The Desert Sun Editorial Board
Seven years after work began -- and three years beyond the original deadline -- officials have come forward with the federal lands portion of a strategy for renewable energy development and land conservation in California’s deserts.
Phase I of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan designates renewable energy, conservation and recreation zones across 10 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
The plan will encourage development of solar, wind and geothermal power plants on 388,000 acres of federally managed land, though just a portion of that land is likely to be developed. The plan also sets aside 5.3 million acres for conservation and 3.8 million acres for recreation, virtually all of which would be closed to energy development.
This part of the overall strategy only deals with public lands in the DRECP area; privately held lands in the area will be covered in a second phase, which has no concrete deadline and is being hammered out as a coordinated effort by federal, state, county and private interests.
An initial, 12,000-page draft of the DRECP was released in fall 2014 and drew wide criticism from most quarters as too unwieldy and vague in what lands it protected. More than 16,000 public comments were received and 11 public meetings were held on that document.
There are clear indications that officials did the right thing and listened to many of the complaints as they drew up this new proposal.
“We took the comments we received very seriously. We went out and looked at stuff on the ground, we pulled up maps, we checked data, we talked to people," Jim Kenna, who until last month led the Bureau of Land Management's California branch, told The Desert Sun’s Sammy Roth in an interview. "We did make changes based on what people said in their comments, to try and get to the best possible plan."
Here are some of those changes:
The Silurian Valley, between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, has been designated for conservation. Officials had previously delayed giving the area a designation.
Parts of the Cadiz Valley and the Eagle Mountain area, which in the draft were not given designations, have been marked for conservation.
The Palen Dunes, which provide sandy habitat for the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, have been removed from a development area in eastern Riverside County. Other parts of the development area have also been removed and designated for conservation, including the McCoy Wash and adjacent microphyll woodlands.
In a small victory for the wind industry — which was one of the draft plan's harshest critics — scattered parcels in the Tehachapi area have been added to a development zone.
An area north of Kramer Junction, for which officials had also put off a decision, has been designated for energy development. The Searles Lake area, on the border of San Bernardino and Inyo counties, has also been added to a development zone.
Another key change: 3.9 million acres being added to the National Landscape Conservation System will be permanently closed to development. Environmental groups had worried that the protection would be fleeting.
Environmentalists have mixed views of the new plan, praising the new clarity on permanent protection for conservation lands while criticizing omission of protection for some areas they deem critical.
Several groups said the Western Mojave Desert should have more conservation areas and fewer development areas in order to offer future protection for species such as desert tortoises which are expected to feel habitat pressure as climate change morphs the ecosystem.
National parks advocates were counting on the document to declare the Soda Mountain area, near Baker, as off limits to energy development.
“They punted on making a decision," David Lamfrom, who works for the National Parks Conservation Association, told Roth. "They’ve delayed making a real decision, which was the whole point of doing this (plan). If we’re going to designate lands for renewables and conservation, why go outside of this process to make this decision?"
Some on the development side also have complaints. Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, criticized the closing of millions of acres to clean energy, while leaving just 388,000 acres open for development. The plan will prevent development on the vast majority of federal lands with strong wind resources, she said.
The plan is now in a protest period that ends in mid-December.
This long drawn-out process appears to have resulted in a workable plan that should help streamline and wisely plot out the future of “green” power in our deserts while protecting the most pristine territories. Officials overseeing Phase II’s strategy for private lands in the massive zone should work to ensure it complements the federal component.
The public, via strong polling, has shown it is behind the idea of a strong master plan to guide energy development and protect sensitive areas of the California Desert. It’s now up to state, county and federal leaders to finish the job.