Sen. Feinstein Introduces Legislation to Protect California Desert While Accommodating Renewable Energy Development

Dec 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES — Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation today to preserve the spectacular heritage of the California desert by creating two new National Monuments and expanding Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve. The bill would establish new wilderness areas in Death Valley National Park and on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service. Finally, the legislation would also establish a permitting process for all renewable energy projects on BLM land.

The legislation, the California Desert Protection Act of 2010, will preserve nearly 1.5 million acres of federal public lands that are essential for recreation, wildlife habitat and water resources. The Act will also safeguard historic trails and Native American cultural areas. The new monuments will be important additions to the National Landscape Conservation System and expansion of the National Parks and Preserve will continue the tradition of protecting these national treasures.

“We thank Senator Feinstein for this landmark step to preserve our spectacular desert heritage,” said Dan Smuts, deputy regional director at The Wilderness Society. “The sands are shifting in the desert, it’s a landscape now threatened by intense development pressures. We must act while we still have time.”

The renewable energy provisions of the legislation include efforts to improve permitting of wind and solar energy projects on public and private lands. Strong provisions affirming the government’s authority to reject poorly-sited projects, direct new revenues to important land acquisition programs, and order environmental reviews of renewable energy development on Forest Service and military lands are key inclusions.

“Senator Feinstein’s legislation acknowledges the important role the public lands will play in helping the country confront climate change,” said Chase Huntley, TWS policy advisor on energy and climate change. “This bill is a step toward responsibly fitting renewable energy development alongside the many other expectations we have for our landscapes, including wilderness protection, wildlife habitat, and historic areas.”

The BLM is currently assessing the suitability of 351,000 acres in the California desert for potential renewable energy development. This acreage is significantly more than experts estimate is needed to meet the state renewable energy goal. Also, the BLM is moving forward with key projects across the west that will result in 5,300 megawatts of new wind, solar, and geothermal power. Neither the BLM study areas nor any of the projects in process are precluded by the land designations in Senator Feinstein’s proposal. Further, no designated energy transmission corridor would be adversely affected.

As the bill moves through the legislative process, The Wilderness Society looks forward to working with Senator Feinstein, other members of the Senate and House, and the Obama administration to make necessary clarifications and improvements to the bill.

The California desert is a landscape of diverse and scenic contrasts found nowhere else on Earth. From pastel mountain peaks to hidden springs, from world-famous wildflowers and Joshua tree forests to majestic herds of bighorn sheep, Americans have long sought refuge in its beauty.

The desert’s iconic scenery is also a boon to the region’s tourism and recreation economy. Visitors spend more than $230 million annually on outdoor recreation in the California desert, according to federal data, and Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks attract nearly three million visitors each year.