After living and working in the California desert for 20 years, with its breathtaking vistas, iconic wildlife and priceless cultural artifacts, I know that it’s a one-ofa- kind place. Residents and visitors to the desert can enjoy the oases in Big Morongo Canyon that draws migrating birds, hike around the striking 250-foot volcanic cone of Amboy Crater or hunt for fossils and geodes.
California desert public lands support important watersheds, as well as unique plants and animals like majestic bighorn sheep and Joshua trees that draw visitors from around the world. Our desert lands are also a fragile landscape, easily scarred and slow to heal.
California has a goal to obtain one-third of our energy from renewable energy sources by 2020. In the desert, we’re seeing interest and urgency in developing new wind and solar farms. This new intensive land use is in addition to existing uses, like off highway vehicle use, mining and military training. With the fragile landscapes in our region it is incredibly important that we find a balance between the various uses of the lands. We need a plan to map out unique and important lands to set aside for conservation, and to designate locations for renewable energy development in areas with the least conflict.
That is the intention behind the DRECP, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which will affect over 10 million acres of California desert public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management is handling this process, and as a part of identifying places that will be developed for renewable energy, also has a mandate from Congress to designate public lands in our California desert as part of the National Conservation Lands. Across the U.S., these lands are a spectacular collection of landscapes, rivers and trails in which visitors can experience the American West.
The DRECP is not yet a done deal – indeed, there is still much to be decided. For one thing, it is very important that BLM designate the lands for conservation as permanently protected. This has not yet been confirmed – but was the original intention behind the Congressional mandate. It should be our legacy to pass on these lands to future generations to enjoy. A bipartisan poll conducted by FM3 and Public Opinion Strategies in June shows that by a ratio of 2 to 1, California desert residents support the planning effort, particularly if it avoids pristine landscapes and directs development towards already disturbed lands.
Furthermore, there are certain areas in the California desert that are important for mining. But the lands set aside for conservation in the DRECP should be managed as all other National Conservation Lands – protected from new mining. This action would not affect existing rights and interests, or the ability for rockhounds to collect on the surface inside existing limits. Based on the recent poll, by a margin of almost 2 to 1, local residents believe that mining should not occur on lands set aside for conservation. And, by that same margin, desert residents believe that solar and wind power should be located on already-disturbed lands.
If we get the DRECP right, in several decades we will enjoy the fruits of good planning. We’ll have renewable energy, but not at the cost of our precious desert landscapes. We’ll have a path forward with fewer conflicts about land use. And our children’s children will get to grow up with one of the most important pieces of our heritage – our open spaces and lands.
I encourage the Bureau of Land Management to produce a plan for our region that will guide appropriate renewable energy development while also permanently protecting our treasured landscapes. We need a balanced, science-based plan for our community. If they do this right, our region and our lands will thrive.
—Frazier Haney is conservation director at the Mojave Desert Land Trust.