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Public weighs in on guidelines for green energy

For California to produce 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, it must rethink its current focus on putting large-scale solar projects on public lands in the desert and work toward a better mix of smaller and medium-sized projects

That was one of the main messages emerging from a public meeting Tuesday in Ontario aimed at gathering input on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan – a mouthful generally shortened to the DRECP.

The plan is a joint federal and state initiative to establish guidelines for solar, wind and geothermal projects in the Southern California deserts.

“We all care about renewable energy and we want to see it done in a way that preserves the biological community,” said Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission, one of the agencies working on the plan.

The plan will cover more than 22 million acres, including 10 million acres of public land, in six counties stretching from Inyo County in the north to Imperial in the south.

Eastern Riverside County is part of the area to be included in the plan, but not the Coachella Valley, which has its own Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

About 100 people turned out for Tuesday’s meeting, including valley residents who say the region has a stake in ensuring a balanced approach to renewable energy development on public and private land.

“The current process isn’t working,” said Joan Taylor, a board member of Friends of the Desert Mountains, referring to the case-by-case, fast-track process setup for large-scale solar projects on public land east of the valley.

“There are a lot of opportunities and constraints in the desert. They need to be used rather than ignored,” said Taylor, who is one of the few valley residents designated as an official member, or stakeholder, on the DRECP planning team.

The opportunities she would like to see developed are for smaller-scale solar projects on previously disturbed or abandoned agricultural lands, while putting more limits on renewable projects on sensitive habitat areas, she said.

Rooftop and other smaller-scale solar projects also are seen as priorities for off-roaders and others concerned with maintaining a range of recreational activities in the desert.

Solar should be kept in the cities, said Simi Valley resident Jim Woods, president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.

Woods and others said keeping roads open in desert areas is critical for bird watchers, gem collectors and desert dog-sledding enthusiasts – known as desert mushers – as well as off-roaders.

“We’re not given the same respect as butterflies and desert tortoises,” Woods said. “We deserve that respect and to recreate responsibly on public land.”

A small army of federal and state agencies, along with official stakeholders, such as Taylor and Woods, have been working on the DRECP for more than a year, setting out its basic parameters.

Some of those issues outlined Tuesday include what kind of renewable energy development the plan will cover; the plants, animals and habitats that may need protecting; and what other impacts, beyond environmental, need to be taken into account.

On the biological side, for example, the initial focus was on 14 plant and animal species already on state and federal endangered lists such as the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.

But Peter Sorensen, a division chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the plan could end up covering 50 species or more.

Questions he looks at, he said, include “Are they stable or declining? Are they specific to a certain kind of habitat. Sand dunes have different kinds of species than alluvial fans.”

Riverside County officials did not attend the Tuesday meeting, but are involved in the planning process and have raised concerns about the social and financial affects renewable energy development will have on county services and already-strained budgets.

The planning team is now starting work on the official environmental report for the plan, beginning with a public input period of 45 days that will end Sept. 12 and will include two more public meetings, both on Aug. 24 in Sacramento.

A draft of the report is expected next summer, officials said, followed by a 90-day public comment period. Officials are targeting early 2013 for final approval before launching the plan.

Other issues raised at Tuesday’s meeting included the amount of land that will need to be set aside to offset environmental affects of renewable projects and the need for more public input meetings, especially in rural and desert areas that may be most affected by wind, solar and geothermal development.

“Why do I have to drive 150 miles when I can look out my back door and see the property they’re talking about,” said Ron Schiller of Ridgecrest. “That doesn’t allow an exchange of ideas.”