Chuckwalla Bench Hedgehog Cactus

(The Sun, Greg Hill)

Southern California is home to some of America’s greatest natural wonders, including the California desert. Growing up in the Inland Empire, I spent many wonderful family trips in California’s public lands and parks, but it was the vast beauty and mystery of the desert that particularly inspired me. Experiencing the desert’s wonders planted a seed that would lead to my life’s work as a public servant.

Last year, I retired after working more than 30 years for the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, much of that time spent working in the California Desert Conservation Area. In the last chapter of my time at the BLM, I worked on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a historic effort to plan for the future of the California desert’s public lands. The DRECP is a blueprint for the desert that designates public lands for protection while also identifying appropriate areas for the potential development of renewable energy.

This blueprint is vital because over the last two decades, interest in renewable energy projects in the California desert has surged and the scale of proposed energy projects has grown. When BLM began to plan for renewable energy in the California desert, it became clear we needed a framework with a strong land conservation vision that works together with potential renewable energy developments.

We are now nearing the end of this important planning process. After seven years and thousands of public comments and input, the BLM released a near-final and much improved plan for the desert in November. As someone who knows these mountains and valleys intimately, I believe that the DRECP is critical to the future of California’s desert and our state as a whole. It’s also an innovative approach to a new problem that can serve as a model for other regions in California.

One of the great successes of this process will be the permanent protection of public lands that connect many of our existing wilderness and other special areas. These new protected areas will be included in the BLM’s National Conservation Lands, a collection of spectacular landscapes, rivers and trails that span the American West. These lands in the desert are well deserving of National Conservation Land status as they hold treasures like forests of Joshua trees, unique desert wildlife, and significant cultural sites.

As the process to develop the DRECP comes to a close, I encourage the BLM to continue pursuing every opportunity for land conservation. Already, great progress has been made on this front. Some of the lands designated for conservation in the DRECP do, however, remain susceptible to industrial development such as mining. While honoring valid existing rights, I urge the BLM to request from the secretary of the Interior withdrawal of these National Conservation Lands from future mining. When the plan is finalized this spring, I and many others hope to see a time-bound plan for withdrawing these lands from future industrial development. After all, mining in the special places set aside for conservation in the DRECP would undermine this innovative blueprint for the California desert.

I often think back to my family’s visits to the desert in my early years. Much has changed in our region since then, from increased air pollution to greater development. But time moves at a different pace in the desert. Geological changes are measured not in months or years, but in centuries. We would do well to protect the California desert so that future generations may enjoy the vast and timeless beauty of these spectacular landscapes. I believe that the DRECP is the blueprint that our region needs for this special place.

Greg Hill retired in 2015 after serving for 32 years with the Department of the Interior, most recently as the wilderness specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District. He resides in Yucca Valley.

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