Trump administration officials announced this week that they’re considering dropping protections for a vast swath of the California desert to open up more land to energy development.
The warning is similar to the one that led to the dramatic reduction of protected land in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah to provide drilling and mining rights to energy industries.
The federal Bureau of Land Management said in a statement Thursday that it’s taking a new look at millions of acres in the desert region of southern California to comply with Donald Trump’s executive order last year to increase energy development on public lands.
“We need to reduce burdens on all domestic energy development, including solar, wind and other renewables,” Interior Department deputy assistant secretary Katherine MacGregor said in a statement announcing the review.
Though MacGregor referred to renewable energy development, the administration is also seeking comments about increasing access to the public lands for mining, grazing, and off-road vehicles.
Conservationists are skeptical that changes would focus on renewable energy, given Trump’s often expressed support for fossil fuels. His administration has sought subsidies for coal plants, and last month Trump approved an import tax on solar energy panels.
Alex Daue, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, called the move a “cynical attempt by the Trump administration to undermine both renewable energy and conservation.”
Any changes could scuttle the current state-federal Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan that balances protections of fragile federal desert land and species in southern California with the planned development of some 20,000 megawatts of renewable solar and wind energy. A California law requires that half of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030.
The vast southern California desert, one of the largest intact ecosystems in the nation, is home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and Joshua trees.
The entire DRECP planning area covers approximately 22.6 million acres of public and private land in seven southern California counties amid the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, and the Mojave National Preserve. The Trump administration will look at close to 11 million acres owned by the public. The current plan sets aside some 6.5 million acres for conservation and 3.5 million acres for recreation (with overlap). But it also allows clean energy development, mostly solar and wind power, on 388,000 acres — more than 600 square miles. Up to 2,000 square miles of desert could be developed for clean energy if needed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The current plan is a modification of one developed early in the Obama administration, which allowed for the development of renewable energy sources but lacked critical environmental protections that were added in 2016.
The BLM will accept public comments on the issue until March 19.