A 21st Century Approach to Balancing Development and Conservation of Public Resources


By U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor

Today President Obama issued an historic Presidential Memorandum underscoring his conviction that “we all have a moral obligation to the next generation to leave America’s natural resources in better condition than we inherited them.”  

The Presidential Memorandum emphasizes the importance of protecting the environment and providing efficient and effective federal permitting to American businesses and communities. The Department of the Interior has led the way in demonstrating the success of this approach. In an unprecedented effort, the Department, working with our federal and state partners, private landowners, and many other stakeholders, recently announced a plan spanning 11 western states that will both allow for energy and other development to occur and for the long-term conservation of the greater sage-grouse without the need to invoke Endangered Species Act (ESA) requirements for the species.

At the heart of this plan is a landscape-scale approach that requires any new development in certain areas of grouse habitat to avoid, minimize, and compensate for any impacts from those development activities – known as applying the mitigation hierarchy to conservation and permitting. An innovative and collaboratively developed mitigation approach helps identify how and where best to conserve sensitive resources when development results in impacts as well as which areas are most appropriate for development and how to minimize impacts. These guiding principles were a critical component in allowing for both responsible development activities and for sage-grouse conservation - without requiring ESA protections.

In today’s memorandum, the President reinforces this approach by directing federal agencies responsible for public resources -- including Interior -- to apply the mitigation hierarchy at scales appropriate for the country’s wide-ranging and valuable natural and cultural resources, and to, at a minimum, set a no net loss goal when permitting impacts to key resources we are entrusted to protect.

The directive is fundamental for the Department, which serves as steward for 20 percent of our Nation’s lands, oversees the development of more than 20 percent of the nation’s energy supply, is the nation’s largest manager of water supply, manages more than 400 units of the National Park System, and is responsible for the conservation of fish, wildlife and cultural resources.

To guide the Department’s implementation of the Presidential Memorandum, today the Interior Department issued a new Departmental policy. This new policy, stemming from Secretary Jewell’s first Secretarial Order, identifies the key principles and processes needed to implement a landscape-scale mitigation approach to, as the Secretary noted introducing her Order at the National Press Club in 2013, help “balance the inherent tensions that can exist with development and conservation.” The policy follows through on a commitment made in a 2014 report to the Secretary from her Energy and Climate Change Task Force: Strategy for Improving the Mitigation Policies and Practices of the Department of the Interior. With the Departmental policy in place, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Fish and Wildlife Service will soon also provide policies to further implement this approach through their programs.

By establishing landscape-scale mitigation requirements up front in the planning and permitting process, this approach provides project proponents with more certainty and clarity in their projects while also supporting environmental goals for impacted resources at scales necessary to protect them over the long term. At the same time, the Secretary notes that by guiding development to the areas of low environmental value, the Department can reduce the likelihood of conflict and costly delays while streamlining permit processes. 

Similar to the greater sage-grouse effort, the Department is using a landscape-level mitigation approach as we seek to meet President Obama's goal of approving 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020. Since 2009, the BLM has already approved 57 renewable energy projects (34 solar, 11 wind and 12 geothermal), with the potential to provide more than 15,000 megawatts of generating capacity when all of them are online, or enough capacity to power more than five million homes and create about 26,000 jobs.

By applying this approach to planning, the BLM completed the environmental reviews for three proposed utility-scale solar energy projects in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Clark County, Nevada in less than six months. By contrast, reviews of similar large solar projects under the previous project-by-project system took on average 18 to 24 months to complete. This type of smart, balanced approach to development dramatically improves our ability to permit more renewable and traditional forms of energy development to power America’s future. 

As the President and Secretary have both emphasized, we must always take the long view. We must always keep in mind that public lands are a trust, one that we manage for generations to come. As a foundation for 21st century public lands management, this landscape-level approach to mitigation strikes the right balance for conservation and development and will help ensure that we serve our nation's needs both now and far into the future.

The Department's new policy is available for viewing here.