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Road to 30: Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

This story map is the sixth installation of our ongoing “Road to 30” series exploring the vision of protecting 30 percent of our land and water by 2030. In this storymap, we’ll explore the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a landmark effort to conserve the iconic California desert and focus renewable energy development in suitable areas — a consensus plan that the Trump administration may soon roll back.

Across America, natural areas that we rely on for clean air and water, biodiversity, outdoor recreation, and local economies are disappearing. From habitat fragmentation to the widespread impacts of climate change, lands and waters throughout the country are being lost to development and degradation every day. To combat this crisis, scientists are urging that we conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

Kingston Range | Bureau of Land Management

There is not just one path to conservation. Finding diverse and innovative ways to protect landscapes that support local communities and preserve the land’s specific values will be critical in achieving the “30x30” goal. Currently, about 12 percent of American lands are protected. While we still have a ways to go, strong leadership and grassroots momentum are bringing us closer to the goal.

Climate Change

Climate change is already impacting America’s lands, waters, and biodiversity. Rising temperatures, extreme weather, and wildfires are affecting sensitive ecosystems that support wildlife, clean air and water, and rural economies throughout the West. Simultaneously, America is facing a nature crisis, as biodiversity collapses and we lose a football field of land to development every 30 seconds. The two crises are intertwined, and protecting land and water is essential to building climate resilience in the U.S.

Fossil fuels extracted from public lands contribute significantly to climate change, accounting for nearly 25 percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, public lands have the potential to shift from contributing to climate change to becoming a part of the solution through carbon sequestration, appropriately-sited renewable energy projects, and providing connected and healthy landscapes that support thriving biodiversity.

Renewable energy is central to enabling this shift. It has become competitive with fossil fuels over the past decade, resulting from steadily declining costs and increasing demand. A diverse portfolio of renewable sources such as distributed and utility-scale solar, wind, and geothermal energy, together with robust use of storage, will make this shift possible. Many states and cities have set standards for clean energy, requiring a percentage of their total usage to come from renewables and setting goals for reaching 100 percent carbon-free power in the next few decades.

However, many projects have been proposed in sensitive ecosystems, and it’s critical that the public engage in permitting processes to ensure projects avoid, mitigate, and manage negative impacts to habitat. Currently, there are only 25 solar projects and 35 wind projects on public land. Developing renewable energy without damaging sensitive ecosystems is critical. Conservation planning allows agencies to identify the places that are critical for ensuring healthy wildlife and ecosystems for the future while locating the best places for renewable energy development that will not adversely impact land, water, and wildlife.

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

Kingston Range Wilderness | Bureau of Land Management

The California desert is one of our nation’s most ecologically rich and biodiverse landscapes, and home to the largest expanse of intact ecosystem in the continental U.S. For decades, Californians have worked to protect the desert and its iconic flora and fauna, from Joshua trees to desert tortoises. With bright sunshine and strong winds, the California desert also has significant renewable energy potential.

Almost a decade ago, a broad range of stakeholders came together to address the key question, “How can we conserve this critical landscape while focusing renewable development in places where it makes sense?” After years of collaboration, federal and state agencies adopted the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in 2016, a collaborative effort to protect California’s iconic desert and push towards a clean energy future.

The landscape-wide plan designates appropriate uses based on each area’s characteristics, including renewable energy development, recreation, and conservation. It was developed through years of planning between federal and state agencies, as well as industry, conservation groups, and local communities.

Despite the popularity of this plan, the Trump administration is attempting to roll back protections in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to consider changes to the DRECP, and while changes have not yet been finalized, they are likely to increase access for mining, grazing, and other development. Not only does this jeopardize the conservation and recreation values of the California desert landscape, but it also disregards the historic collaboration and public participation that were central to establishing the DRECP.

The plan started with developing a comprehensive conservation strategy based on what was necessary for protecting imperiled species such as desert tortoise, Joshua trees, and desert bighorn sheep, and included an adaptive management strategy in the face of climate change.

The DRECP designated 4.2 million acres to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands system. 5 million acres in the region were already protected, and the additional protected land would create continuous habitat and migration corridors for sensitive species, including desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. However, work is needed to ensure that these are fully protected from development. These areas provide important habitat for plants and wildlife, and act as wildlife corridors connecting three national parks, three national monuments, 70 wilderness areas, and five national forests.

The plan then identified Development Focus Areas, where solar, wind, and geothermal resources are plentiful, transmission is available, and negative impacts on biodiversity can be managed or mitigated. Identifying areas in advance allows for a streamlined permitting process on 388,000 acres predetermined to have ample renewable resources. In addition, some other BLM lands not designated for conservation or recreation remain available for energy development, though without streamlined permitting processes. As of 2018, 34 percent of California’s energy comes from renewable sources, with the goal of reaching 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. The DRECP, if fully developed, could contribute 27,000 megawatts of capacity towards reaching this goal, doubling the state’s current renewable energy generation.

The DRECP identified 3.5 million acres suitable for outdoor recreation, including off-roading, hunting, biking, camping, stargazing, and wildlife viewing.

Joshua Tree National Park | U.S. Department of the Interior

The DRECP’s innovative, landscape-scale planning and public input sets an important precedent for land management in the West. Instead of rolling back the DRECP, agencies should look to it as a successful example of land management and conservation that can serve as a model for other landscapes across the West. Through plans like this, mitigating climate change and protecting ecosystems can work simultaneously to solve the climate and nature crises.

LEARN MORE THROUGH THE INTERACTIVE STORYMAP

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