Conservation Conversation

By Garry George, Nov. 22, 2011


Can the DRECP save the Mojave Desert, Antelope Valley and Imperial Valley?

When the Governor issued the Executive Order that requires 33% of California’s energy to come from renewable energy sources of wind, solar and geothermal by 2020, he looked to our Southern California Mojave Desert as the potential source of a lot of that energy. In order to expedite permitting for federal and state endangered, threatened and sensitive species such as Desert Tortoise, Mohave Ground Squirrel, Swainson’s Hawk, Burrowing owl, California Condor, and Golden Eagle the Governor ordered the creation of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) under California’s Natural Communities Conservation Act and the federal Habitat Conservation Plan section of the Endangered Species Act. These sections of legislation were created to provide certainty of conservation of natural communities through reserves and conservation actions, while at the same time allowing for development in an area where there is an endangered or threatened species. One of the first NCCPs (Natural Communities Conservation Plan) in California was created on over 200,000 acres in Orange County to balance development there with conservation of California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) and Cactus Wren by creating over 37,000 acres of permanent reserves.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) process began in April 2010 with the formation of a Stakeholder Committee, Covered Species Committee, Covered Activities Committee and Mapping Resources Committee.   The final plan is hoped for adoption in March 2013. The scope of the plan is 22 million acres of the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran desert in six counties in Southern California. 12 million acres of those lands are public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the other 10 million acres are a mix of private lands including agricultural lands, national and state parks and forests, military installations and conserved areas. The Governor’s order also called for the creation of a team of Independent Science Advisors. That team includes our own scientific advisor Kimball Garrett as the lead on ornithology.

But this kind of large scale planning has some challenges for Audubon. Agricultural lands in the Antelope Valley and Imperial Valley are identified as “disturbed” lands by conservation groups hoping to direct development away from easily disturbed natural and more pristine areas in the more eastern parts of the desert. Agricultural lands provide important winter foraging habitat for sensitive species such as Mountain plover, Long-billed Curlew, White-faced ibis, Burrowing Owl and wintering and migrating raptors such as Ferruginous Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk and state protected Swainson’s Hawk. The Antelope Valley provides nesting and foraging habitat for migrating Swainson’s hawk as well as the 14 or so nesting pairs that nest in wind rows on farms and forage in alfalfa and other fields for gophers and insects in the fields 5-10 miles around the nest. Solar projects particularly remove these foraging areas. Audubon with Friends of Swainson’s Hawk has so far achieved 4,000 acres of mitigation in the form of conservation easements on farmland in the range of foraging of Swainson’s hawk that nest there from commenting on solar projects in the Antelope Valley. We may have around 16,000 acres to go.

Another challenge for Audubon is that the DRECP landscape level planning effort considers data on migratory birds that go through the desert every spring and fall as a “data gap.” These birds migrate in a broad front and there has been little or no mapping of migratory pathways or stopovers. We know that birds concentrate through windy passes, but we need the data to show this, especially since high winds stimulate wind development. Since recent estimates of acreage needed in the desert for wind energy development to meet our goals in 2050 is around 650,000 acres, much of it will be in the windy passes of the desert and the Tehacapis where high winds attract wind projects. To look more closely at migratory birds in the DRECP area, Audubon hosted a conference for all of the committees on using NEXRAD radar from military and weather installations to detect movements stopovers, and concentrations of of migratory birds and bats that might inform the DRECP conservation planning. The conference included experts from UC Santa Cruz, Clemson University, USGS and PRBO. The next step will be to evaluate whether an analysis of the data might provide enough information on the movements of migratory birds and bats through the desert to inform conservation actions.

A third challenge is the inclusion of the Tehacapi Mountains and Antelope Valley in the DRECP boundary. The build out of the Tehacapi Mountains with 28 wind projects from the Mojave floor to just south of Butterbredt Springs raises concerns from all conservation groups, not just Audubon.

Find out more on the DRECP at

Published Western TanagerVol. 78 No. 3 Jan/Feb 2012