Editorial: Desert plan balances energy needs, conservation

(Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

The desert is hot right now — and not just because it’s August. Two proposals for managing California’s deserts are entering crucial stages, and a third just popped up.

The one that covers the largest footprint is the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which would apply to much of the desert portions of six counties — San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside, Inyo, Kern, Imperial and San Diego. This 9.8 million-acre plan, as big as that sounds, actually has been scaled down, not only in acreage but also in scope and inter-agency collaboration.

The objective of the DRECP is to provide a streamlined process for development of utility-scale renewable energy projects while at the same time providing conservation and management of endangered and threatened species, natural communities and cultural and scenic resources.

The idea is that certain swaths of the desert essentially would be “zoned” for big energy projects, while other, more sensitive areas would be zoned for conservation of natural resources. Any company that wants to put a project within those designated areas would get expedited permissions, avoiding some of the usual hoops and obstacles that such a venture faces.

It makes sense, which is why we endorsed the planning process last year. At that point the draft DRECP was a collaboration of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The plan was supposed to cover state and private lands as well as federal lands.

But considerable pushback — including from San Bernardino County — prompted a change in course in March to a phased approach. So the federal piece, covering the 9.8 million acres under BLM management — including 5.8 million acres in San Bernardino County — is moving ahead as Phase 1, giving the state and counties more time to develop their own planning.

Now officials are choosing among five alternative versions of the DRECP — six, counting the option of leaving the lands’ management as it is.

The “Preferred Alternative” is a good balance of energy and conservation needs. It identifies more than 2 million acres of development focus areas (DFAs) for energy projects, including 456,000 acres on public and confers National Conservation Lands status on nearly 4 million acres of BLM-managed lands.

However, conservation groups are right to be concerned about some vagueness in the way BLM is looking at the land it plans to add to the National Conservation Lands System under the DRECP. In the final plan, that designation should be permanent, as it is throughout the rest of the system — subject to undoing only by an act of Congress. And no new mining claims should be permitted on that conservation-designated land.

All existing, valid mining claims will continue in any case, unaffected by the DRECP.

As we mentioned, there are two other major proposals affecting our deserts.

One is an expansion of Joshua Tree National Park. We weighed in on that one recently, favoring the largest proposed addition of land to the park.

The other is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recent request for President Obama to designate three new national monuments in the desert. Our board will look at that proposal in coming weeks.

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Desert lands deserve permanent protection

(Victorville Daily Press, Frazier Haney)

After living and working in the California desert for 20 years, with its breathtaking vistas, iconic wildlife and priceless cultural artifacts, I know that it’s a one-of-a- kind place. Residents and visitors to the desert can enjoy the oases in Big Morongo Canyon that draws migrating birds, hike around the striking 250-foot volcanic cone of Amboy Crater or hunt for fossils and geodes.

California desert public lands support important watersheds, as well as unique plants and animals like majestic bighorn sheep and Joshua trees that draw visitors from around the world. Our desert lands are also a fragile landscape, easily scarred and slow to heal.

California has a goal to obtain one-third of our energy from renewable energy sources by 2020. In the desert, we’re seeing interest and urgency in developing new wind and solar farms. This new intensive land use is in addition to existing uses, like off highway vehicle use, mining and military training. With the fragile landscapes in our region it is incredibly important that we find a balance between the various uses of the lands. We need a plan to map out unique and important lands to set aside for conservation, and to designate locations for renewable energy development in areas with the least conflict.

That is the intention behind the DRECP, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which will affect over 10 million acres of California desert public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management is handling this process, and as a part of identifying places that will be developed for renewable energy, also has a mandate from Congress to designate public lands in our California desert as part of the National Conservation Lands. Across the U.S., these lands are a spectacular collection of landscapes, rivers and trails in which visitors can experience the American West.

The DRECP is not yet a done deal — indeed, there is still much to be decided. For one thing, it is very important that BLM designate the lands for conservation as permanently protected. This has not yet been confirmed — but was the original intention behind the Congressional mandate. It should be our legacy to pass on these lands to future generations to enjoy. A bipartisan poll conducted by FM3 and Public Opinion Strategies in June shows that by a ratio of 2 to 1, California desert residents support the planning effort, particularly if it avoids pristine landscapes and directs development towards already disturbed lands.

Furthermore, there are certain areas in the California desert that are important for mining. But the lands set aside for conservation in the DRECP should be managed as all other National Conservation Lands — protected from new mining. This action would not affect existing rights and interests, or the ability for rockhounds to collect on the surface inside existing limits. Based on the recent poll, by a margin of almost 2 to 1, local residents believe that mining should not occur on lands set aside for conservation. And, by that same margin, desert residents believe that solar and wind power should be located on already-disturbed lands.

If we get the DRECP right, in several decades we will enjoy the fruits of good planning. We’ll have renewable energy, but not at the cost of our precious desert landscapes. We’ll have a path forward with fewer conflicts about land use. And our children’s children will get to grow up with one of the most important pieces of our heritage — our open spaces and lands.

I encourage the Bureau of Land Management to produce a plan for our region that will guide appropriate renewable energy development while also permanently protecting our treasured landscapes. We need a balanced, science-based plan for our community. If they do this right, our region and our lands will thrive.

—Frazier Haney is conservation director at the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

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