New path for conservation and clean energy announced in the California Desert

Trona Pinnacles - A California desert geological wonder.

Photo by Mason Cummings

Broad public input on a plan for the California desert has prompted a new approach to the effort.

In an announcement this past week, government agencies shared a new strategy for moving forward with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a planning effort that partners renewable energy development and conservation in the vast California Desert.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will proceed with its planning for public lands, while private land planning portions in desert counties will be phased in more slowly.  A phased approach for this enormously complex plan makes sense. 

Importance of the DRECP
The DRECP was initiated to help enable the construction of large scale clean energy projects while conserving key desert species such as desert tortoise and bighorn sheep.  As California moves to fight climate change, by producing half of its electricity from clean energy sources, it’s essential that we have a plan in place that balances energy development with conserving the desert’s incredible landscape.  

The public comment period on the draft DRECP closed in late February.  The agencies received over 12,000 comments on the plan, including suggestions from counties, conservationists, residents and recreationists. The Wilderness Society’s comments focused on protecting desert treasures and guiding renewable energy development to the lowest conflict areas. The agencies cited the public comments as a key reason for changing the process.  

Benefits of a Phased Approach
This new approach allows the BLM to move forward with renewable energy and conservation planning on approximately 10 million acres of public land in the California Desert.  It also gives the desert counties more time to finish their own renewable energy plans for private lands, and to work with the California Energy Commission (CEC), state and federal wildlife agencies and others to sync local and federal planning efforts.

Moving forward in a timely manner is important to public lands in the California desert, which are enormously valuable for both renewable energy potential and for the treasure trove of unique wildlife species and habitats in places like Big Morongo Canyon and Chuckwalla Bench.  These lands also contain sensitive cultural areas and geological wonders in places like Silurian Valley and Trona Pinnacles. Our California desert also provides abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, from four-wheel drive tours in Panamint Valley to remote backcountry hiking on Conglomerate Mesa. 

National Conservation Lands in the DRECP
The designation of National Conservation Lands in the California Desert is a critical component of the DRECP.  In 2009, Congress directed the BLM to identify the lands to be managed for conservation, and the BLM has undertaken this task as part of the DRECP.  These National Conservation Lands are meant to ensure that public lands containing natural, cultural, historical and scenic values are preserved for future generations.  These lands are often popular recreation areas too.  The Amargosa River region east of Death Valley, containing extensive wetlands, interesting cultural and geological features and diverse recreational opportunities, is an area that contains these outstanding values.

Protection of BLM conservation lands can also serve as mitigation for the impacts of renewable energy development on public or private lands. 

Prioritizing Low-Conflict Renewable Energy Development in the DRECP
Finding appropriate places for large-scale renewable energy development on both public and private lands will be critical to the success of the DRECP.  It is clear from the comments received on the draft plan that more work needs to be done to fine-tune some of the “Development Focus Areas” proposed for clean energy development.  Ideally, projects should be sited on disturbed areas that are considered “low conflict” for wildlife and other values.  BLM’s siting work on the public lands needs to be carefully coordinated with the CEC and counties to guide projects away from the most treasured, and sensitive, public lands and to more suitable development areas.

We have a unique opportunity at the Salton Sea to show just how clean energy development and conservation can go hand in hand.  The Salton Sea, where a Development Focus Area is identified in the DRECP, is a known geothermal resource area and also contains high solar development potential. Counties with jurisdiction at the Salton Sea are keenly interested in partnering development with conservation here, creating needed jobs, generating clean energy and funneling some of the monies generated from development back into restoration.

The DRECP is an enormously important initiative in one of the nation’s largest and most important landscapes.  It’s worth taking the time to do it right. When completed, the DRECP will be a landmark plan for conservation and appropriately-sited clean energy development in the west. The new approach is welcome.