Originally published in The Desert Sun
By Dianne Feinstein
For decades, California’s desert was a battleground between companies seeking to exploit its natural resources and conservation groups intent on protecting pristine desert landscapes. Both sides saw it as a zero-sum game — one side had to lose for the other to win — and both would be embroiled in litigation for decades.
Then, in 2008, federal and state agencies began work on a plan that would balance the many needs of the desert. Over the next eight years — spanning the Bush and Obama presidencies — negotiations took place with conservation groups, energy companies, the Defense Department, seven California counties, recreation enthusiasts, industry partners and other stakeholders.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan — known as the DRECP and finalized in 2016 — was the result of intense negotiations, a plan that balanced strong protections for the most ecologically sensitive and pristine regions with renewable energy development and other commercial and recreational uses of California’s 10.8 million acres of desert.
The plan showed that renewable energy, conservation and recreation could exist hand-in-hand. It didn’t have to be a zero-sum game after all. As a testament to the power of good-faith negotiation, not one lawsuit was filed challenging the final DRECP.
In its waning days, the Trump administration tried to throw out this carefully constructed agreement and open all desert land to resource extraction without regard to environmental harm. But the Biden administration recognized the danger of that move and reinstated the DRECP.
Laura Daniel Davis, President Joe Biden’s principal deputy secretary for land and minerals management at the Interior Department, summarized the situation succinctly: “The Trump administration’s proposal in its final days to re-open the plan is unnecessary and at odds with balanced land management.”
That’s exactly right. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan wasn’t created on a whim. An agreement after eight years of negotiation between parties often at loggerheads was an amazing achievement.
The Biden administration and the state of California understand the need for urgent action. Both have pledged to protect 30% of land and coastal waters by 2030. The federal government has said it will eliminate electricity-sector carbon emissions by 2035, while California has vowed to achieve 100% clean energy by 2045. The DRECP will play a vital role in achieving these targets.
The public also understands the role it must play. Local communities were extremely vocal during discussions over the desert management plan, submitting more than 16,000 public comments. And they have good reason to be engaged: The rugged mountains and sweeping vistas of the California desert are home to everything from desert tortoises and bighorn sheep to Joshua Trees and Native American artifacts. And of course the desert has great potential as a home for renewable energy and recreation.
It’s those interests that led to consensus on such an ambition plan that allows for smart renewable energy development, protects pristine lands, preserves historical and cultural artifacts and encourages responsible recreation that boosts local economies.
Simply put, when government, conservation groups, industry and local communities work together, they can find a proper balance between disparate interests. Such cooperation is even more important today as we play catchup for the years that were lost to the climate change fight during the Trump administration.
Now that the Biden administration has affirmed its support for the plan, I’m hopeful that other areas of dispute can use the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan as a model to bring parties to the table for other contentious issues and reach consensus.
Dianne Feinstein is California's senior United States senator.