(Suzanne Potter, Public News Service)

September 15,2016

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.

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(Jenny Rowland, Think Progress)

September 15,2016

The plan was well-received by conservation groups, while solar advocates said more land should have been set aside for energy.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell approved Wednesday a plan to set aside 10.8 million acres of public land in the California desert for mostly conservation — with a dash of renewable energy.

Nearly a decade in the making, phase one of the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan, or DRECP, provides a blueprint to help meet ambitious state and national climate goals and to site new solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects.

“Today we celebrate the culmination of more than eight years of thoughtful planning, deep collaboration, and extensive public engagement to guide future management of 10 million acres of California desert that belong to all Americans,” said Secretary Jewell in Palm Desert on Wednesday. “This landscape-level plan will support streamlined renewable energy development in the right places while protecting sensitive ecosystems, preserving important cultural heritage and supporting outdoor recreation opportunities.”

The plan sets aside less than 388,000 acres for renewable energy development — on land that has been found to have the least possible conflict with conservation priorities. The plan will also streamline the permitting process for clean energy development, such as wind and solar projects, because environmental surveying has already been conducted in these zones.

Under the DRECP, this land has the potential to generate up to 27,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, enough to power 8 million homes — three times the amount of solar energy that has been produced on public lands to date.

In addition to land dedicated to clean energy development, the plan sets aside millions of acres of conservation lands, with about 2.8 million acres permanently protected as National Conservation Lands and others reauthorized or expanded as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. This mix of protected lands will provide critical wildlife habitat, along with providing recreation opportunities and preserving cultural areas.

“The California desert offers some of the best renewable energy resources in the world, but it is also home to historic trails, ancient Native American petroglyphs, and remarkable wildlife like bighorn sheep and desert tortoise,” Dan Smuts, senior director at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “The finalization of phase one of the DRECP demonstrates to the entire nation that through intelligent planning, we can provide renewable energy solutions and protect our cherished wild lands.”

A primary aim of the proposal is to address climate change. The lands contained within the plan are not only some of the best locations for solar energy, recent studies have found the desert ecosystem stores enormous amounts of carbon buried as calcium carbonate in the soil. Conservation areas will prevent disturbance of the soil, which could release carbon into the atmosphere.

The plan is the product of years of collaboration and compromise between federal and state governments, renewable energy companies, conservationists, local communities, and other stakeholders.

However, not everyone is happy with the compromise. The Solar Energy Industry Association criticized the plan for favoring conservation goals and not going far enough in permitting lands for development. Meanwhile, some conservation groups are arguing that more should be done to protect the California desert’s vulnerabilities to climate change.

“The plan protects millions of sensitive acres from development, while welcoming renewable energy development in areas that make sense,” David J Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement. “Hats off to BLM and its partners in California who, after participating in a vigorous public process, have laid out a plan that honors conservation imperatives, while providing new opportunities for Californians to increase renewable energy production in sun-rich southern California.”

The announcement was part of a three-state tour from the Department of the Interior promoting renewable energy on public lands and waters. The DRECP is one part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which calls on the department to permit 20,000 MW of renewable power by 2020. Since 2009, the department has permitted enough utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands to power approximately 5.1 million homes.

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(Inland News Today)

September 18,2016

PALM DESERT – (INT) – Federal and state officials have completed the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

It seeks to strike a balance for development and conservation on public lands across California’s Desert, mostly in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The Plan has identified the lowest conflict areas for renewable energy development that exceed what is needed for the State’s climate change targets.

Winning protection for both wildlife and people are such unique desert landscapes as the Chuckwalla Bench,. the Chemehuevi Valley in the eastern Mojave, the Silurian Valley, Amargosa Basin, and the Yuha Desert.

“Many landscapes in the California Desert are a patchwork of public and private lands. While we can invest to protect private lands through purchase in conservation areas, it is critical that adjacent public lands are protected as well. Working across these boundaries creates a cohesive, connected ecosystem,” said Frazier Haney, Conservation Director for the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

The plan covers 10 million acres of public lands and creates energy development zones at locations where solar, wind and geothermal projects would least harm wildlife and other natural resources.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was in Palm Desert Wednesday where she announced approval of the plan.

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(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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(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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(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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(Los Angeles Times)

After more than six years of analysis, debate and draft proposals, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is close to issuing its final plan for nearly 10 million acres that it controls in the California desert, designating sections for recreation, industry, conservation and renewable energy production. If its most recent “preferred option” prevails, this will be a strong blueprint for the future, protecting the desert’s most pristine and environmentally significant land while making good use of perhaps its best natural resource — abundant sun for solar energy. But one thing has been missing in the BLM’s plan so far: a guarantee that the conserved lands will be protected permanently, as such lands have been everywhere else in the country.

Environmentalists expect the BLM’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan to set aside about a third of its acreage for conservation — 3.5 million acres of land in seven southern California counties. This portion of the acreage is home to iconic species such as the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, and is the site of petroglyphs and other important historical and archaeological treasures. Slightly less than a tenth of the total land — close to 1 million acres — would be zoned for energy development, largely solar. A second phase of the desert plan, being developed by county and city governments for the areas over which they have jurisdiction, is expected to provide more land for energy development.

But the BLM has been troublingly vague about its long-term intentions for the land placed in conservation; indeed, there have been hints that it would only be protected for 25 years. It shouldn’t be. Under a 2009 federal law, the BLM’s National Conservation Lands are set aside for permanent protection.

The law didn’t name any specific land within the area covered by the BLM’s desert plan because the process of examining that land for preservation was just beginning. But it did include more general wording that says “public land within the California Desert Conservation Area administered by the Bureau of Land Management for conservation purposes” is to be permanently preserved. The law’s intention is clear. If that land needs to be removed from protection later on, Congress always has the power to do that.

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(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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(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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