October 1, 2014

California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is here! The draft environmental documents, totaling more than 8,000 pages, were posted online last Tuesday after an announcement event in Palm Springs that included Secretary Sally Jewell, Senator Barbara Boxer, Representative Raul Ruiz, Representative Grace Napolitano, California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit. The speakers touted the draft plan as a landmark federal-state partnership and a huge step forward for both renewable energy development and land and wildlife conservation.

The draft DRECP is the result of a six year federal-state planning process across 22.5 million acres of a public and private land in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of southern California. And it has been a uniquely collaborative effort among four lead agencies—Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife—communities, seven counties and multiple other stakeholder groups, including Defenders. The overarching goal of this collaboration is to identify the most appropriate places in the desert for renewable energy development, while conserving areas important for wildlife, wilderness, recreation and other values. The planning process is an unparalleled opportunity for citizens, counties and other stakeholders to help determine the clean energy future of the desert and our communities, and ultimately of the West.

Desert Tortoise, © Beth Jackson USFWS

Planning ahead for solar energy development in the desert Southwest can allow us to develop solar projects in the right places while protecting essential habitat for the Desert tortoise.

Defenders has been eagerly awaiting the release of this draft plan, as we have been working on renewable energy issues in the California desert since 2007. The California desert has a major part to play to help combat the impacts of climate change, clean up air pollution and provide clean energy jobs. But while the desert is important to a clean energy future, it is also a special environment that must be protected—this vast landscape is home to diverse biological communities; recreational, historical and cultural lands; scenic and wild places; and other valuable areas.

There have been many lessons learned in the development of large-scale renewable energy facilities, including painful ones from poorly planned and located projects. But there have also been opportunities to re-purpose previously disturbed lands for renewable energy generation. Over the years, we have repeatedly called for landscape-scale planning in the California deserts. In terms of renewable energy development, this kind of planning takes entire regions, not just localized, individual areas, into consideration in order to avoid unnecessary harm to pristine desert lands and the vulnerable wildlife that call these lands home. We are hopeful that the DRECP will build on this concept to direct clean renewable energy to areas that will have less impact on wildlife, including the threatened desert tortoise, Mohave ground squirrel, desert bighorn sheep, flat-tailed horned lizard, and golden eagles instead of developing projects in sensitive areas, and that it will provide long-lasting conservation for many of our unique desert species and special places.

Addressing Climate Change

California is a leader when it comes to addressing the impacts of climate change. The DRECP aims to address the impacts of climate change on plants and animals by ensuring sufficient habitat conservation that will allow plants and animals to move and adapt to the changing desert climate. The DRECP will also incorporate planning that would help to reduce, or mitigate, climate change-related damage that has already been done. Deployment of wind energy, geothermal and land-based solar energy projects are one slice of the entire climate change mitigation strategy for California. By directing these projects to lower-conflict lands, the DRECP provides an opportunity to integrate renewable energy into the electrical grid efficiently and effectively.

The Work Begins

Solar Array, © USArmy Environmental Command

This solar array in Fort Carson, Colorado was built atop a closed landfill. That’s renewable energy smart from the start!

Defenders supports the “smart from the start” framework for planning that a final DRECP is intended to achieve, and we are hopeful for long-lasting habitat conservation and efficient development of renewable sources of energy. However, we understand that the document is a draft and that it will require close scrutiny to ensure it will achieve its lofty goals. Specifically, Defenders staff will be analyzing and commenting on the plan to ensure that the conservation strategy is based on the most recent and up-to-date conservation science and will provide long-term protection and recovery for our imperiled desert wildlife. Already we have identified important wildlife areas left unprotected in the plan and we will be advocating for their inclusion. Specifically our biologists will be analyzing the benefits of the plan for species like desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, Mohave ground squirrel, burrowing owl and golden eagle. Defenders policy staff will also looking for real incentives for developers to direct projects to parts of the desert where they will have less negative impact on surrounding ecosystems and wildlife.

What Next?

Now is the time to engage on the draft DRECP and share your thoughts about renewable energy development and habitat conservation in the Mojave Desert. To view the draft plan and for more information on workshops and public meetings, visit the official DRECP website. Additionally, DRECP has partnered with Conservation Biology Institute to provide an online map service for those who would like to zoom into particular areas or species habitats.

Defenders will be diving into the details of the draft plan over the next couple of months and will update the blog with key issues we are addressing as they arise. It will require input from diverse groups and stakeholders to arrive at a plan that reflects the values and needs of the unique California deserts. It is now our turn to inform and shape the future of the desert and of clean renewables. We must ensure that renewable energy does not cause additional unnecessary harm to pristine desert lands and species habitats, but instead is implemented efficiently in the right places.

Stephanie Dashiell is the California Representative at Defenders of Wildlife

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