A Coachella Valley congressman Friday joined other California lawmakers in criticizing a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to open up millions of acres in the Southern California desert to mining, energy development and broadband infrastructure, a move environmentalists say would be catastrophic to desert wildlife populations.
“This eleventh-hour attempt by the Trump administration to open California lands to private mining companies is a threat to our environmental and human health, and would harm our desert ecosystem,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert. “The decision would upend years of agreed-upon negotiations between local community and environmental organizations, renewable energy businesses and state stakeholders.”
Ruiz, whose district includes Riverside County’s desert region, joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and two other Southern California members of congress in lambasting the proposed changes, which were announced a week before President-elect Joe Biden assumes office on Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Interior announced Wednesday a series of proposed amendments to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which designates more than 10 million acres for conservation and recreation. Among the plan’s proposed amendments is the reduction of California Desert National Conservation Lands — now closed to energy development — by 2.2 million acres. The move would also scale back special protections to about 1.8 million acres of desert called Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.
The proposal is one of several last-minute efforts by the Trump administration aimed at ramping up development on public lands, which include a contentious battle in Alaska over the leasing of oil- and gas-drilling permits within the National Wildlife Refuge.
“We won’t let them undermine the plan days before leaving office,” Feinstein said. “The proposed changes are designed to significantly reduce federally designated conservation lands protections and potentially open that land up to mining or other industry uses. Californians have made clear that is not what we want in our desert.”
But Bureau of Land Management officials say the plan as it currently exists places far too many barriers in the way of energy development, with not enough public land provided for energy projects. The proposed changes, if successful, would give the federal government increased flexibility in satisfying the nation’s energy needs, the agency said.
“The proposed amendment will provide better opportunities to foster economic growth by supporting the development of renewable energy sources and the expansion of broadband access in California’s vast deserts, while maintaining our shared conservation stewardship for important species and habitats,” said Karen Mouritsen, California state director for the BLM.
The agency originally announced its intention to seek to revamp the DRECP back in February 2018. Members of the public have until April 15 to submit comments on the project.
Environmental groups, however, are calling the changes dangerous for the environment, and unnecessary, given the DRECP already provides more than 388,000 acres for renewable energy development. Even California state energy officials have come out in opposition of the proposal.
“The drastic reduction in conservation lands, including wildlife corridors, together with the increased development contemplated by this amendment, would reduce and fragment habitat to catastrophic effect, including the potential loss of species such as desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep and Joshua trees,” Mojave Desert Land Trust Executive Director Geary Hund said.
Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the proposed changes a “last-minute affront to the state of California and the natural world.”
“Trump is blowing up this carefully crafted plan for no reason, other than to destroy fragile conservation areas and harm desert wildlife,” she said. “Fortunately the Biden administration can right this wrong and keep this plan in place.”
California Energy Commission Commissioner Karen Douglas said in a statement she hopes the incoming Biden administration would “set this proposal aside” once assuming office.
“The DRECP was developed through a close partnership between California and BLM. It remains an important component of our state’s efforts to meet its ambitious climate and renewable energy goals, which will require major new investments in renewable energy projects,” she said. “We look forward to working closely with the incoming Biden administration and hope it will set this proposal aside and instead focus on partnering with us to reinvigorate our longstanding partnership with BLM and other federal agencies to advance our mutual environmental goals.”
It remains unclear how the incoming presidential administration will handle the proposal once Biden assumes office. He has voiced support for both the development of clean energy and the preservation of the public lands in the past.
A copy of the draft environmental impact statement can be found at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/109248/570.
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