MILFORD, Beaver County — A poll released Wednesday shows an overwhelming majority of voters in 11 Western states support developing renewable energy on public lands and favor ways to return some of the earnings for conservation or recreational opportunities.
In Beaver County, Commissioner Chad Johnson can see why voters would put their support behind developments such as wind farms or solar energy fields.
Johnson has had Utah's largest utility-scale wind farm operating in the county for nearly three years and he says residents have few, if any, reason to complain.
"I think you would be hard-pressed to find anybody in Beaver County, particularly on the west side, who would have anything negative to say about the wind farm," he said. "Most people favor that kind of development."
The poll, commissioned by The Wilderness Society, found that 73 percent of voters approve of wind and solar projects and nearly 80 percent support spending money to restore fish and wildlife habitat or set aside areas for parks, refuge or conservation spaces.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has designated close to 6,000 acres in Beaver County's Wah Wah Valley as a solar energy zone, a priority development area where environmental impacts could be mitigated.
With the county's already close relationship to FirstWind's Milford Wind project and several geothermal plants, Johnson said there hasn't been much to worry about with impacts not being addressed — both in an environmental way or with infrastructure.
The Wilderness Society's poll, however, is a push to support a trio of bills pending in Congress that would assure local communities get a financial bite of wind and solar projects developed on public lands.
Such a funding mechanism has not been set up by Congress. Unlike the distribution of gas and oil royalties to local communities and states that host the projects, the federal government keeps 95 percent of the fees or taxes collected on renewable energy projects.
Dan Gibbs, a Summit County commissioner in Colorado and former state lawmaker, said it is important for communities to capture some of that money and set it aside for conservation purposes.
"No matter what type of energy development there is, be it wind or solar or natural gas, there are impacts," Gibbs said. "I think it is important in Colorado, as it is in any Western state, that there be local severance royalties to help mitigate those impacts. Right now, for wind and solar, there is no such thing as that."
Chase Huntley, clean energy policy policy director with The Wilderness Society, said the poll shows a strong link between developing renewable energy and environmental stewardship.
"Wind and solar on public lands have come a long way in a short time," Huntley said. "But without a full set of tools, we can only go so far toward advancing responsible renewable energy development on public lands.
"As this poll shows, American voters want to see Congress move forward with bipartisan legislation that will pay back local communities, wildlife and the land they all depend upon," he said.
The August poll surveyed 1,000 voters and tapped reaction to the congressional bills, with support crossing geographic, ideological and political lines, Huntley said. Utah residents were among those surveyed.
Dozens of environmental groups and outdoor recreation organizations have also thrown their advocacy behind the measures, which supporters say are also drawing bipartisan endorsement among members of Congress.
For some, the reason is clear.
"Outdoor recreation, for us, is truly not just a way of life. It is our culture," said Bill Schenk, a Montana sportsman. "You take that away and we lose our identity as a state."
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