An Overview of A Sweeping Proposal Impacting California’s Deserts

From the June 2013 issue of Desert Report.

John C. Van Dyke wrote in 1901 that the “desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years.” The California desert may have its detractors that dismiss it as a wasteland, but what it does have is an ever-growing stack of policies. A mix of land management and wildlife officials, local governments, industry, recreation groups, and conservationists are attempting to manage or “mitigate” unprecedented disturbance of a landscape that does not heal well, and that is already dealing with the overarching challenge of climate change. In addition to the decline of wildlife in the desert, the grand and relatively undisturbed vistas that provide the hallmark desert experience in writings, film, and television advertisements are becoming as endangered, if not more rare, than the species that inhabit them.

Sand dunes with Funeral Mountains. David Jesse McChesney photo
Sand dunes with Funeral Mountains. David Jesse McChesney photo

The latest policy effort to mitigate the more destructive human uses is the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). This is a sweeping proposal that only a small fraction of desert denizens and conservationists are likely to have heard of, even though the plan is expected to significantly change the way we manage the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states. The DRECP is a product of the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) – a Federal and State of California inter-agency cohort tasked with developing a plan that guides renewable energy development in the California Desert District while protecting habitat and endangered species. This effort is in response to a rush of utility-scale renewable energy projects fragmenting the desert landscape. Until the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) is released this summer, we are left with interim documents released by the REAT in December that preview an array of changes using state and Federal habitat conservation law, as well as land use planning policies to decide which lands are protected and which are available for streamlined permitting of energy development.

The DRECP builds on a foundation laid by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which ordered the Department of Interior to create the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) Plan to manage public lands in the region. The CDCA plan was implemented in 1980, but has been amended multiple times over the past 33 years. The DRECP is likely to impose some of the most significant changes on the CDCA plan, and go even further by attempting to influence conservation and energy development on private lands, as well.

Many desert conservationists may see the DRECP as a double-edged sword, potentially bringing more conservation designations for treasured landscapes, but also threatening to encourage industrial energy development on swaths of otherwise intact desert habitat.

A Significant Policy Overhaul

To give you a sense of the breadth and depth of the DRECP, it is helpful to understand how it relates to the CDCA plan of 1980. The CDCA plan was viewed as a gargantuan effort after the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 tasked the Department of Interior to develop a more comprehensive framework that would allow multiple uses of the desert while conserving it for future generations. When the Department of Interior published the draft EIS for the CDCA plan in 1980, it weighed five pounds and four ounces, and measured 11 by 14 inches. You are unlikely to receive a paper copy of the DRECP draft EIS when it is published this year, but if it were printed it would likely weigh far more than five pounds.

The interim DRECP documents released in December –about 50 different downloadable files totaling nearly half a gigabyte of data on the DRECP website – provide more details on six alternatives under preliminary consideration. These include potential conservation measures and “development focus areas” that 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. One thing is for sure, when the draft EIS is released, it is going to pose a challenge to those who care about the desert but are limited in their time to digest and comment on such a sweeping plan.

The DRECP likely will have a more extensive impact on how we manage California’s desert lands and guide renewable energy development than the Department of Interior’s Solar Energy Development Program – the policy finalized last year that created “solar energy zones” throughout the southwestern United States.

Significantly, this latter plan failed to contain industrial sprawl on wildlands, as it allowed 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 to the solar energy zones only. Neither happened, essentially leaving us with the status quo of unchecked industrial speculation on public lands.

Development Focus Areas and Desert Conservation Lands

The DRECP will identify additional areas for energy development outside of the solar energy zones identified in the earlier Solar Energy Development Program, including private lands deemed suitable for solar, wind, and geothermal energy. The DRECP will also change public land use plans to protect wildlife and recreational areas in the desert in an attempt to address public concern about the impact of energy development on other values of these landscapes.

The six action alternatives outlined in interim documents offer different energy development scenarios, ranging from 1.12 million to nearly 2.3 million acres of development focus areas. Like the solar energy zones previously identified, the DRECP’s “development focus areas” would offer streamlined permitting of renewable energy projects on public lands. 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, such as in the Silurian Valley north of Baker, a stretch of desert habitat west of Amboy Crater, or swaths of the Colorado Desert near the Palo Verde Wilderness area. Four of the six action alternatives do away with most or all of the “variance lands” that hobbled the effectiveness of the Solar Energy Development Program.

The documents released in December also give us a better sense of the range of conservation designations that might accompany the development focus areas. Newly protected lands could range from approximately one to two million acres. These conservation designations include two categories – areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC) and National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) status – and would be in addition to existing protections. Some of the ACEC and NLCS designations are overlapping, so some new or pre-existing ACECs could receive additional status as NLCS lands.

New ACEC and NLCS designations would protect wildlife linkages not currently protected by other designations, as well as places of cultural significance. For example, two modified designations in the northern reaches of the desert would give additional buffer to the Manzanar National Historic Site and would protect other culturally important sites, including remnants of a Native American turquoise mine and signs of early human in habitation near Death Valley.

The interim documents released in December suggest that conservation designations generally correspond to the scope and location of development focus areas. As an example, alternative three in the interim documents depicts a scenario in which vast swaths of the western Mojave are designated as development focus areas. Commensurately, public lands nearest the development focus areas may be designated as ACECs or NLCS lands, the most significant lands being granted with both ACEC and NLCS designations.

In contrast, alternative five would spread development focus areas across more remote corners of the desert with less emphasis on already-disturbed lands, but it would also confer NLCS and ACEC designations on more lands than other scenarios – more potential destruction, and more conservation designations. These configurations are just scenarios presented in the interim documents, however, and it’s possible the final product could mix and match development and conservation designations in a way not depicted in the early documents.

The DRECP Plan Area is focused on the Mojave and Colorado desert regions and adjacent lands of seven California counties - Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego. The Plan Area covers about 22,587,000 acres.
The DRECP Plan Area covers about 22,587,000 acres.

Are Conservation Measures Durable?

One of the key concerns expressed by conservationists revolves around the durability of the conservation designations that act as a sweetener for the less desirable development focus areas. Building a utility-scale solar or wind project on intact desert habitat will have long-term impacts which are nearly irreversible, while the conservation designations bestowed in these policy reviews can be overturned in future amendments of the CDCA. 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 NLCS designations. Interior believes the NLCS designation may be the most durable option available through administrative action.

Are there Alternatives?

Without having seen the draft EIS, it is not clear what alternative actions the Department of Interior will evaluate. In many ways, the DRECP takes a step in the right direction by considering already-disturbed lands for renewable energy instead of keeping the burden entirely on intact ecosystems. But the policy may still underestimate – and not address – the potential for rooftop solar incentives and energy efficiency measures to reduce the need for such widespread development focus areas. The interim documents also do not seem to include consideration of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Re-powering America’s Lands initiative, which would concentrate renewable energy development on contaminated lands, although it is possible some of these sites fall under the proposed development focus areas by default.

California’s Neighbors

California’s situation may be especially acute since the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard has spurred a greater effort to develop utility-scale solar and wind projects than elsewhere, and most of these projects target the open expanses of California’s desert. However, a slight shift in energy policy and financing in other southwestern states could open up a wave of industrialization on still more desert wildlands. Energy companies have proposed dozens of possible solar and wind projects in Arizona and Nevada, most of which sought a California utility to buy and ship the energy over long transmission lines. California prefers to buy most of its energy in-house, providing a temporary reprieve for desert landscapes in neighboring states.

The need for clean energy, and the potential for other states to expand clean energy portfolios without an emphasis on distributed generation or conservation of wildlands, may necessitate a more holistic look at desert conservation in the United States. Accepting and evaluating each renewable energy project in a vacuum without concern for cumulative impacts is not effective, and is playing roulette with our natural treasures. Hopefully the DRECP will be a responsible model for other states to follow in steering renewable energy onto a more sustainable and landscape-friendly path.

Shaun Gonzales is a Sierra Club member and desert activist who also writes the Mojave Desert Blog. You can read the interim documents at the DRECP website at www., where you will also find the draft EIS when it is available.