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(Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

The desert is hot right now — and not just because it’s August. Two proposals for managing California’s deserts are entering crucial stages, and a third just popped up.

The one that covers the largest footprint is the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which would apply to much of the desert portions of six counties — San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside, Inyo, Kern, Imperial and San Diego. This 9.8 million-acre plan, as big as that sounds, actually has been scaled down, not only in acreage but also in scope and inter-agency collaboration.

The objective of the DRECP is to provide a streamlined process for development of utility-scale renewable energy projects while at the same time providing conservation and management of endangered and threatened species, natural communities and cultural and scenic resources.

The idea is that certain swaths of the desert essentially would be “zoned” for big energy projects, while other, more sensitive areas would be zoned for conservation of natural resources. Any company that wants to put a project within those designated areas would get expedited permissions, avoiding some of the usual hoops and obstacles that such a venture faces.

It makes sense, which is why we endorsed the planning process last year. At that point the draft DRECP was a collaboration of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The plan was supposed to cover state and private lands as well as federal lands.

But considerable pushback — including from San Bernardino County — prompted a change in course in March to a phased approach. So the federal piece, covering the 9.8 million acres under BLM management — including 5.8 million acres in San Bernardino County — is moving ahead as Phase 1, giving the state and counties more time to develop their own planning.

Now officials are choosing among five alternative versions of the DRECP — six, counting the option of leaving the lands’ management as it is.

The “Preferred Alternative” is a good balance of energy and conservation needs. It identifies more than 2 million acres of development focus areas (DFAs) for energy projects, including 456,000 acres on public and confers National Conservation Lands status on nearly 4 million acres of BLM-managed lands.

However, conservation groups are right to be concerned about some vagueness in the way BLM is looking at the land it plans to add to the National Conservation Lands System under the DRECP. In the final plan, that designation should be permanent, as it is throughout the rest of the system — subject to undoing only by an act of Congress. And no new mining claims should be permitted on that conservation-designated land.

All existing, valid mining claims will continue in any case, unaffected by the DRECP.

As we mentioned, there are two other major proposals affecting our deserts.

One is an expansion of Joshua Tree National Park. We weighed in on that one recently, favoring the largest proposed addition of land to the park.

The other is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recent request for President Obama to designate three new national monuments in the desert. Our board will look at that proposal in coming weeks.

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