Trump administration proposes 11th-hour plan to strip California desert protections

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A road leads toward rock formations in Joshua Tree national park.
A road leads toward rock formations in Joshua Tree national park. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A road leads toward rock formations in Joshua Tree national park. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Plan would open up desert areas to mining projects, eliminating up to 2.2m acres of conservation lands

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Last modified on Mon 18 Jan 2021 05.17 EST

The outgoing Trump administration is proposing to strip away protections for millions of acres of California desert, threatening damage to Joshua trees, desert tortoises and landmarks.

The plan would open up California’s desert areas to mining projects, eliminate up to 2.2m acres of conservation lands, as well as remove 1.8m acres designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (Acecs).

Acecs are regions given special protections because of extra sensitive and culturally important features. The spires of eroded volcanic rock known as Turtle Mountain, for example, is one of the Acecs considered for the chopping block, and has an extremely dense population of endangered desert tortoise, as well as many indigenous homestead sites and historic mining camps.

“It’s a bit baffling at the 11th hour that something like this would hit the street,” said Geary Hund, the executive director for the Mojave Desert Land Trust, a non-profit conservation group that has purchased nearly 90,000 acres of desert over 15 years in order to protect it. “It doesn’t make sense. Any changes to this plan should really be within the purview of the new administration.

“I’m not saying that there should be no renewable energy development out here,” Hund said. “But I think it needs to be thoughtful, smart and avoid impacts to important conservation lands.”

Other areas that would be affected by the rule changes include wildlife corridors near beloved desert landscapes, such as Death Valley national park, Mojave Trails national monument and Joshua Tree national park.

The amendment would also change or eliminate 68 existing conservation rules. The changes would allow for greater impacts in recreation areas used by hikers, birders and off-road vehicles.

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Officials say that the new plan – which amends an existing Obama administration plan for renewable energy development in the desert – is needed because otherwise there will not be enough land available for solar and wind projects.

As California slowly shifts away from fossil fuels, “large expanses of desert landscape will be needed to bring alternatives online to avoid blackouts and new constraints on the grid”, Casey Hammond, an assistant secretary at the interior department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, said in a statement.

Hammond, who joined the department shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, said he hopes making more federal land available for renewable energy projects will balance energy consumption, “as well as keeping the lights on and the air conditioning blowing”.

Local conservation groups are not convinced. In a statement, Defenders of Wildlife called the amendment “ill-conceived” and Pamela Flick, the non-profit’s California program director, described the move as “the last gasp of the current anti-environment administration” that will only impede efforts by Joe Biden, the president-elect, to meet clean energy and climate goals.

The California Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein released a statement saying changes to existing law made “no sense”, adding: “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.

“I will work with the new administration to immediately block this rule change when President Biden takes office next week,” Feinstein said. “The desert plan carefully balances recreational use, energy production and preservation. There is no reason to amend it now.”

Other state lawmakers are also opposing the move. The public has 90 days to comment on the proposed changes.