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Three reasons why Biden shouldn't reopen California's desert energy plan

Three reasons why Biden shouldn't reopen California's desert energy plan
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In fall 2015, I retired after 40 years at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Department of the Interior (DOI). As California state director for the BLM, I was proud to help shepherd the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a landmark agreement that struck a balance between the conservation of the California desert's natural values with the state's renewable energy production goals.

The DRECP is a land use plan designed to balance conservation, recreation and renewable energy development on more than 10.5 million acres of public lands. Attempts to reopen and relitigate the current plan only serves to waste valuable time that is better spent on doing productive work.   

I know firsthand the immense effort that went into development of the DRECP. The result was a compromise that addressed many local and regional needs and is considered a breakthrough for state and federal land use planning.

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So, it is a great disappointment that the Trump administration — in their final days — proposed reopening the DRECP and gutting protections for environmentally and culturally significant public lands.

The Biden administration has already shown they are keen to right wrongs, clean up messes and chart a new course on conservation. They are reassessing the decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah and have committed to protecting 30 percent of federal lands and waters by 2030.

Stopping the process of reopening the DRECP should also be high on the list of messes to clean up quickly for three key reasons.

First, the plan is a collaboratively designed building block critical to meeting California’s clean energy goals. Other key factors, like local government needs and mission compatibility for military installations, were carefully factored into the same planning design.

A key benefit of the existing plan is greater certainty for renewable energy development on lands best suited to meet those needs. The size of these areas was based on careful calculation of the amount of renewable energy generation needed from the region. Calculations factored in the larger system of energy generation and transmission, experience with energy project development and substantial input from both technical experts and stakeholders.

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California correctly opposes the plan amendment proposed by the Trump administration, in part, because of the tremendous uncertainty created for renewable energy development permitting. When this plan amendment was raised by the Trump administration in 2018, then Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird said, “Reopening the plan is a waste of time… Reopening will stall renewable energy projects on public lands and impose major new costs on stakeholders without benefit.”

He was right. Thanks to the hard work and compromise that were a part of the DRECP, clean energy goals and conservation action on public lands in the California Desert Conservation Area are both achievable. We must do both.

Second, one of the many landmark components of the DRECP was identification of the California Desert National Conservation Lands based on congressional definitions. These public lands include critical wildlife habitat, culturally significant areas and places for outdoor recreation. The Trump administration’s proposal aims to eliminate protections for 2.2 million acres of these lands.

That must not happen. These lands play an important role in fighting climate change and in providing the land bridges that allow plants and animals to adapt. The science has been clear for decades and is reinforced by what we continue to learn. Protection of the habitat value of land is a critical climate mitigation strategy.

Finally, the DRECP is the result of eight years of stakeholder input and public engagement. BLM employees wrestled with all the complexities of delivering conservation, creating a practical design for infrastructure and allowing many recreational uses. State employees matched the bureau's efforts. Hard work was contagious, as counties kicked in, defense employees analyzed and Tribes consulted. High caliber work was standard across the board.

Thousands of Californians weighed in with detailed comments and at dozens of public meetings. We heard from local residents, elected officials, conservationists, the renewable energy industry, the military, Tribal leaders, off-road vehicle users, other recreationists and more. The level of participation was, frankly, inspiring. They deserve respect.

What came out of this process was hailed as a breakthrough and — notably — the DRECP has not been challenged legally, a rarity for large scale land use plans.

We should move forward with our efforts to meet climate and conservation goals. I urge the Biden administration to stop this senseless reopening of this plan.

Jim Kenna was the California state director for the Bureau of Land Management from 2011 to 2015 and is a current board member with the Conservation Lands Foundation.