Plan For California’s Desert: Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broken

Ken Rait | Director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' western lands initiative

Our nation’s public lands are a defining feature of the American West, offering myriad opportunities to explore the great outdoors. While millions of us flock to parks, campgrounds, and recreation areas every year, many of our public lands are also available for other uses such as cattle grazing, mining, and oil drilling. This “multiple use” mandate for areas managed either by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management provides both challenges and opportunities for balancing the nation’s priorities.

One challenge is finding a way for development activities to coexist with conservation efforts — which is complicated by a growing demand for large renewable energy projects on public lands, such as solar or wind farms that can dominate thousands of acres. Solutions require robust public input and a thoughtful approach that weighs renewable energy development with watershed protection, wildlife conservation, and recreation.

In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management finalized a historic plan in California that sought to strike a balance among renewable energy development, conservation and recreation, creating a blueprint that the agency hoped to replicate elsewhere. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) took eight years to develop, was built on more than 16,000 public comments and dozens of open meetings, and is widely heralded in California as a success.

The state supported the desert plan’s contribution to its goal of producing at least 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2026, while many desert residents backed the plan because it minimized the impact of future development and protected key wildlife and open space as “California Desert Conservation Lands.” Places such as the Silurian Valley, just south of Death Valley in the Mojave Desert; Chuckwalla Bench, which stretches from Joshua Tree National Park to the Colorado River; and Mayan Peak, home to a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, are protected under DRECP. Conserving these places and others as part of the plan provides sanctuary for imperiled desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife.

Fast forward to this year, when, at the beginning of February — as the DRECP was in its early phases of implementation — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that the Bureau of Land Management will reopen the plan for comments. The move, which could result in significant changes, sent shock waves through the desert and across California. The secretary said the reassessment was needed because the plan did not allow enough renewable energy development, but California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird responded that “reopening the plan is a waste of time and resources that will result in uncertainty, delay and litigation.” The California State Lands Commission passed a resolution opposing the move, saying it could “cause significant confusion, delays, and economic detriment to the State of California in its efforts to site needed renewable facilities.”

It is disappointing that the DRECP, which was developed over years and with strong public support from diverse stakeholder groups, is being reconsidered. Rather than looking to fix something that isn’t broken, the Department of the Interior should continue to collaborate closely with the state of California on the plan’s implementation to maintain its science-based and balanced solutions.

Ken Rait is the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ western lands initiative.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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