WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2013 - Grazing interests will look on with interest in late October when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hosts the first competitive auction for three parcels of public lands in two Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) in Colorado.

The sealed and oral bid auction will mark the first of what are expected to be a growing number of sales aimed at developing utility-scale solar projects on public lands in 17 BLM-designated zones covering 280,000 acres across six southwestern states.

Identified last October, the zones are part of a Western Solar Plan the Obama administration hopes will help generate an additional 20,000 megawatts of electricity from public lands by 2020 and “ensure a fair return to taxpayers for the commercial use of these lands,” said Helen Hankins, BLM’s Colorado state director. Another two zones were designated earlier this year.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose department oversees the BLM, told a national clean energy conference last month that the plan will incorporate what officials are calling a “smart-from-the start” approach to renewable energy development on public lands.

"Our nation's public lands are vast and varied,” Jewell said. “We need to take a close look at these resources to determine where it makes sense to develop renewable energy and – just as importantly – where it does not.

“Working with federal, state, local and tribal governments, as well as leaders from industry and conservation communities, we can and should take actions to minimize the conflicts that solar, wind and geothermal projects might have with natural and cultural resources,” she said.

Jewell said the department will “require meaningful mitigation measures when conflict cannot be avoided, and leverage the momentum to enhance landscape-level conservation objectives.”

Unlike grazing, oil and gas drilling, mining and other BLM oversight arenas, the renewable energy initiative was created by the agency, not inherited, putting some pressure on the bureau to manage the projects and the land on which they are to be located in a sustainable and environmentally beneficial way. And they have to be conscious of other existing uses on that public land.

Groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) have taken little public stance on the latest developments. But Chase Adams, NCBA’s director of communications, says it’s his group’s position that federal lands be managed for multiple use, as federal law states.

“So, we oppose single use areas such as solar zones when they negatively impact grazing on public lands,” Adams said. “We’re not opposed to the sale of public lands for development such as solar zones, so long as the rights of ranchers are not negatively impacted. Federal grazing permits are a property right interest.”

The prospects of grazing rights on public lands being protected have improved since 2008, when BLM had more than 500 solar applications, but no orderly means of assessing, processing and managing them. Environmental critics said the agency was more concerned then with its role overseeing oil and gas development.

However, even environmental groups as vocal as the Natural Resources Defense Council have expressed some approval of the BLM’s new approach, noting the “smart-from-the-start” approach is “a huge improvement over the traditional BLM way of managing energy resources that allowed energy companies to dictate the terms before key management protocols were even established.”

Bob McEnany, deputy director of NRDC’s Western Renewable Energy Project, Land & Wildlife Program, says the BLM has listened to all constituents in an effort to develop a consistent standard that he hopes will allow the agency, with appropriate input from stakeholders, “to approach siting decisions in a pro-active and more comprehensive manner.”

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