ONTARIO >> Environmental groups and residents are finding what they call discrepancies, omissions and reasons for concern in the 8,000-page Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
During public hearings here last week and across a seven-county area since Oct. 20, residents have been expressing concerns with what has been called a historic cooperative planning effort between state and federal agencies focused on where renewable energy plants should go and where they should not go on 22.5 million acres of federal and non-federal California desert land.
The plan was unveiled Sept. 23 when Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited a wind farm near Palm Springs to celebrate this conservation milestone and to underscore the importance of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. That plan called for a doubling-down of production of clean energy on public lands while protecting their natural resources.
The public comment period officially closes Jan. 9, although last week Jim Kenna, the federal Bureau of Land Management’s California director, all but confirmed in an interviewthat an extension period would be granted, likely this week, due to widespread demand.
Kenna said that the DRECP shows the boundaries for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed Mojave Trails National Monument and the Sand to Snow National Monument.
Last week at the Whitewater Preserve, Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would introduce legislation to create those monuments, located primarily in the San Bernardino County section of the Mojave Desert, during the first day of the new Congress next year.
“We support the concept of the DRECP,” said Barbara Boyle, a senior representative with the Sierra Club.
“We really need focused planning to put projects in places with the least impact,” Boyle said.
The draft DRECP spans portions of San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial, Inyo and Kern counties.
It involves a cooperative planning effort between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game.
The plan identifies development focus areas that may accommodate up to 20,000 megawatts of power from renewable energy projects and associated transmissions over the next 25 years.
It also identifies conservation areas, sensitive plant and wildlife species and a strategy for their management into the future.
Boyle was one of the speakers last week at a public hearing held at the Ontario Convention Center.
Among the Sierra Club’s concerns, Boyle said, are that the programs have durability, meaning that the plan needs to address funding mechanisms for the preservation program years down the line.
Boyle said that former farmlands in central California should receive more scrutiny for their potential to contain large renewable energy projects.
And former federal Environmental Protection Agency brownfield and landfill sites should also be explored more than they have, she said.
The DRECP plan does not take into account total development, including potential for real estate development, she said.
But the process has resulted in greater understanding and cooperation between the participating agencies, she said.
Frazier Haney, conservation director for Joshua Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust, said that in the Lucerne Valley, and other locations as well, the plan does not follow the scientific studies done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing the importance of wildlife corridors to allow migration of desert tortoises, big horn sheep and other creatures from one protected area to another.
Although claiming to be based on the best-available science, the plan does not follow the research of one its participating creators to keep alternative energy development away from vital wildlife corridors in the Lucerne Valley and other locations, Haney said.
Federal studies show that for the long-term survival of desert tortoises and big horn sheep, these corridors are needed, Haney said,
The draft DRECP also eliminates a roughly 36-square mile desert tortoise protected area in Kern County that has existed for nearly 40 years, Glenn R. Stewart, a retired zoology professor at Cal Poly Pomona, said during the Ontario Convention Center meeting last week.
Linda Castro, desert field organizer of the California Wilderness Coalition, said “our bottom line is that we think a plan is better than no plan.”
Without a plan, environmental groups and others end up fighting for environmental mitigation on every plan (for a renewable energy powerplant) that comes along, she said.
“We think this plan can be refined and improved,” she said.
Off-highway vehicles lost “just a sliver” of acreage under the draft DRECP but the plan makes no allowance for increasing demand as the region’s population grows, Randy Banis, who was a member of the DRECP stakeholder committee.
He was among the speakers at the public hearing in Ontario last week.
“If the Department of the Interior is listening to the public, they will understand they have an opportunity to build partnerships and take several harmful proposals off the table,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert programs manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Failure to do so could make their road to creating the DRECP unnecessarily difficult,” he said.
Observers say the final DRECP product will be Jewell’s legacy as interior secretary.
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