A Trump administration move to reconsider a historic agreement on use of California desert land is ostensibly about renewable energy production, but undoing the plan could also open up sensitive desert land to off-road recreation, mining and livestock grazing.
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The Trump administration today began a process to reconsider a plan that for the first time comprehensively designated where renewable energy development, recreation and conservation may take place across millions of acres in the California desert.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, codified in 2016, is an exhaustive inventory of public and private land sprawling across seven California counties.
The Interior Department said it took the action to comply with an executive order to maximize energy production on federal land. In the case of the Mojave Desert, that means fostering utility-scale solar and wind development.
The move is ostensibly about renewable energy production, but undoing the plan could also open up sensitive desert land to off-road recreation, mining and livestock grazing. The desert has been a battleground
Even though the agency cited California’s ambitious goals to ramp up renewable energy, state officials said that unraveling the plan was not necessary. The California Energy Commission, a state agency with a major role in developing the plan, said the state is on track to meet its renewable energy goals—and that taking the plan apart might have unintended consequences.
“A wholesale reopening of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is not going to benefit anyone,” said Karen Douglas, a member of the Energy Commission. “In the near term, it will reopen conflicts over renewable energy development, conservation, and other uses of the desert while creating a cloud of uncertainty over the California desert.”
The decision to revisit the plan and open up a 45-day comment period sparked frustration among the very groups that had spent eight years crafting the compromise.
Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society, said the move “is a cynical attempt by the Trump administration to undermine both renewable energy and conservation. Reopening the carefully crafted, balanced plan will only result in uncertainty, conflict and worse outcomes for renewable energy, recreation and conservation.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, long a champion of the California desert, said she questioned “the logic of reopening this carefully crafted compromise that was so recently settled. Scrapping the plan now is a complete waste of time and money, and I oppose this.”
The agreement parsed the Mojave into categories according to use: nearly 4 million acres were set aside for permanent protection, an additional 1.4 million were identified for “critical environmental concern” and some 388,00 acres —7 percent of the available land—were given over to renewable energy development.
In a statement released by the federal Bureau of Land Management, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Katharine MacGregor said: “We need to reduce burdens on all domestic energy development, including solar, wind and other renewables.”
Critics call that a mixed message. Last week the Trump administration dealt a blow to the solar industry by imposing stiff tariffs on imported solar panels and cells, which are used in the bulk of installations in the United States. And the Interior Department’s current budget proposal calls for cutting half of the federal bureau’s renewable energy budget, and nearly 72 percent of the funding for the department’s clean energy research.
The desert plan took nearly a decade to hammer out and brought a host of bickering parties to the negotiating table: local, state and federal land managers, desert biologists and archeologists, environmental groups, mining interests, solar and wind firms, recreation and off-road enthusiasts, Native American tribes and the military. Never before had county planners, state bureaucrats, federal land managers and Army officers coordinated their land-use efforts, taking into consideration endangered species, the needs of industry and the rights of those who flock to the vast desert for recreation.
What emerged was an unusual agreement, nearly as complicated as its name. The full plan covers more than 22 million acres in the California desert, but only about half of that, representing federal lands, is being reconsidered.
Guided by the land-use maxim of finding the “highest and best use” of each acre, the plan was designed to find a place for all activities, energy production, recreation and conservation.
Energy developers were drawn to the the agreement because it directed them to areas where there would be fewer conflicts and smoother, faster environmental reviews. But some warn that the certainty the current plan provides may be lost by the Trump administration’s move.
“It could put the brakes on responsible development in the desert and sends the wrong signal to developers,” said Laura Crane, director of the California Lands Network Program at the Nature Conservancy.
The California Wind Energy Association, however, this week released a map indicating that wind developers were shut out of prime areas under the adopted plan, which afforded more room for solar farms.