Monday, October 13, 2014

DRECP Spotlight: Conservation Designations

My last couple of Spotlights focused on how the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan designates areas where large-scale renewable energy projects will be considered and fast-tracked, including development focus areas (DFAs), special analysis areas, and future assessment areas.  In an attempt to balance this destruction with conservation, the DRECP also identifies lands to be protected from various forms of destruction.  The types of DRECP conservation designations for lands in the California desert vary depending on whether the land is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or private (non-federal).

BLM Conservation Designations

While the DRECP bestows conservation designations on some key BLM lands in the California desert,  the designations may not be very durable because they can be lifted in a future revision of a BLM land use plan.   This is particularly troubling because the projects built on DFAs will leave their mark on the landscape and ecosystem for generations after the projects are eventually dismantled, but conservation designations may be vulnerable to shifting policy priorities and economic pressures even within the next few years.  BLM State Director Jim Kenna, however, assured the public that it would be very difficult to remove the conservation designations, according to the Desert Sun.

For lands administered by the BLM, conservation designations include 1.) National Landscape Conservation System lands (NLCS) , 2.) Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" (ACEC), and 3.) Wildlife Allocations.   Of these three, the BLM would presumably need to meet a higher bar for removing NLCS status from lands in the future because Congress asked the BLM to identify which lands in the California desert meet the criteria for addition to the NLCS (Section 2002 of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009).  Because NLCS designations are considered to be the "crown jewels" of the BLM, removing NLCS status probably would attract extra scrutiny in the future.    The draft DRECP makes clear, however, that these are administrative designations and can be undone through future administrative actions (page II.3-314 of Volume II of the DRECP).

ACECs, on the other hand, have been removed from the California desert over the history of the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) plan.  For example, eight years after the original CDCA Plan was published, a plan revision deleted two ACECs originally designated to protect culturally significant sites because those cultural artifacts could not be found during surveys in 1987.  That said, more acres of ACECs have been added than deleted from the CDCA since 1980.

Conservation for Non-Federal Lands

In the case of private lands, areas deemed ecologically important will be known as "Conservation Planning Areas."   Unlike the BLM's conservation designations where renewable energy development will not be allowed, designations on non-federal lands will serve more as guidelines for future conservation easements that will probably depend in large part on "mitigation" funding from projects that destroy desert habitat elsewhere in California.  Protecting these lands will be more difficult because no single entity owns or controls them. This has been, and will continue to be a key weakness of conservation planning in the California desert - non-federal lands have facilitated the urban sprawl that has resulted in the loss of vast stretches of desert habitat without much consideration for the intrinsic value of protecting open wildlands.

For example, wildlife linkages connecting the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests to the Mojave Desert will not be possible to protect without the cooperation of landowners near Lucerne Valley and El Mirage Valley.   The same goes for open desert around the Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, where the many parcels of private land - if developed - would interrupt wildlife linkages.  It will be up to local communities to press the respective municipalities and counties to designate and enforce zoning and planning that protects these open spaces.

Open desert west of Phelan and surrounding Palmdale - like this area pictured above - is partially fragmented with residential development and roads, but some remaining open lands are designated as conservation planning areas.  How quickly these lands are purchased and set aside for conservation will depend on the availability of mitigation funds from projects that destroy habitat elsewhere in the desert, or from often undependable funding from federal and state conservation grants.

Acquiring Ecologically Important Private Lands

The DRECP identifies "conservation priority areas" that will be considered first for purchasing private lands to protect key wildlife habitat and linkages.  As I mentioned earlier, this funding is most likely to come from mitigation fees charged to project developers.  However, the draft DRECP also notes that some government funding could also support the purchase of private lands for conservation (page II.3-293, Volume II).  Potential Federal funding sources include the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Fish and Wildlife Service's Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund HCP Land Acquisition Grants.  State funding sources may include the California Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and state tax credits that provide an incentive for landowners to donate land or accept conservation easements.

However, these conservation funding sources probably are not going to be reliable year-to-year, so progress in protecting wildlife habitat on non-federal lands is likely to be slow.  Without community cooperation, it seems likely that conservation efforts on non-federal lands will be outpaced by destruction for a variety of human uses.

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