alternative, it outlines about 15,000 acres across BLM lands ready for fast-track development. While we don't understand why such a large discrepancy between the two alternatives, the Solar Energy Zones – when combined with solar development on thousands of acres of degraded lands – is a better guide for solar companies and provides less (zero) conflict with areas that retain wilderness characteristics.

Case Study of a Wilderness Threatened: Red Rock Canyon

The Red Rock Canyon proposed wilderness area is 23,298 acres in size and located just north of Gila Bend or just southeast of Woolsey Peak. The unit's soaring cliffs rise 1,200 feet above the Gila River and contains unique geologic sedimentary strata as well as significant archeological resources.

Protecting the Red Rock Canyon area is paramount to maintaining wildlife populations and linkages between Woolsey Peak, Signal Mountain, and Eagletail Mountains Wilderness Areas. The proposed units includes iconic Sonoran Desert wildlife such as desert bighorn sheep and the Sonoran desert tortoise, as well as hidden, ancient rock shelters, petroglyphs, and artifacts that remain to be inventoried and studied., Composed primarily of volcanic basalt, Red Rock Canyon is distinguished by an unusual outcropping of arkosic sandstone in an otherwise extensive Quaternary era volcanic landscape. The unit receives minimal visitation, partly because of the difficulty in crossing the Gila River to access the area. Opportunities for incredible solitude and backcountry recreation exist throughout the area.

Unfortunately, the BLM's Solar Development Alternative overlaps 10,412 acres, or roughly 45% of this spectacular area, threatening the fragile and outstanding values mentioned above. Can such a remote and beautiful place really be fast tracked for solar development? Certainly, there are many suitable lands that would qualify for this type of heavy impact development, serving both the needs of alternative energy while preserving one of our greatest resources, wilderness, an economic resource that cannot be reclaimed once destroyed.
ACTION ALERT: We need the public to help us create wilderness dialog around solar planning in Arizona. Please plan to attend one of the following meetings:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011, 7:00pm (open house starting at 6:00pm)
Sheraton Crescent Hotel
2620 W. Dunlap Avenue, Phoenix AZ
(602) 943-8200
Wednesday, March 2, 2011, 7:00pm (open house starting at 6:00pm)
Tucson Marriott University Park
880 East Second Street, Tucson AZ
(520) 792-4100
For map and information, visit

If you're interested in attending the Phoenix or Tucson meeting, please contact Ian Dowdy: for additional information and ways you can help make a difference in the BLM's next steps.

-Arizona Wilderness Coalition mission statement