• Steve Brown

A Parting Gift for the Desert: Trump Administration Unilaterally Proposes Amendments to DRECP

In a way, the move by the twice-impeached president's administration brings us - Mojave Watch - full circle. We began operations because the Trump administration was considering tearing up a decade's worth of work that went into creation of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). It seemed a horrible idea, to take the science and hard-fought compromises that went into the agreement from all sides, and throw them all away.

But, today, the BLM has unilaterally proposed changes to DRECP, one week before Trump will leave office. The federal agency has released a draft environmental impact statement and plan amendment for the three plans that underlie the DRECP - the California Desert Conservation Area Plan, the Bakersfield Resource Management Plan, and the Bishop Resource Management Plan.

“It does not make sense that every renewable energy project on public lands in California would likely require a resource plan amendment to simply move forward,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Kate MacGregor. “The previous plan made only 4% of 10.8 million acres managed by the BLM available as renewable energy development focus areas. This proposal will add over 800,000 acres for renewable energy development and create a more measured approach to foster responsible off-highway vehicle recreation, rural broadband, and other important multiple-use projects - including those needed to meet California’s renewable energy mandates.”

"As trusted forms of energy production are eliminated in California, large expanses of desert landscape will be needed to bring alternatives online to avoid blackouts and new constraints on the grid,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Casey Hammond. “This plan will make more federal land available for renewable energy projects in hopes of balancing uses as well as keeping the lights on and the air conditioning blowing.”

"The BLM is committed to the responsible management of public lands in California for variety of uses, from energy development to conservation and recreation,” said BLM California State Director Karen Mouritsen. “The proposed amendment will provide better opportunities to foster economic growth by supporting the development of renewable energy sources and the expansion of broadband access in California’s vast deserts, while maintaining our shared conservation stewardship for important species and habitats.”

We see this as an erosion of the DRECP's protections for wildlife and habitat, and blatant disregard for the science that shows the best thing one can do with the desert to combat climate change is to leave it alone. The desert's ecosystems appear to do an excellent job of sequestering and storing carbon, and destroying large swaths of those ecosystems - even for industrial-scale solar projects - cause more harm than good in the long run. Solar is great - on rooftops and previously disturbed or brownfield sites, not on vital habitat and wildlands.

The BLM's proposals are clearly placing an industry wish list ahead of conservation, consistent with the Trump administration's overall public lands policies. The BLM's amendments also support more mining and natural resource extraction, rights-of-way, livestock grazing, and "public access" including off-roading recreation. In addition, the BLM is proposing to modify the Conservation and Management Actions and conservation allocations, including the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, claiming that the CMAs "overly restrict access to public lands."

In addition, the BLM is proposing modifications to the California Desert National Conservation Lands, changing it from a ecological and regional approach (the best way to approach habitat and wildlife management - if you care about habitat and wildlife management), to a site-specific system of stand-alone units (which divides habitat up piecemeal and results in no connectivity).

The proposals have disturbed some, including the California Energy Commission's Commissioner Karen Douglas, who had this to say about today's parting shot:

“We are disappointed that the BLM has unilaterally proposed amendments to the DRECP in the last days of the Trump administration,” Douglas said. “The DRECP was developed through a close partnership between California and BLM. It remains an important component of our state’s efforts to meet its ambitious climate and renewable energy goals, which will require major new investments in renewable energy projects. We look forward to working closely with the incoming Biden administration and hope it will set this proposal aside and instead focus on partnering with us to reinvigorate our longstanding partnership with BLM and other federal agencies to advance our mutual environmental goals.”

“Large, interconnected systems of reserves representative of the biological diversity of the desert are essential to the health and survival of its plant and animal populations. The areas conserved by the DRECP, together with designated parks, monuments and wilderness areas, largely achieved this aim,” said Geary Hund, Executive Director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

“The drastic reduction in conservation lands, including wildlife corridors, together with the increased development contemplated by this amendment, would reduce and fragment habitat to catastrophic effect, including the potential loss of species such as desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, and Joshua trees. Central to our mission is the acquisition and protection of important conservation lands. Without a robust desert reserve system, the significant conservation gains we and our partners have achieved over many decades would be greatly compromised.”

The Mojave Desert Land Trust noted the amendment’s proposed changes include:

  • Reducing the California Desert National Conservation Lands by approximately 2.2 million acres. The California Desert National Conservation Lands are public lands offering nationally significant places for exploration and the protection of critical wildlife habitat.

  • Reducing the number of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) from 129 to 97 and thus reducing the acreage of the ACECs by approximately 1.8 million acres. ACECs are entitled to special management to help protect their important and fragile historical, cultural, and scenic values, or wildlife or other natural resources.

  • Modifying or eliminating 68 Conservation Management Actions (CMAs), which would allow for greater impacts on the California Desert National Conservation Lands as well as allowing energy development in Special Recreation Management Areas (SRMAs). SRMAs are intended to offer recreational opportunities, such as creating trailhead areas for hikers, mountain bikers, or off-road vehicle users.

“It is outrageous that the BLM would issue a draft environmental statement that seeks to tear apart this carefully balanced plan which has won the approval of such a wide variety of stakeholders," noted Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director at The Wilderness Society. "The Administration’s stated goal of enabling more renewable energy development is a complete farce. The changes they propose would gut conservation and recreation aspects of the plan, harm efforts to accelerate development of renewable energy projects in the most appropriate places and place California’s beloved desert wild lands at risk.

"The Wilderness Society calls for the immediate withdrawal of this BLM proposal. We will join forces with the many community and Tribal leaders, elected officials, renewable energy advocates and supporters of desert conservation to maintain the existing plan and give it a chance to work.”

Pamela Flick, California program director with Defenders of Wildlife, called out the BLM on this proposal, “Releasing this proposed DRECP plan amendment five days before the Inauguration of the next president is the last gasp of the current anti-environment administration. The DRECP has been a nationwide model for clean energy planning on public lands and rolling back the plan now will make it more difficult for President-elect Biden and our nation to meet our clean energy and climate goals.

“This ill-conceived proposal throws a monkey wrench into the efforts of a diverse group of supporters and will cause a strong backlash from the military, local government, business industries, tribes, conservationists and recreationists. The State of California has already commented that this proposal should be set aside.”

Jenny Binstock, Senior Campaign Representative for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign in California, released the following statement:

“This proposal is a parting gift to harmful development interests, undermining planning for climate solutions when they are needed most.

“If allowed to proceed, the administration’s proposal will cause irreparable damage to California’s lands while setting us back on developing renewable energy to meet clean energy goals. It risks important cultural sites, habitat and carbon sinks as the region faces the worsening impacts of the climate crisis.

“The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is a model for smart clean energy planning on public lands. It’s a carefully balanced plan that should not be undercut by stripping protections. We look forward to the incoming Biden administration’s focus on climate change and the vital role that public lands can play in providing solutions to the climate crisis; keeping the DRECP intact is foundational to that.”

While the incoming Biden administration could halt this process altogether, as of now, the public comment period will end on April 15, 2021. We will monitor this situation and report on whether it proceeds, and if so, how to have your voice heard.

For more information:

BLM Announcement

DRECP Desert Plan Amendment Draft

CEC Statement

The Wilderness Society Statement

The Sierra Club Statement

The Defenders of Wildlife Statement

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