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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