State and federal officials released a sweeping plan for the future of California’s deserts Tuesday, designating renewable energy, conservation and recreation zones across 10 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
The plan will encourage energy companies to build solar, wind and geothermal power plants on 388,000 acres of federally managed land, although only a portion of that land is likely to be developed. The plan also sets aside 5.3 million acres for conservation and 3.8 million acres for recreation, virtually all of which would be closed to energy development.
Officials said the 4,000-page document features major changes from a draft released last year, which spurred 12,000 public comments and came under fire from energy companies, conservation groups and county governments. The changes include new designations for several contested areas:
• The Silurian Valley, between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, has been designated for conservation. Officials had previously delayed giving the area a designation, although the Bureau of Land Management rejected a solar proposal there last year.
• Parts of the Cadiz Valley and the Eagle Mountain area, which in the draft were not given designations, have been marked for conservation. It’s unclear if the Eagle Mountain designation will impact a proposed hydroelectric power plant, which would be built nearby on private land.
• The Palen Dunes, which provide sandy habitat for the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, have been removed from a development area in eastern Riverside County. Other parts of the development area have also been removed and designated for conservation, including the McCoy Wash and adjacent microphyll woodlands.
• In a small victory for the wind industry – which was one of the draft plan’s harshest critics – scattered parcels in the Tehachapi area have been added to a development zone. But officials cautioned that future development in the windy area will depend on decisions made by Kern County regarding private land.
• An area north of Kramer Junction, for which officials had also put off a decision, has been designated for energy development. The Searles Lake area, on the border of San Bernardino and Inyo counties, has also been added to a development zone.
In another change from the draft plan, officials clarified that 3.9 million acres being added to the National Landscape Conservation System will be permanently closed to development. Environmental groups had worried that the protection would be fleeting. Officials said the final plan also creates new incentives for energy companies to build in the development areas, while simplifying a proposed permitting system that developers had argued would be confusing and burdensome.
“We took the comments we received very seriously. We went out and looked at stuff on the ground, we pulled up maps, we checked data, we talked to people,” Jim Kenna, who until last month led the Bureau of Land Management’s California branch, said in an interview. “We did make changes based on what people said in their comments, to try and get to the best possible plan.”
The finalized plan could have a major impact on California’s ability to meet the 50 percent clean energy mandate Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last month. Previously, the state had been working toward a 33 percent target.
“We’re moving to meet higher renewable energy standards, and of course this is what we anticipated with the (desert plan), that we were not going to be done at 33 percent,” Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission, said in an interview.
A tangled history
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was a long time coming.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first called for such a plan in November 2008, citing the budding conflict between energy development and ecosystem protection in the desert. Environmental groups increasingly opposed large-scale solar projects proposed for undisturbed desert landscapes, which they worried would harm at-risk species such as desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and golden eagles.
Schwarzenegger originally asked for a plan by 2012, but officials quickly overran that deadline. No one had ever crafted a land-use plan covering 22.5 million acres across seven counties, and the process proved more complicated than expected.
State and federal officials released a draft last year, in a high-profile event that brought Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to the Palm Springs area. But the draft was met with a torrent of criticism, including complaints from county governments, which said it conflicted with their own priorities for several million acres of private land.
County governments are generally responsible for private land, meaning their opposition could have sunk the overall plan. So the draft’s authors said they would split the plan in two, dealing with federal land first and private land later.
Despite those challenges, Jewell called the plan a model for other states to follow. In a conference call Tuesday, she touted the plan’s “landscape-level blueprint” for the desert, which she said is preferable to dealing with the environmental impacts of development on a project-by-project basis.
“I think this will be the wave of the future of planning,” Jewell said. “We can plan a lot smarter. Companies don’t end up getting involved in long, laborious processes only to get their project turned down because it was in a sensitive area. And those who pay attention to species diversity and outdoor recreation don’t feel like they have to fight for everything.”
Jewell predicted the next landscape-level planning effort, whether in California or elsewhere, “will be a lot smoother.”
“There have to be pioneers,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to learn from an experience that has been done.”
Environmental groups had mixed reactions to the final plan. Most of them agreed it was better than the draft, but some said it still fails to protect critical areas.
Sam Goldman, California program director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, called Tuesday “a day to celebrate.” He praised the plan’s authors for clarifying that newly designated National Conservation Lands will receive permanent protection, and for focusing renewable energy development in less sensitive areas.
“I think this is really great news for people that care about the desert and care about tackling climate change,” Goldman said.
Helen O’Shea, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Renewable Energy Project, was also pleased with the changes, particularly the protection of Silurian Valley and other areas. Finding out that the McCoy Wash and adjacent microphyll woodlands had been removed from an energy zone, she said, “made me do a little happy dance in my office.”
Others were more critical.
Several environmental groups said the Western Mojave Desert should have more conservation areas and fewer development areas. They believe the region will be critical for desert tortoises and other species as global warming limits their available habitat.
“The West Mojave is actually the best climate refugia for some of the species,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
National parks advocates, meanwhile, were frustrated that the final plan didn’t give a designation to the Soda Mountain area, near Baker. The Bureau of Land Management approved the controversial Soda Mountain solar project in June, but it has yet to issue an official “record of decision,” which has confused and frustrated the project’s critics. Some of those critics had hoped the bureau would change its mind and mark the area as off-limits to development.
“They punted on making a decision,” said David Lamfrom, who works for the National Parks Conservation Association. “They’ve delayed making a real decision, which was the whole point of doing this (plan). If we’re going to designate lands for renewables and conservation, why go outside of this process to make this decision?”
Some renewable energy advocates weren’t happy with the plan, either.
Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, criticized the plan’s authors for permanently closing millions of acres to clean energy, while leaving just 388,000 acres open for development. The plan will prevent development on the vast majority of federal lands with strong wind resources, she said.
“Our resource is very specific, whereas solar is more ubiquitous,” Rader said. “While it’s bad for solar, it’s very bad for wind.”
Rader called the inclusion of new development areas in the Tehachapis a “marginal” gain for the wind industry, which was countered by the closure of the Silurian Valley to wind development.
Four federal agencies worked on the plan: the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. They released an environmental impact analysis Tuesday, and they expect to publish a “record of decision” finalizing the plan early next year.
But even that won’t be the end, because this is only phase one of the planning process.
Several county governments are still developing their own plans for renewable energy and conservation, which state and federal officials eventually hope to incorporate into the larger plan. The county-level decisions are especially critical for clean energy, because the draft plan banked on 1.6 million acres being open to development on private land. In the final plan released Tuesday, just 388,000 acres of federal land are open to development.
Renewable energy groups have argued that splitting the plan in half was a dangerous decision because the total amount of land open to development might not be clear for years. Environmental groups, too, are anxious to see how much private land is open to development. They’ve long encouraged energy companies and regulators to shift development away from public lands – which, in the desert, are frequently pristine and undisturbed – and toward degraded private lands.
Some environmental groups are also skeptical of the phased approach because species don’t know the difference between private land and public land. An effective conservation strategy, they’ve said, needs to include the whole desert.
The plan’s authors, though, are confident that county-level decisions will sync up with the federal land plan.
“The counties have stepped up and made the effort to work with us as we brought this to a final, proposed plan,” Kenna said. “Over the next couple of years, you’ll see the desert-wide map continue to improve.”
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