Administration move could unravel landmark desert conservation agreement

Reopening long-settled talks on landmark Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan could set both renewable energy and habitat protection back eight years.

Audubon California joined other conservation groups today in swiftly condemning a move by the Trump Administration that could unravel a major agreement to both protect vital habitat and streamline approvals for new renewable energy projects in the California desert.

Noting President Trump’s recent request for agencies to reduce impediments to domestic energy production, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it will consider amending the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) to seek greater opportunities for renewable energy generation. The agency opened a 45-day comment period on a process that it openly admitted was aimed at making “more federal land available for renewable energy projects as well as wireless broadband infrastructure.”

“It’s hard to describe this as anything but an effort to undermine this important agreement that protects some of California’s most vital habitat while at the same time offering a path for continued growth of renewable energy,” said Garry George, Audubon California’s renewable energy director. “Tossing out eight years of progress with stakeholders and public input all along the way is an irresponsible move that wastes resources, creates unnecessary uncertainty and threatens our long legacy of conservation of federal lands in California’s beautiful desert and future efforts to reach shared solutions.”

The Department of Interior and the California Energy Commission launched this unprecedented effort to plan the development of renewable energy on federal lands in the California desert after years of piecemeal projects proved problematic for both the industry and conservationists. Individual projects were getting bogged down in permitting and vital habitat was being lost. All stakeholders were pleased to participate in a process that would eventually expedite progress while ensuring the protection of the desert’s most important ecologies.

The first phase of the DRECP was finalized in 2016, and was the result of seven years of tough negotiation between the government and stakeholders from the renewable energy industry, recreation interests, and conservation groups. The agreement identified about a half million acres for expedited renewable energy development, while adding 5.6 million acres of land for conservation.

Audubon California joined other conservation groups in the agreement because of the incredible opportunity to safeguard vital bird habitat while also ensuring the development of properly-sited renewable energy. The DRECP area includes 22 areas designated as Audubon Important Bird Areas for their value to breeding, resting, and migratory birds. Birds particularly supported by the agreement include, among others, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Burrowing Owls, Golden Eagles, American Kestrels, Prairie Falcons and many more. This land is also crucial habitat for desert tortoises.

“The Trump Administration may think it’s helping the renewable energy industry by going back on this agreement, but the opposite is true,” added George. “Instead, this new process will wipe out eight years of progress and take us back to the old contentious project by project process.”

Areas of desert identified for expedited renewable energy development under the current DRECP make possible the permitting of more than 20,000 megawatts, a major leap toward California’s ambitious goals in this area.

About Audubon California

Audubon California is building a better future for California by bringing people together to appreciate, enjoy and protect our spectacular outdoor treasures. With more than 350,000 members and supporters in California and an affiliated 48 local Audubon chapters, Audubon California is a field program of the National Audubon Society. 

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