Final Plans for Public Lands Portion of DRECP Introduce Ambiguity

The Department of Interior on Tuesday released the final environmental impact statement for the first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which significantly alters the land use planning for public lands administered by Interior in the California desert.  Although the final version expands conservation designations that were popular in the draft DRECP,  it also seems to introduce uncertainty for nearly 802,000 acres of "unallocated" lands that are neither part of conservation nor a development designation.  The public has 30 days to submit any concerns regarding the final draft before it is made official by a Record of Decision.

Subtle Change Has Significant Impacts

If you looked at the draft DRECP released for public comment late last year you probably paid attention to where large-scale energy development would be allowed, and where it would not.  After all, it is the added threat posed by utility-scale energy development to public lands that prompted the plan in the first place.  You probably looked at the maps showing where Development Focus Areas and variance lands would streamline renewable energy development.  Under the draft DRECP these were the only places where new utility-scale power plants could be built. Other areas - public lands with conservation designations and lands considered "non-designated" - would not allow new large-scale renewable energy generation (see below, page II.3-426 of the draft DRECP).

So it was a surprise to find that the final DRECP opened those "non-designated" lands to renewable energy development.  The final DRECP now calls these lands "unallocated" and they cover 802,000 acres of desert wildlands.  This subtle change nearly doubles the amount of acreage vulnerable to utility-scale energy development, adding to the 428,000 acres of development focus areas and variance lands designated for streamlined renewable energy development.

The final DRECP suggests that renewable energy projects on unallocated lands will not benefit from the streamlining features of the development focus areas, but experience over the past couple of years indicates that energy developers are willing to move forward with project proposals outside of designated development zones.  Some management prescriptions included in the final DRECP could be used to deny industrial development on unallocated lands, but they appear to be written vaguely enough to give wide discretion to permit substantial energy development outside of the development focus areas.  Interior has not signaled how it intends to screen projects proposed on these lands.  Please see the map below for the locations of unallocated lands in the final DRECP.

The resulting combination of development focus areas, variance lands, and unallocated lands provides more acreage to energy development than the California portion of the Solar Programmatic EIS.  In some cases, areas identified as solar energy exclusion areas under the Programmatic EIS could now be re-opened to energy companies.  For example, the former site of the proposed Calico Solar power project south of the Cady Mountains - identified as an exclusion area under the Programmatic EIS - appears to be among the unallocated lands potentially available to solar energy development.

Conservation Lands Given Some Durability

The final DRECP does try to clarify concerns the public expressed after release of the draft regarding the durability of the National Conservation Lands designation (NCL, also known as the National Landscape Conservation System or NLCS).  Interior clarified that they considered the NCL designations established in the final DRECP to be permanent.  However, the final DRECP indicates that Interior will always exercise the discretion to change how the National Conservation Lands are managed.

The final DRECP bestows conservation designations to many of the public lands in the California desert through NCL designations and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).  The vast majority of public comments on the draft DRECP released last year expressed a desire to extend these designations to more of the desert.  Although Interior expanded some NCL designations in the final DRECP, it still seems that Interior was conservative in designating NCL status.  Vast tracts of public lands in the western Mojave are left out of the National Landscape Conservation System.

The most notable changes in the final DRECP include the removal of the potential development area in the Silurian Valley and the extension of NCL status to more wildlands in the Cadiz Valley and around Iron Mountain.  Although ACEC designations are extended to other areas of the desert and limit industrial-scale development, ACEC's can be rolled back during future administrative revisions of the land use plan.
The Silurian Valley has been designated as National Conservation Lands after Interior discarded a proposed development area here. Avawatz Mountains in the distance.


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