JOSHUA TREE – “Ninety-nine percent of the comments tonight have been in resistance,” Constance Walsh of Joshua Tree told the directors of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan as a public forum about the plan went into its third of four hours Wednesday night at the Joshua Tree Community Center.
Residents from all reaches of the high desert came to voice their concerns at what was billed as the final public forum for the 8,000-page draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan to streamline the permitting of utility-scale energy projects.
The public comment period has been extended to Feb. 23, 2015, but one of the repeated requests Wednesday night was for more public forums in the Morongo Basin and in affected far-flung communities where forums have not been held.
The plan calls for 2 million acres out of 22.5 million acres of targeted desert land in seven Southern California counties to be designated as Development Focus Areas.
These focus areas are considered by the DRECP planning agencies to offer fewer environmental impacts for development and to be eligible for streamlined permitting and authorizations to destroy wildlife while companies build energy plants and transmission lines.
The plan doesn’t specify what kind of projects could be sited where, but the focus areas are open for solar, wind and geothermal projects, which could cover thousands of acres.
The Morongo Basin has some immunity from these areas because of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Joshua Tree National Park, but large areas of DFAs are concentrated around Lucerne Valley and Apple Valley and in Riverside County below the park boundaries. The plan notes that more than 183,000 acres of “study area lands” are slated for future consideration.
The DRECP is the product of several years of work by the federal Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Energy Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife. Two independent science panels reviewed and commented critically on the plan during its drafting. The panels accused the plan of a lack of transparency, and pointed out the several pages needed for a glossary of terms and acronyms and the overall difficulty for the average non-policy person to grasp what was being presented in the plan.
During Wednesday’s forum, DRECP project managers from the four government agencies presented overviews, manned information stations around the community center and took written and verbal public comments to be entered into the record.
Each agency’s station had a multi-colored map that illustrated the various land designations and who was targeting them. For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife General Conservation Plan map had 17 different colored areas but little information about the meaning of the designations, and the handouts used acronyms and initials with no glossaries provided.
“It’s a substantial document, a planning document for the future,” DRECP Director Chris Beale said before public comments opened.
“It’s an impenetrable document,” environmental writer Chris Clarke of Joshua Tree retorted. “California laws have strict requirements for plain language in environmental assessments, and I don’t feel the DRECP meets those standards.”
Citizens were urged to make comments that were based on quantifiable criteria, rather than on emotional appeals.
Several participants offered suggestions for species and their habitats, soil erosion and preventing Valley Fever, air quality, light pollution, project management, rooftop solar and even planting switch grass for carbon capture and biofuel use.
“Quality of life was not a requirement we had to look at,” the BLM’s Vicki Campbell said.
But every one of the 43 speakers included some plea for quality-of-life issues to be considered.
“You will not find one developer willing to build a home next to a solar field,” real estate appraiser John Miller told the panel. “If you’re saying there is no impact on real estate values, then show me the data.”
“Lucerne Valley will become a renewable energy ghetto,” Neal Nadler asserted.
“Twenty-two million acres mean 22 million people who need the desert’s solitude and dark night skies,” David Lamfrom of Barstow said. “This is the wildest heart of the American Southwest.”
“To love and appreciate the desert you have to go out there and scrape your knees, get stung by bees,” Steve Scamman, a member of the First Class Miners family recreational mining group, said. “It’s unbelievable we’d taint this land.”
“Are we being heard?” Neville Slade from the Mojave Community Collaborative asked the room.
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