March 10, 2015

Desert plan shifts focus to public land

Federal and state officials put plans for privately owned land on the back burner.

Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, describes the location of a solar energy development planned near the Mojave National Preserve.


A ballyhooed energy development and land conservation plan for California’s deserts will now focus just on public lands managed by the federal government, at least for the time being, state and federal officials announced Tuesday, March 10.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan has been hailed by the Obama administration as an all-encompassing plan for the desert regions of seven counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino.

In the works since 2009, its goal was to get federal, state and local officials to agree on the best places to locate huge solar, wind and geothermal projects while also preserving the desert’s most important wildlife habitat, and archeological and recreational areas.

When the 8,000-page draft was released last fall, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell appeared in Palm Springs to promote it.

The draft called for directing alternative energy development to 2 million acres of mostly privately owned land that is expected to have little value as endangered-species habitat.

But after receiving 12,000 public comments on the plan, federal Bureau of Land Management and California Energy officials, in a conference call with reporters, appeared to reel back expectations, if not the plan itself.

With no certain time frame, the plan now is being broken into phases, the first of which will pertain only to public lands managed by the BLM, said Jim Kenna, the agency’s California director.

Planning for privately owned land will be delayed to give local officials in the seven counties more time to complete their own planning initiatives, he said.

The draft plan now calls for some 392,000 acres of public land for focused alternative-energy development, 4.9 million acres for conservation and 3.6 million for recreation, Kenna said.

Officials with Riverside and San Bernardino counties have expressed concerns that large-scale solar increases demand for county fire and sheriff’s services without providing the county additional property tax revenue.

San Bernardino County officials also are concerned that large-scale solar projects could be made obsolete by other technological advances.

“We don’t want obsolete solar projects on land that would have been good for other kinds of development,” said county spokesman David Wert.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it was disconcerting that the focus now is on public land, because most of the already disturbed land most appropriate for development is privately owned.

“This was supposed to be a grand, coordinated plan,” she said.

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

What is it? A proposed land-use plan for California's deserts that strives to place big solar, wind and geothermal projects in place that do the least harm to wildlife habitat and cultural resources.

Where is it? Desert portions of Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

Who is doing it? The plan is a collabaration led by the Calfornia Energy Commission and U.S. Department of Interior.

What's is the Preferred Alternative?

A version of that calls for:

-- Renewable energy development focus on more than 2 million acres of public and private land, where environmental conflicts are expected to be minimal.

-- Conservation designations for 4.9 million acres of public land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

-- Recreation designations on more than 3.6 million acres of BLM-managed lands.

-- More than 183,000 acres of land identified for future analysis.

Source: The California Energy Commission