Mining For Solar (Only) In Obama’s ‘Zones’

Those solar zones that the Obama administration has created on public lands in the West, they’re for solar. No mining allowed.

The Bureau of Land Management made this temporary ban a long-term thing earlier this month, putting 475 square miles in six Western states off-limits to new mining claims for the next 20 years.

mining solar public lands

Uranium mine in Wyoming (image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a move to dissuade speculative claims — and a move that brings the Obama administration allies in renewable energy development where you might not expect: the hunting and fishing communities.

“Sportsmen played an important role in formulating the solar environmental impact statement, and several key changes implemented in the final plan reflect our input,” Ed Arnett, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Center for Responsible Energy Development, told Outdoorlife.com.

Through a long process, the Obama administration last year finalized designation of 17 Solar Energy Zones for streamlined utility-scale solar power development. The Department of the Interior says the fast-track sites are “characterized by excellent solar resources, good energy transmission potential, and relatively low conflict with biological, cultural and historic resources.” About half of the land area is in California’s Riverside County, with parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Utah also covered.

Interior said that if fully built out — a pretty big if, as a number of projects once on the drawing board have stalled or otherwise fizzled — solar in the zones could produce some 23,700 megawatts of electricity, enough to power around 7 million American homes.

Conservation groups have generally supported the initiative, with some exceptions and a few qualms.

The sports groups and related industries see solar as preferable to more damaging activities, including oil and gas exploration (in addition to mining). The groups also recognize the threat fossil fuels play in habitat destruction.

“With predictions that up to 90 percent of the brook trout populations may disappear from southern Appalachian mountain streams, and possible loss of western trout populations in excess of 60 percent, we clearly need to take immediate action to reduce climate change causing emissions and recover nature’s ability to withstand the predicted increases in flood, fire, and drought–all of which will increase according to climate models,” Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood said in a statement in June.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.