Environment & Science

Millions of acres of California desert are now closer to protection

A young mesquite plant grows in the desert of the Coachella Valley.
A young mesquite plant grows in the desert of the Coachella Valley.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Millions of acres of California desert would be permanently protected from development under a plan released on Tuesday by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The proposed plan also designates 388,000 acres of land as “development focus areas” for possible wind, solar and geothermal projects.

“This plan will bring increased certainty to developers and communities, achieving a thoughtful balance between development and conservation,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Jewell said the balanced approach taken in developing the plan would give clearer guidelines for those seeking to develop projects within the desert. 

“With landscape level planning, smart-from-the-start development, we move away from a reactive, project-by-project approach to more predictable and effective management,” Jewell said. “This is good for renewable energy operators, and it’s good for land managers.”

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) has been in the works for more than five years. Last March, officials announced they would change how they pursued development plans for the 22.5 million acres of desert in the project after widespread criticism of a draft plan

The proposed land use plan amendment and final environmental impact statement released on Tuesday pertains to public lands, 10 million acres of which the BLM holds. A second phase would pertain to 12.5 million acres of privately held land. The details of that plan are currently being worked out by counties in and around the desert.

Under the BLM plan, 5.3 million acres of public land would be conserved, with 3.9 million acres designated as National Conservation Lands, a status that provides permanent protection from development. Another 3.8 million acres would be designated as recreation areas. 

Many conservation groups expressed support for the proposed plan and the considerations it gave to protection and renewable energy development.

“We are thrilled that they’re using this approach,” said Laura Crane, associate director for the land program for the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Taking that kind of approach across California is the way that we will meet ever-higher renewable energy goals and yet protect the other things that we care about."

Others said the plan would be a vital part of meeting the requirement that the state receive half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

“As California has moved toward a 50 percent renewables goal, I think it’s really important that efforts like the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan proceed along with other planning that’s occurring in the Central Valley. We need to continue to push for rooftop solar, demand-side reduction, and DRECP is part of the solution there,” said Sally Miller, California Conservation representative for the Wilderness Society.

Though many conservation groups consider the proposed plan a positive step, some misgivings remain. Miller said her group would be closely analyzing the proposed plan in coming days to determine which locations currently left out of the conservation areas that they would like included in the protections. The proposed plan leaves 800,000 acres unallocated.

Other groups expressed concern that some existing protections seem to have been removed under the final proposal.

“It does open ... some areas in the West Mojave Desert for renewable energy development and other types of development. And that’s very troubling to us, because the West Mojave’s a very important area for wildlife conservation for desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrels,” said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Delfino said her group would work to try to get those areas back under protection. The final report will be posted for a 30-day protest period, after which it can be amended and submitted as a record of decision. Officials said they expect the plan to be finalized early next year.

DRECP Executive Summary