The DRECP: To Protect or Undo the Desert?

The Department of Interior this week will unveil the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), and it is a big deal.  The DRECP will establish "development focus areas" where the review and approval of large-scale renewable energy projects will be streamlined, and will identify other lands for additional conservation measures.  How much of each - destruction and conservation - and which lands will be affected will be revealed in the draft later this week. 

The DRECP is a big deal because it will propose the most significant changes to how we manage the California desert since Congress first ordered Interior to take better care of the of these lands decades ago.  In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that ordered Interior to establish the California Desert Conservation Area Plan (CDCA) "to provide for the immediate and future protection and administration of the public lands in the California desert within the framework of a program of multiple use and sustained yield, and the maintenance of environmental quality."   Interior finalized this plan in 1980 and it guides the management of over 10 million acres of public lands in the desert.  Depending on what balance the DRECP strikes between conservation and energy development, the DRECP could undermine the original intent of the CDCA Plan by giving one human use undue access to public lands and impair other qualities of the California desert that Congress sought to protect.

The DRECP will drastically alter how the California Desert Conservation Area (highlighted above) will be managed. Map from the DRECP website.
It's Going to Get Loud

The State and Federal agencies presenting the DRECP - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the California Energy Commission (CEC) - are likely to receive an earful no matter what the draft DRECP looks like.  There is historic precedent for what is about to happen.

Although the ecologically illiterate view the desert as a wasteland, it is apparently the most beloved wasteland in existence because there is no question that there are a lot of people passionate about the desert, and a lot of companies that have substantial economic interest in developing the desert.  These intense human demands on the desert are what brought Congress to order the CDCA Plan in the first place, and that plan elicited a vocal response from the public when it was first presented as a draft.

The Silurian Valley in the mid-day sun, north of the highway outpost of Baker, California..  It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of these wildlands.  The Silurian Valley is a vast swath of creosote bush scrub habitat that will either become an industrial zone, or be preserved for future generations under the DRECP.  The high point of the Avawatz Mountains in the distance is over 15 miles from where this photo is taken.  That is more distance than the greatest width of Shenandoah National Park, more than the length of the Yosemite Valley, and nearly twice the width of the San Francisco Peninsula.
Bill Mayhew, a zoologist and founder of the University of California's Natural Reserve System, was a member of a citizens' committee that advised BLM on the creation of the CDCA.  In an April 1980 interview with the Associated Press, Mayhew lamented the onward march of golf courses and subdivisions in the Palm Springs area, and described the CDCA plan as "the only chance we've got...[y]ou can't just have everybody out here doing as they please, not anymore. There's so many people that they just love the desert to death."  Mayhew's research focused on the fringe-toed lizard at the time - a species that continues to face habitat loss and degradation.  Mayhew warned that there would be ongoing conflict over the CDCA Plan across various interest groups.  "There's going to be blood on the floor before this thing's settled."  Then-State Director for the BLM in California Jim Ruch told the Associated Press that the "conflicts that made it necessary for us to prepare this plan in the first place are not going to diminish as time goes on...[t]hey are going to get worse."

So What's New About the DRECP?

The original CDCA Plan was published in 1980 after years of study and public comment, and acknowledged the need to accommodate the growth of renewable energy as one human use among many others that necessitated better management, including recreation, other types of energy generation and transmission, cultural and scenic resources.  The original CDCA Plan published in 1980 did not pretend to solve all of the conflicts, but it did seek to strike a balance among the various uses without granting one industry undue privilege to destroy intact wildlands.  And the authors probably could not imagine hundreds of square miles of the desert being bulldozed for utility-scale energy projects.

Renewable energy appeared to be an insignificant threat to the desert back then.  Other industrial and recreational uses of the desert seemed to be at the forefront of the public debate, and still significant enough to merit Congressional action.  Off-highway vehicle recreation, mining, and fossil fuel power plants spurred widespread concern for the desert landscape.  If you think the concerns expressed in recent CEC hearings for solar power plants are new, take a trip into the archives.  The California Energy Commission in 1981 approved Southern California Edison's plans to build a 1,500 megawatt coal power plant proposed to be built in the Ivanpah Valley (never built), and conditionally approved alternative sites in the Cadiz and Rice Valleys - all locations prized for remote and beautiful desert scenery. A coal power plant belching pollution would have been an unwelcome addition.  In an article published in the Lodi News-Sentinel, a spokesman for Native American tribes echoed a sentiment often heard in response to industrial-scale solar development today - "[w]e don't want coal power plants anywhere on the Mojave" - noting that the desert is "sensitive to religious tribal values." Environmentalists echoed similar concerns about the impacts of off-highway vehicle usage, which etched thousands of miles of tracks and new roads into the desert.

When Interior sought input from the public and other agencies on the creation of the CDCA Plan in the late 1970s, the CEC did communicate the State's desire to develop utility-scale renewable energy projects in the desert.  The BLM noted the CEC's Biennial Report from 1979 as part of the input it used to determine the extent of interest in destroying the desert for energy production, including wind, geothermal and solar projects.  The 1979 Biennial Report projected that in the year 2000 there may be as much as 1,500 megawatts (MW) of wind energy,  2,900 MW of geothermal projects, and 300 MW of solar throughout the State in a "conventional" scenario.  

It will not surprise you to learn that the CEC in 1979 identified wind resource areas in the western Mojave Desert near Tehachapi and the Antelope Valley, Palm Springs, and eastern San Diego County, and geothermal resource areas in the Imperial Valley and north of San Francisco.  Neither the original CDCA Plan nor the 1979 CEC Biennial Report identified specific areas in the desert for solar, but with a target of 300 megawatts that probably would not have been viewed as a challenge to the overall goals of the CDCA Plan.  Today, the DRECP plans to amend the CDCA to accommodate as much as 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects - a substantial increase over original assumptions from 1979.  For the DRECP, the question will ultimately be how many of these megawatts will be sited on already-disturbed lands, on rooftops, or on currently pristine desert wildlands.

A map from the CEC's 1979 Biennial Report depicts the presumed extent of viable geothermal and wind resources in California.  This report was used by the BLM in its consideration of future energy development in the CDCA.  Much less extensive than the energy zones being examined under the DRECP amendment to the CDCA.

Although the CEC's 1979 Biennial Report does not specify how much solar should be built in the desert, it seems quite appropriate to me that the image that immediately follows the wind/geothermal map in the report is that of a rooftop solar installation.  The CEC was on to something.
National Conservation Area or National Industrial Area? 

When the draft DRECP is released, we will see to what degree the Obama administration wants to respect the CDCA as a nationally significant conservation area, or convert the region into an industrial zone.  I am concerned that the DRECP may very well put the thumb on the scale to favor one type of human use - specifically, the for-profit destruction of intact desert wildands by companies that want to build large wind, solar or geothermal energy projects.  If this is the case, it could constitute undue impairment of the qualities of the California desert that Congress sought to protect with the passage of the FLPMA in 1976. 

Congress and Interior in 1976 recognized that the environmental health of the California desert was "seriously threatened" by the growing population of southern California, and the popularity of multiple human uses in the desert, including recreation, mining, energy, and grazing.  The original CDCA Plan attempted to balance all of these competing demands, without giving any single user dominance over the other and while maintaining the overall quality of the environment.

There have been two substantial changes in the energy landscape since 1976 that will be relevant to the DRECP.  First, we recognize that our current energy paradigm is too dependent on fossil fuels and has created a climate crisis that threatens our environment and communities, requiring a rapid switch from fossil fuels to clean energy.  Secondly, technological and economic evolution has made distributed solar generation, energy efficiency, and local energy storage a viable alternative to our fossil fuel addiction.  A shift to renewable energy in 1979 would have essentially required a reliance on utility-scale renewable energy power plants.  Today, policies and incentives can be crafted to ensure that our new energy path is not only renewable, but also sustainable and friendly to wildlands and wildlife.  We will see this week if the DRECP recognizes this opportunity to protect a unique, fragile, and beautiful landscape.

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