California Desert Policy Makeover Nears Release

Updated to include correct version of Alternative 3 map

California's deserts are about to undergo the most sweeping land management policy transformation since the California Desert Conservation Area Plan was implemented in 1980, which itself was a response to Federal legislation passed in 1976.  The Renewable Energy Action Team -- a Federal and State of California inter-agency cohort formed to facilitate utility-scale solar and wind projects in the California desert while attempting to protect habitat and wildlife -- issued a series of documents in December that outline the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). The documents provide more details on potential conservation measures and "development focus areas," which would significantly alter land designations for millions of acres in the California Desert Conservation Area.  The documents released do not identify which of the six action alternatives is favored by the REAT agencies, however, keeping us in suspense until a preferred alternative is announced later this year.

The DRECP will have a more extensive impact on how we manage desert lands and guide renewable energy development than the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development Program, which is a broad policy finalized last year that created "solar energy zones" throughout the southwestern United States.   The Solar Energy Development Program failed to contain industrial sprawl on wildlands, however, by allowing energy developers access to public land outside of the energy zones using a land designation known as "variance lands." Some conservationists argued for Washington to consider an alternative that would focus renewable energy development on rooftops or already-disturbed land, while others hoped the Solar Energy Development Program would restrict industrial development only to the zones.  Neither happened, essentially leaving us with the status quo of unchecked industrial speculation on public lands.

Extensive Conservation and Development Designations
The DRECP will identify additional areas for energy development outside of the solar energy zones identified in the earlier Solar Energy Development Program, but it will also change land use plans to protect wildlife and recreational areas in the desert in an attempt to address public concern about the scale of potential energy development and its negative impacts.

I outlined the DRECP alternatives under consideration in a previous blog post showing the extent of "development focus areas".  The action alternatives offer six different energy development scenarios, ranging from 1.12 million to nearly 2.3 million acres of development focus areas, some of which encompass the solar energy zones already identified in the earlier Solar Energy Development Program. Some of the alternatives would concentrate development on already-disturbed lands, while others would encourage industrial development on remote desert areas well beyond the solar energy zones.

The wide open desert expanse of the Silurian Valley, pictured above, would be turned into a development focus area under some of the more destructive alternatives considered under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.  The Avawatz Mountains are pictured in the distance.
The documents released in December give us a better sense of the range of conservation designations that might accompany the development focus areas.  The conservation designations range from 3 million to over 5 million acres of new areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC) and National Landscape Conservation System status, in addition to existing protections.  Generally speaking, the more aggressive development scenarios are paired with more aggressive conservation designations for remaining wild lands. The more destructive development scenarios include significant sacrifices by accepting the Solar Energy Development Program's insidious "variance lands," including intact desert habitat in the Silurian Valley, along the historic Route 66, and east of the Imperial sand dunes. The degree to which the DRECP corrects for the Solar Energy Development Plan's deficiencies will depend in large part on how much the final alternative will abandon the variance lands and instead enact conservation measures to protect habitat connectivity.

Depending on which alternative is chosen, new areas of critical environmental concern and National Conservation Lands would preserve critical habitat linkages not currently protected, as well as culturally important sites, including remnants of a Native American turquoise mine and signs of human in habitation in one of the harshest climates on Earth near Death Valley, and provide additional buffer to the Manzanar National Historic Site to preserve the stories of Japanese American internment during World War II.

The map below shows one of the more aggressive development alternatives, Alternative 5, that would open the most amount of land to development, including remote and intact desert habitat.  Notice that the map also includes extensive designation of ACEC and National Land Conservation System designation, presumably an effort to  balance the extensive development areas.

The DRECP Alternative 3, shown below, tries to focus energy development on already-disturbed lands and desert habitat in the western reaches of the Mojave Desert.

Are Conservation Measures Durable? 
One of the key questions for the DRECP is how durable are the conservation designations?  The most durable designations Washington can apply to treasured landscapes include National Park status (requiring Congressional action), National Monuments (Presidential or Congressional action) and Wilderness (Congressional action).  We will not see these designations in the DRECP because the alternatives amend land use plans through Department of Interior policies, which are limited to ACEC and National Land Conservation System (NLCS) designations.  Interior believes the NLCS designation may be the most durable, although conservationists warn that both NLCS and ACEC designations can be undone in future land use plan amendments. 

Can I Provide Public Comment?
The DRECP documents released in December were provided as a sneak peak to help sensitize the public to the direction of the policy drafting, so they were not part of the official environmental review that should be released later in 2013.  But you can follow and provide input to the DRECP planning process through the DRECP website.  Stay tuned for the release of the environmental review documents for the official opportunity to provide public comment.  No specific date has been provided yet, but the participant agencies expect the documents to be released sometime in 2013.


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