Environment & Science

Trump administration takes aim at California desert protections

The Silurian Valley near Death Valley National Park and Baker, Calif. is where a company called Iberdola Renewables had proposed to build a 23-square-mile solar and wind project. But it's now protected under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
The Silurian Valley near Death Valley National Park and Baker, Calif. is where a company called Iberdola Renewables had proposed to build a 23-square-mile solar and wind project. But it's now protected under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The Trump administration is considering altering a plan that protects millions of acres of the California desert in order to boost energy development, mining and recreation.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was finalized less than 18 months ago, but the Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday that it would revisit it with an eye towards opening even more areas to renewable energy development, off-road vehicles, mining and grazing.

The conservation plan, which covers more than 22 million acres of private and public land across seven Southern California counties, nearly doubled the amount of protected land in the desert while concentrating energy development into areas where it would be least harmful to wildlife and the environment. Other lands were set aside for off-road vehicle access and recreation.

“We need to reduce burdens on all domestic energy development, including solar, wind and other renewables,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Katharine MacGregor said in a press release.

The decision to reopen the conservation plan comes in response to an April 2017 executive order directing federal agencies to review all regulations or decisions that could “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy sources.” The BLM, in its news release, implied that California could struggle to meet its ambitious renewable energy goals of getting 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 unless more of the California desert is opened to energy development.

But California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas disputed that. 

“There’s not a need to open up conservation lands, or high value habitat areas, for more renewable energy on public land in the desert,” she said.

The Trump administration is only revisiting the public lands portion of the conservation plan, some 11 million acres. Of that, 388,000 acres, or four percent, are designated as ideal for renewable energy projects, 60 percent for conservation and 33 percent for recreation – a balance that Douglas said was, “heavily vetted and very strongly science-based.”

But the decision to revisit the plan was welcome news to Nancy Rader, the executive director of the California Wind Energy Association. She said the plan all but prohibited wind development on public land in the California desert, which she said resulted in California having to import more renewable energy from places like Wyoming.

"We're pleased to get another shot at it," she said. "We'd like to be listened to this time."

But other groups that the BLM mentioned could see expanded access, like off-roaders, seemed ambivalent about the decision. Amy Granat, the managing director of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, said she felt her group had been listened to in the creation of the first plan, and that revisiting it might be complicated.

“Not everyone may have been pleased by the outcome, but I think sometimes when that happens a compromise is reached,” she said.

Conservationists decried the decision to reopen the conservation plan, saying it would create chaos for renewable energy developers and endanger special places.

“They’re creating a problem where there is none,” said Frazier Haney, the director of land conservation at the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

The Trump administration has decided to reconsider a number of management plans painstakingly negotiated by previous administrations in recent months, including multiple national monuments and a sage grouse protection plan.

The BLM will take public comments through March 19.