Kim Delfino, California Director for Defenders of Wildlife and alumna of my law school, has written the post below, explaining the implications of the very important new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. It’s a must-read!
One of the rarest sightings in the California desert is not what you think it might be. It is not the appearance of water, the presence of a desert tortoise emerging from its burrow, or even the spying of the mysterious mountain lion. It is the sighting of a Mohave ground squirrel above ground.
These elusive mammals spend perhaps two months of their lives above ground when conditions are right, and they can only be found in the West Mojave Desert of California. Unfortunately, the sighting of the Mohave ground squirrel is becoming rarer as their habitat is lost to energy development, industrial development and other land-intensive development and their population shrinks. The specter of large-scale renewable energydevelopment is the latest potential threat to the survival of this state-protected species.
Several years ago, the fate of the ground squirrel – along with other desert wildlife – hung in the balance as hundreds of thousands of acres of desert lands were proposed for industrial renewable energy development. Fortunately, California and the Department of the Interior joined together to propose a new approach to energy development – a landscape scale look across the California Desert to determine where projects could be placed on already disturbed and degraded lands, while protecting those areas most important for desert wildlife, recreation, and other natural resources. This new approach started with the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS), but was significantly expanded in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).
The DRECP represents a paradigm shift in how renewable energy development is planned in California and nationally. If done well, the DRECP could mean that desert wildlife like the tortoise and the ground squirrel have a future even in the face of climate change.
This week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a new part of the plan that addresses how and where different types of land will be used for renewable energy. It is an important step forward for the DRECP, and is expected to be finalized in early 2016.
There is a lot to celebrate in the BLM’s latest plan. It protects 3.8 million acres of lands with important natural resource, scenic and recreational values by designating them as part of the National Landscape Conservation System. Iconic areas such as the Silurian Valley, Chuckwalla Bench and the Amargosa River watershed are designated as National Conservation Lands. Most importantly, these protections are permanent and cannot be overturned in the future.
The plan also includes 388,000 acres of BLM lands in the desert where renewable energy projects can be built without significant impacts to wildlife. These projects will help California meet its aggressive climate change goals without putting vital wildlife habitat under development.
So, is the new plan a win for desert wildlife conservation? Should we celebrate the conservation of desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel for future generations?
Not yet. While the latest plan has some important benefits, there are still pieces of it that are damaging to wildlife, and must be improved when the BLM issues its final plan in early 2016. The fate of the West Mojave hangs in the balance.