THE Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, Phase 1: Bureau of Land Management Lands

In March 2015 — shortly after the close of the public comment period on the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) — the federal government announced that the Bureau of Land Management would move ahead with the plan on federal public lands, calling this portion of the DRECP “Phase 1” — while the plan would proceed on a slower track on state lands and private lands. The BLM intends to adopt a plan for development of large, centralized, utility-scale wind and solar projects, as well as set aside lands for conservation on the almost 11 million acres of federal lands in its “land-use plan amendments” for the DRECP. 

The public lands managed by the BLM and affected by the DRECP land-use plan amendments include the California Desert Conservation Area and parts of the Bishop Resource Area (in Inyo County) and the Bakersfield Resource Area (in the Tehachapi Mountains and the Southern Sierras in Kern County). The BLM's land-use plan amendments set the stage for coordinated plans for renewable-energy development also being pursued for private lands by local county governments and by state agencies.

View a map of the BLM's final DRECP “preferred alternative.”

Final Land-use Plan Amendments

In November 2015 the BLM released its final land-use plan amendments for federal public lands. These amendments propose 388,000 acres to be available for utility-scale renewable energy development. 

The good news is that the plans incorporate numerous areas that the Center has identified as potentially having low environmental conflicts with renewable energy development. The amendments also removed from consideration several areas that are important for wildlife habitat that should not be developed. Finally, an additional 700,000 to 800,000 acres were designated for conservation and will protect habitat for desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other imperiled plants and animals.

However, the final plan still needs to be improved in several important ways. The Center submitted a protest letter to the Bureau of Land Management on the proposed land-use plan amendments, raising several issues of concern, including the following. The plan amendments:

  • Leave approximately 800,000 acres undesignated, where all types of development could occur without any zoning guidance — despite the fact that these lands contain important wildlife habitat.
  • Include conflicting land-use designations that overlap with many conservation areas. For example, identified conservation areas — including “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern” and “National Landscape Conservation System” lands — overlap with new recreation designations (“Special Recreation Management Areas” and “Extensive Recreation Management Areas”) that emphasize off-road vehicle access. The BLM's inability to manage off-road vehicles so that they stay on designated routes in the California deserts is unfortunately well proven; allowing off-road vehicles essentially free rein is a recipe for disaster in conservation areas designated to offset development elsewhere.
  • Roll back existing permanent conservation designations — that have been in place since well before 2009 — by failing to include all existing areas managed for conservation in the California Desert Conservation Area as “National Landscape Conservation System” (NLCS) lands, as required in the establishing NLCS legislation. Of significant concern is the downgrading of existing conservation lands in the western Mojave desert, key refugia for numerous threatened plants and animals, including the desert tortoise and the endemic Mohave ground squirrel — as well as important breeding areas for unique populations of desert golden eagles and other rare raptors. By stripping these lands of needed protections, the BLM is undermining long-term conservation investments and species survival.
  • Completely changed long-standing, clear land-use designations in the California Desert without clarifying how those lands will be treated in the future.

The Center strongly supports the development of renewable energy production to facilitate a rapid phaseout of fossil fuel energy, and we believe the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan can play an important role if renewable energy development is planned for already degraded areas to minimize impacts on the environment and ensure protection of sensitive species and their habitats. But the BLM's land-use plan amendments still need significant work to achieve the goals of the overarching DRECP as envisioned by the state and local governments.

Only by maintaining the highest environmental standards with regard to local impacts and effects on species and habitat can renewable energy production be truly sustainable.

 

Desert tortoise courtesy Flickr/Sandy Redding