At the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert, some of the plant’s 347,000 garage-door-sized mirrors used to generate power can be seen. California is looking for a reliable way to store green energy for when customers need it. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
By Carolyn Lochhead Updated 11:05 pm, Tuesday, November 10, 2015
WASHINGTON — Federal and state officials said Tuesday they will allow solar, wind and other renewable energy development on 400,000 acres of public lands in the California desert, while setting aside 5 million acres for conservation as part of a big push by the Obama and Brown administrations to combat climate change. The long-awaited decision covers millions of acres of public land in one of California’s last comparatively undeveloped frontiers, seeking to correct what were widely perceived as mistakes during the first years of the Obama presidency when publicly subsidized, industrial-scale solar projects were plopped on pristine desert habitat. Another 3 million acres will be set aside for a wide variety of recreational uses, including off-road vehicles and rock hunting as well as hiking and other activities. Most of the public land is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and does not include California’s three desert national parks, Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve, which are off-limits to any industrial use. Tuesday’s announcement represents the first phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which was created in 2008 to look at the 22 million-acre California desert in its entirety, rather than in isolated segments, before approving solar and wind projects. The Mojave Desert receives some of the most intense solar radiation on the planet; it also is one of the largest ecologically and scenically intact landscapes in the United States.
Use federal lands
The plan originally was to include millions of acres of private desert land, but that proved difficult, so officials turned to federal public lands first. An initial draft was released last year, and the new plan constitutes a final environmental review. Opponents have a short window of time to request changes before officials in January formally sign off on the plan, which will be accomplished through executive action. Environmental organizations applauded the general effort, with significant caveats.
“It’s really important that we have this landscape-scale plan for public lands,” said Barbara Boyle, senior representative for the Sierra Club. “Overall there are strong conservation protections, which is very encouraging, but there are some areas like the West Mojave that need more protection for the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.” Conservationists were delighted that the remote, undisturbed Silurian Valley, the site of a proposed 23-mile wind and solar farm in the Mojave, was set aside for protection. But David Lamfrom, director of the California desert program for the National Parks and Conservation Association, said other areas such as Soda Mountain, the site of a proposed 3,000-acre solar project straddling a bighorn sheep corridor in San Bernardino County, remain on the table for development……