Speech: Protecting America's Treasured Landscapes and Wildlife Resources

Last edited 09/29/2021

Thomas Strickland

Department of Interior's Onshore Renewable Energy Workshop

For the past two years I have had the privilege of holding two of the most interesting and challenging jobs in Washington. In one job, I have served as the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. In that capacity I have worked on a daily basis with both the leadership and the career staff of two of the Department's best known and most important agencies, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Together, these two agencies are responsible for managing some of America's most cherished natural, historic, and cultural treasures, including our national parks, historic sites, including Civil War battlefields and other places like the Flight 93 memorial site, national wildlife refuges, migratory birds, and many of the nation's most imperiled wildlife species, including whooping cranes, wolves, polar bears, California condors, and – as all of you who listened to the President's recent State of the Union Speech know – salmon … at least some of the time!

As Assistant Secretary, I have observed firsthand the dedication and hard work of the men and women of the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. I have seen the extraordinary job they are doing from the Everglades of Florida to the distant northwest Hawaiian Islands, where albatrosses in unimaginable numbers gather each year to nest and start afresh the cycle of life. I have also witnessed some emotionally powerful events linked to the history of our nation, including the reopening of the crown of the Statue of Liberty following the attacks of 9/11, the dedication of the hallowed ground where Flight 93 crashed outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on that fateful day, and the opening of a new Park Service visitor center at Pearl Harbor on the 69th anniversary of the attack that prompted our nation's entry into World War II. The opportunity to meet and talk with many of the still surviving veterans of that experience is something I will always remember.

The other job I have held these past two years has been that of chief of staff to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. In that capacity, I have worked with Secretary Salazar and our senior team to help manage a cabinet department that arguably has a broader set of duties and responsibilities than any other cabinet agency. In addition to the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department counts among its responsibilities managing the vast public lands of the Bureau of Land Management; developing water resources for irrigation and other purposes through the Bureau of Reclamation; carrying out world-class scientific research on a broad range of topics through the United States Geologic Survey; looking out for the well being of our territories and possessions; and faithfully executing our many solemn trust obligations toward First Americans through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If not quite the “department of everything,” the Department of the Interior is surely the “department of a great many things,” and one that I have been proud to serve.

Now let me share with you that Secretary Salazar has many jobs as well. In the arena that brings us all here today, he has two jobs: he is responsible for promoting the development of renewable energy on our public lands and elsewhere, and he is also charged with safeguarding the natural, historic, and cultural resources of this nation, including its parks, refuges, and imperiled wildlife. As the Secretary himself has stated, the Department views its conservation responsibilities to be co-equal to its renewable energy efforts. The challenge of doing both simultaneously is extraordinarily difficult, but absolutely essential. It is a challenge that requires the help of all of you here as well.

Let me turn first to the promotion of renewable energy. This is a vital, indispensable job, as anyone who has picked up a newspaper in recent weeks has repeatedly been reminded. Once again, political upheaval in the Middle East has roiled world oil markets, causing oil prices to spike and reminding us anew of our nation's vulnerability to events in volatile parts of the world from which much of the energy that powers our economy comes. Achieving greater energy independence will reduce that vulnerability, help achieve a better trade balance, and bring jobs and other economic benefits to American citizens.

Alongside news of turmoil in the Mideast has been recent news of monster snows across much of the American heartland, epic floods in Australia, and vast forest fires near Moscow. It may be that none of these weather events can be definitively linked to climate change, but we have other convincing evidence that our long stable climate is being destabilized as a result of our – and the world's – use of carbon-based energy sources.

We see that evidence in the rapid warming that has been documented in the Arctic, with resulting dramatic loss of sea ice in many areas. Projected losses of sea ice in the Arctic have led the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate such iconic wildlife as the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. More recently, the Service has determined that, because of changing climate in the Arctic, the walrus too warrants consideration for protection under that law.

We see evidence of climate change as well in rising sea levels around the world. Such rising seas are contributing to the loss of biologically rich coastal wetlands in nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Chesapeake Bay; in coastal Louisiana, where wetland losses have been greater than anywhere else in the nation; and elsewhere. And finally, we see evidence of climate change in phenomena like the extraordinary forest devastation that is so obvious in Colorado and elsewhere in the West as warmer winters have permitted the northward expansion of the bark beetle.

These climate-related threats, not just to individual species, but to entire natural communities, are an added reason why this nation – indeed, the world – must transition quickly from its heavy reliance on carbon-based energy to alternative energy, including nuclear and renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean energy. In short, developing alternative energy sources is not just an economic and a national security imperative, it is an environmental imperative as well.

Even if one were to dismiss entirely the evidence of climate change and the warnings about its potential environmental effects, reducing our reliance on traditional energy sources would still be an environmental imperative. That fact was brought home most forcefully last April when the blowout occurred at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. For months oil gushed from deep below the Gulf's surface, creating an environmental hazard of extraordinary dimensions. I referred earlier to having observed the dedication and hard work of the men and women who work for the Department of the Interior. Never were those qualities more obvious than in the response of those employees to this catastrophic incident. Thousands of our employees were mobilized for this effort, many relocating away from their homes and families for weeks and months on end, working virtually around the clock to protect your wildlife, your national parks, and your national treasures from loss.

There thus can be no serious debate about the environmental imperative to pursue alternative energy. However, there must be serious and careful attention to exactly how and where such new energy sources are developed. We have to learn the lessons from this nation's experience with hydropower. Like wind, solar, and geothermal energy, hydropower offers climate friendly, non-polluting, “clean” energy. The nation embraced hydropower with enthusiasm in the years before and after World War II, building major dams in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere with inadequate consideration of the potential environmental impacts of those dams upon fishery resources and other environmental values. For salmon and other migratory fish, we thought we could have our cake and eat it too by building hatcheries to offset the losses caused by the dams. It didn't turn out that way. Many salmon and steelhead stocks collapsed; Native American tribes that had long depended upon these fish for their cultural and physical well being were severely affected; communities long sustained by commercial fisheries were devastated; and hatcheries were not the panacea that many had expected. As a result, we are today spending billions in an effort to remedy our earlier oversights, literally barging fish around dams, spilling water over dams to enable fish migrating downstream to avoid the hazard of turbines, removing some dams altogether and seriously considering the removal of others, and imposing a range of costly requirements on various third parties as a result of the fact that many once abundant fish stock are now endangered species.

In hindsight, the era of big dam building brought us enormous benefits, but it also imposed unexpectedly high environmental costs. We stand today at another turning point in our energy history. It is a turning point where the benefits of investing in new energy sources are readily apparent, but where we can no longer afford to be unaware of the potential environmental costs. Those potential costs include the loss of habitat for endangered species from solar farms that are many square miles in size, the obstruction of migration and dispersal routes from new roads, transmission lines and energy facilities in areas currently free of such barriers, the deaths of golden eagles, other migratory birds, and bats from collisions with wind turbines, the imposition of new water use demands in areas where water supplies are already scarce, the impairment of viewsheds and visitor experience from large scale industrial development near park boundaries, and the loss of historic and cultural resources from development in areas rich in such resources.

All of us – both we in the Interior Department and you in the renewable energy industry – have a shared interest in taking these potential environmental costs seriously and in doing whatever we can to minimize them. For those of us at the Interior Department, we must do so for a simple reason: the law requires that we do so. The Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Park Service Organic Act and other laws oblige us to act as stewards of these irreplaceable resources, which we hold in trust for the American people. But beyond our legal obligation is our ethical and moral responsibility to be wise stewards of this beautiful planet.

For those of you in the renewable energy industry, I know that these goals are important to you as well. You entered this business not simply because you saw a new business opportunity, but because you saw an opportunity to improve the environment while pursuing a profitable business, one that is both non-polluting and climate friendly. You understand the importance of avoiding siting or operational decisions that imperil the well-being of endangered species, expose eagles, other birds, and bats to significant risks, impair the quality of visitor experiences at our parks, or damage our historic and cultural resources. What you expect and deserve from government is clarity in how best to achieve those results.

In short, it is imperative that we work together to make the transition to a new energy economy in a manner that is “smart from the start.” We cannot afford to do what we are now doing with hydropower – attempting to fix decades after the fact a plethora of environmental problems that we failed to recognize or acknowledge at the outset. All of the recently announced initiatives of the Department are intended to help us be smart from the start. The BLM's programmatic solar EIS is intended to guide solar development toward areas with the least environmental conflicts, while sending a clear signal that development elsewhere will face a steeper regulatory hurdle. In California, the development of a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan will allow for a coordinated mitigation effort as new energy facilities are sited in that endangered species-rich region.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's just-released draft wind turbine guidelines seek to provide clarity of expectations for wind energy development and its impacts on birds, bats, and other wildlife. These are voluntary guidelines that are intended to help the industry both choose locations for wind energy development and utilize operational practices that minimize conflicts with wildlife. Through a tiered series of inquiries about sensitive wildlife use in particular areas, and about potential strategies to avoid or reduce negative impacts, these guidelines aim to facilitate wind power development without compromising wildlife values. The guidelines are based on an excellent set of recommendations provided to the Secretary by a federal advisory committee that worked diligently for over two years to craft a well considered report. To those members of that committee who are here today, I want to extend my sincere thanks for their hard work and helpful recommendations. I also want to emphasize that the draft guidelines are proposals. They will not become final until there has been an opportunity for public comment. I know from some of the discussions that took place over the lunch hour that the process of thoughtful public comment has already begun. I encourage all of you to give us your suggestions and assure you we will take them most seriously.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's draft guidance on wind energy impacts on eagles provides a more focused assessment of how wind energy facilities can be planned and developed to minimize the taking of bald and golden eagles. We know from experience that eagles can be killed by collisions with wind turbines, and we believe there are practical means to reduce that risk. The key to doing so, like the key to avoiding most other environmental problems associated with renewable energy, is in the choice of where to site facilities. The surest way to avoid potential problems under the Endangered Species Act or the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act is to site facilities in areas where endangered species and eagles are not present. But the eagle guidance recognizes that unintended take of eagles may unavoidably occur. Where that is the case, the eagle guidance describes a proposed means of compensating for those losses by undertaking or supporting conservation measures elsewhere. As with wind turbine guidelines, we seek your feedback on the eagle guidance.

Siting projects beyond the viewsheds of national parks will also avoid conflicts that can damage both park visitor experience and public perceptions of the renewable energy industry. The National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management are working together to address the impacts of energy development outside park boundaries on park resources. Many of the most serious threats to our national parks and other conservation areas come from beyond their borders. We can no longer draw a line on a map and declare a placed protected. For that reason, BLM, the Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been sitting down together every week to address impacts of renewable energy development on visual and other park resources, on endangered species and eagles, and on other environmental concerns.

Secretary Salazar and the DOI team strongly believe that expansion of our renewable energy resources can go hand in hand with protecting our environment. But for that to happen, we must provide a roadmap to the renewable energy industry which provides guidance on how to develop projects responsibly in a manner which does not compromise our environmental values. We need your help in fashioning this roadmap. Together we can move this nation forward in a truly environmentally responsible manner.

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