(Suzanne Potter, Public News Service)
Mojave Trails National Preserve is protected under the new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan finalized Wednesday.
PALM DESERT, Calif. — A deal on conservation and renewable energy between the state of California and federal agencies that was eight years in the making is now a reality.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signed the record of decision finalizing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan on Wednesday in Palm Desert.
The plan covers nearly 11 million acres of land and protects wide swaths of habitat while setting aside specific areas for wind, solar and geothermal energy projects to be expedited.
Dan Smuts, senior director at The Wilderness Society, said that there was a movement in recent years for investors to snap up random parcels of land for energy development.
“We’re moving from a project-by-project-level proposal process that has led to scattershot development across the desert, toward a zoned approach where they identify least-conflict places at the start of the process,” Smuts said. “We call this smart from the start.”
President Obama declared three new national monuments in the area: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. But the administration has also made it a priority to promote renewable energy on federal public lands.
As of a few years ago, project applications covered more than 1.6 million acres of land. Helen O’Shea, director of the Western Renewable Energy Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the projects will now be concentrated in development focus areas.
“It’s encouraging developers to go there by streamlining the development process,” O’Shea said. “So that if you go to one of these development focus areas, you will actually be able to move your project through permitting quicker. And when you can build quicker, it’s also cheaper.”
Frazier Haney, conservation director with the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said he was glad to see that the plan designated an additional 2.8 million acres of new national conservation land.
“The desert contains 28 percent of the state’s land mass but over 35 percent of its biodiversity,” Haney said. “It’s a place of incredible beauty and it’s a place of tremendous variety both for human exploration but also for science.”
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan takes into account the entire desert landscape, emphasizing corridors to connect wildlife and protection of lands crucial to species’ ability to adapt to climate change.