The first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan protects millions of acres of California desert while directing renewable energy projects away from sensitive wildlife habitat.
For the iconic desert tortoise, today probably seems the same as yesterday. In the cool of the morning, tortoises emerge from their underground burrows, slowly venturing out into the desert in search of food. They are particularly fond of the fruit of the prickly pear. As the day heats up, they return to their burrows to wait out the hot sun.
But today is no ordinary day in the California desert. Interior Secretary Sally Jewel just finalized the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), protecting millions of acres of public lands in the California desert, and the wildlife that call them home. This plan identifies lands that are suitable for renewable energy development, away from public lands that are valuable to wildlife, and protects an area that encompasses the largest intact desert landscape in the United States.
Due to the spread of a respiratory disease and an extreme loss of habitat due to development, off-highway vehicles and grazing, desert tortoises are barely surviving. As healthy habitat is lost, and climate change alters the environment they have been so long adapted to, these and other animals struggle to find food, water, and shelter. But now these ancient desert denizens and other wildlife will have protections necessary to adapt to a changing climate. Today represents a turning point in conservation in the California desert.
It Was a Tough Start
Eight years ago, battles in this area over where to develop massive renewable energy projects raged on. Some energy companies chose to place their enormous industrial scale projects on valuable wildlife habitat, threatening the survival of some of the most iconic desert species.
Knowing there was a way to plan for renewable energy while still protecting the most important parts of the desert, we urged these companies, the conservation community, the federal government and the state of California to work together on developing renewable energy projects that would avoid harm to wildlife and their habitat.
A Victory for All in the End
Before this plan was put into place, there were 3.25 million acres of permanently protected lands within the area of the California desert covered by the DRECP. This sounds like a lot, but compared against what wildlife need to survive into the future, it wasn’t enough. The DRECP adds millions more acres of conservation lands, including the Silurian Valley and Chuckwalla Bench as National Conservation Lands, and the Pisgah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. All told, the DRECP protects and conserves more land than the entire state of Massachusetts.
Desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, desert kit foxes, a myriad of lizards, snakes and other reptiles as well as unique desert plants like the eerily recognizable Joshua tree benefit from this conservation plan. Large portions of their habitats are now protected from industrial scale development, degradation from poorly maintained roads, and other uses. Protecting this land also helps fight climate change. Native plants that sequester carbon dioxide are left to continue to grow, and absorb and store this greenhouse gas. Recent scientific studies show that disturbing California desert soil can release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So simply protecting so much of this ecologically valuable land will also help California to meet important carbon emission reduction goals.
Looking to the Future
The DRECP isn’t the end of this effort. This plan creates a roadmap for California and the federal government to meet ambitious clean energy goals. Just as it protects valuable habitat from energy development, it also identifies less valuable lands (old landfills or agricultural land, for instance) where renewable energy can be developed without severely impacting imperiled wildlife. A full 600 square miles of such land have been identified under the plan as Development Focus Areas for wind, solar and geothermal energy projects.
This plan also represents a new paradigm for wildlife conservation – one that starts with identifying the most important wildlife habitat to be conserved so species can survive into the future, even in the face of climate change and increased renewable energy development. It also incorporates robust public input – throughout the entire process, the DRECP received more than 14,000 public comments. We know that some of those comments came from supporters like you – thank you!
Interior Secretary Jewell’s signature completes the public lands portion of the DRECP, but this planning effort is far from over. There are several million acres of private lands in the California desert that are currently undergoing this “smart from the start” planning at the county level. The ultimate goal will be to knit together plans on private lands with the public land DRECP to create a framework of protected public and private lands. With that framework in place, wildlife conservation will stretch the full 22 million acres of California’s desert lands, while also identifying additional lower value lands for renewable energy development.
Tomorrow, the sun will rise again over the California desert, and desert tortoise and other wildlife will emerge into the cool morning to begin again their search for food before the sun becomes too strong. Their day-to-day hasn’t changed, but their futures will be a little brighter, thanks to the nearly 10 years of work Defenders and other conservation groups put in to make the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan a reality.