Desert blueprint should strengthen, protect Conservation Lands from mining

(Sacramento Bee, Doug Wheeler)

In all the years I’ve been involved with natural resource and environmental issues in California, land conservation and energy development have been priorities for the Golden State. Today, California stands as a leader in both realms: we have one of the most ambitious renewable energy goals in the world, and we continue to lead the nation in protecting our natural areas.

As a state with a growing population and new demands for energy, California continues to be challenged to balance conservation with energy production. This is especially important given the demand for new, large-scale solar and wind facilities in the California desert, which holds pristine natural areas, iconic wildlife and valuable watersheds for the region.

California is at a crossroads, given that the state is looking to increase reliance on renewable energy and implement sustainable land use. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is the mechanism to combine these goals in a particularly sensitive ecosystem: the fragile California desert.

The plan is a landscape-level approach to providing permanent protection to the desert’s public lands while also identifying areas where development of renewable energy will conflict least with natural or cultural values.

It became apparent early in my tenure as resources secretary that California’s extraordinary biodiversity could not be adequately protected one species at a time. Conservation biologists have concluded that the protection of entire ecosystems, rather than single species, is the most effective conservation strategy.

That is why the federal government and state planners have worked for years in the California desert to find common ground with counties, conservation groups and energy developers to craft a plan that meets our needs and takes a landscape-scale approach to resource management. The plan is now in its final stages. I am hopeful that a balanced plan can be adopted – one that protects wildlife, meets our energy needs and protects the private property rights of citizens.

While the planners have gotten a lot right so far, there are several critical issues that remain to be addressed.

As part of the plan, the Bureau of Land Management is identifying lands in the California desert that should be permanently protected as National Conservation Lands. The National Conservation Lands protect habitat for wildlife and are open areas for the public to enjoy – they’re the crown jewels of iconic public lands in the West.

Unfortunately, as the plan stands now, none of the protected California desert lands in it would be off limits to mining. Without a doubt, that is a mistake. I urge BLM to consider including a time-bound plan for removing these lands from mining and other industrial development in their final plan. This is especially important in desert areas that are home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, golden eagles and watersheds that support other sensitive wildlife.

There are also a few special lands not allocated for any specific use yet in BLM’s near-final plan. I greatly encourage BLM to consider designating Lower Centennial Flat, with its nursery of young Joshua trees and important cultural resources for the local Paiute and the Timbisha Shoshone tribes, as part of the National Conservation Lands. Bristol Valley and the Big Maria Mountains are also exceptional lands that should be set aside as National Conservation Lands.

The BLM has a unique opportunity to develop a balanced Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan that will help California thrive. This blueprint for the California desert can help us meet our state renewable energy goals and protect remarkable natural features and wildlife in the California desert – our legacy for future generations. Let’s get it right.

Doug Wheeler was California Secretary for Natural Resources from 1991 to 1999.

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Editorial: The government should expand protections for California’s deserts

(Los Angeles Times)

Anyone who has driven through the California deserts — especially those who have wandered away from the freeways — has experienced the subtle majesty of vast open spaces, of the arroyos that wind back to jagged steep-sided mountains and of the magnificent plants and wildlife that thrive despite the low water, intense heat and relentless sun. The world tends to think of California nature in terms of beaches and redwoods and mountains, Big Sur and the Sierra Nevada, but the deserts are also part of who we are.

There are two movements afoot that would help expand conservation protections in the deserts while also allowing for development of solar, wind and geothermal energy. Both deserve support.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has for years sought to expand federal protection to land that wasn’t included in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which covered nearly 7.6 million acres, elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national parks and created the Mojave National Preserve. But her more recent legislation to establish two new national monuments and expand the Mojave National Preserve has gained no traction in a Congress that has been slow, to put it charitably, to designate additional conservation lands and parks. So Feinstein and conservation groups are petitioning President Obama to use his power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the monuments, and to expand the covered areas even beyond her legislative proposal.

The president should grant her request. Feinstein has asked for creation of a Mojave Trails National Monument, which would connect the Mojave National Preserve with Joshua Tree, adding protections to federal lands that encompass sweeping vistas as well as habitats for such species as the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. The monument would also include  the Cadiz Valley, which contains dunes and the remnants of training grounds used by Gen. George Patton’s armored divisions before they deployed during World War II, and culturally and wildlife-rich areas in the Sacramento Mountains. Feinstein also has asked Obama to create a Sand to Snow National Monument, which would include 135,000 acres between Joshua Tree and the San Bernardino Mountains as well as the Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa (holding 1,700 petroglyphs and several natural springs). And she wants the picturesque, habitat-heavy Castle Mountains, which were omitted from the 1994 Desert Protection Act because an active gold mine was located there, to be designated a national monument now that the mine has closed.

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Desert blueprint should protect conservation lands from mining

(The Sun, Greg Hill)

Southern California is home to some of America’s greatest natural wonders, including the California desert. Growing up in the Inland Empire, I spent many wonderful family trips in California’s public lands and parks, but it was the vast beauty and mystery of the desert that particularly inspired me. Experiencing the desert’s wonders planted a seed that would lead to my life’s work as a public servant.

Last year, I retired after working more than 30 years for the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, much of that time spent working in the California Desert Conservation Area. In the last chapter of my time at the BLM, I worked on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a historic effort to plan for the future of the California desert’s public lands. The DRECP is a blueprint for the desert that designates public lands for protection while also identifying appropriate areas for the potential development of renewable energy.

This blueprint is vital because over the last two decades, interest in renewable energy projects in the California desert has surged and the scale of proposed energy projects has grown. When BLM began to plan for renewable energy in the California desert, it became clear we needed a framework with a strong land conservation vision that works together with potential renewable energy developments.

We are now nearing the end of this important planning process. After seven years and thousands of public comments and input, the BLM released a near-final and much improved plan for the desert in November. As someone who knows these mountains and valleys intimately, I believe that the DRECP is critical to the future of California’s desert and our state as a whole. It’s also an innovative approach to a new problem that can serve as a model for other regions in California.

One of the great successes of this process will be the permanent protection of public lands that connect many of our existing wilderness and other special areas. These new protected areas will be included in the BLM’s National Conservation Lands, a collection of spectacular landscapes, rivers and trails that span the American West. These lands in the desert are well deserving of National Conservation Land status as they hold treasures like forests of Joshua trees, unique desert wildlife, and significant cultural sites.

As the process to develop the DRECP comes to a close, I encourage the BLM to continue pursuing every opportunity for land conservation. Already, great progress has been made on this front. Some of the lands designated for conservation in the DRECP do, however, remain susceptible to industrial development such as mining. While honoring valid existing rights, I urge the BLM to request from the secretary of the Interior withdrawal of these National Conservation Lands from future mining. When the plan is finalized this spring, I and many others hope to see a time-bound plan for withdrawing these lands from future industrial development. After all, mining in the special places set aside for conservation in the DRECP would undermine this innovative blueprint for the California desert.

I often think back to my family’s visits to the desert in my early years. Much has changed in our region since then, from increased air pollution to greater development. But time moves at a different pace in the desert. Geological changes are measured not in months or years, but in centuries. We would do well to protect the California desert so that future generations may enjoy the vast and timeless beauty of these spectacular landscapes. I believe that the DRECP is the blueprint that our region needs for this special place.

Greg Hill retired in 2015 after serving for 32 years with the Department of the Interior, most recently as the wilderness specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District. He resides in Yucca Valley.

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