So, here's the question: if you believe that America must develop alternatives to fossil fuels, how do you go about saying yes to the alternatives in a way that makes sure clean energy is truly green energy?
How do we develop clean power without contaminating water supplies or putting transmission lines in fragile habitats?
Well, there's encouraging news coming from the states with big mountains and wide grasslands.
First, Secretary Ken Salazar's Interior Department issued thoughtful new guidelines for developing wind power. And a groundbreaking bipartisan poll found that Westerners in five key states say that strong environmental protections and a new energy economy can and should be inseparable.
Huge majorities—upward of two-thirds of people surveyed—said strong environmental protections should be the foundation for strong economic growth - and that the EPA should regulate heat-trapping pollution.
With the new guidelines, Salazar is charting a smart course, one that strives to balance our need for clean energy with protections for wildlife and wild places. Some changes must be made before these policies are finalized, but they reflect the right approach.
As my colleague and state director in Wyoming Brian Rutledge, warns, "Remember, the last time this country rushed into renewable energy, we dammed many of our wild rivers and came to regret it."
How do we avoid the mistakes of the past? By following the prairie birds, the leading indicators of ecosystem health. Once you know where greater sage-grouse are, for example, developers can pinpoint where they aren't, including locations already bearing a heavy human footprint.
These hundreds of appropriate sites are rich not only in documented fossil fuel reserves, but also in wind energy potential. Wyoming's Gov. David Freudenthal embraced this common-sense solution. The Bureau of Land Management then expanded the policy to cover 57 million acres across 11 states.
The greater sage-grouse is not the only beneficiary of this approach. It shares landscapes with other vulnerable animals, insects and plants, like the pronghorn antelope. The fastest wild animal in North America, this speed demon can reach 70 mph in a sprint. The pronghorn breeds in what was once the American Serengeti, a boundless terrain that fired the imaginations of generations of pioneers.
Sagebrush habitat also supports many of the great mammals in the American West, from elk to mule deer. Millions of tourists come to see them in Yellowstone National Park; they migrate to sagebrush terrain in winter.
Here's a novel idea—why don't we ask the people who live and work in the Western states what they think about mixing clean energy with wildlife? Their answer is clear: they don't see this as a binary choice. Across party lines, a majority of Western voters believe environmental protections and a strong economy can co-exist. In fact, 84 percent of voters agree that "even with state budget problems, we should still find the money to protect our land, water and wildlife." Read the report here.
Likely voters solidly support EPA reductions in carbon emissions from power plants, cars, and factories to reduce global warming. These aren't wine sippers from the blue states; presumably a fair number of these folks drive pickup trucks.
Of course short-sided energy development isn't confined to the West. In Appalachia mountaintop removal for coal extraction has obliterated wildlife habitat. Not only do some river dams threaten the survival of salmon, thousands of the nation's dams are considered susceptible to failure.
Sound science and long-term planning can ensure that clean energy is clean after all. When Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring," it proved how birds serve as our early warning systems. The American West can be a proving ground for energy independence that respects nature's web of life. That's what the people who live there want and we should be smart enough to listen to them.
David Yarnold, President & CEO of Audubon
This op-ed originally appeared in the Miami Herald, March 4, 2011.