Washington, DC — Legislation slated as the first order of business for the incoming 111th Session of Congress to codify the National Landscape Conservation System inexplicably excludes most of what some call its crown jewel, the California Desert Conservation Area. The real reasons behind this exclusion are a mix of politics and plans for large-scale industrial development of the California desert, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
At issue is the level of protection accorded to more than six millions acres – an area bigger than New Jersey – of the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) which includes sections of three major American deserts: the Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin. Congress is considering giving a statutory charter to the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), a network of national monuments, historic trails and conservation areas within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) created by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt late in the Clinton administration.
CDCA was created by Congress before the advent of the NLCS and has always been considered part of that system. In fact, BLM official maps and fact sheets show CDCA as included within NLCS.
Overruling its California staff, BLM Headquarters quietly decided that CDCA would not be included in the pending codification legislation but has offered no public explanation. Documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) contain this conclusion:
“No, CDCA would not be included in the NLCS under the current pending legislation. BLM has reviewed the legislative history…and found it inconclusive in regard to this question. Our intent is to use this information only upon request.”
PEER has asked for the underlying legal opinions leading to this conclusion but the agency has not responded, and today PEER filed a federal lawsuit to obtain the withheld documents. In the materials released to PEER is this exchange between a BLM official and the head of a multiple use group:
“You told me why the Cal. Desert was excluded from the NLCS legislation…Part of the answer was the huge amount of solar energy installations already in place and the potential for more. Right?”
“Stunning and ecologically important places such as Big Morongo Preserve and Afton Canyon will be left open to development if the California Desert Conservation Area remains on the legislative cutting room floor,” stated California PEER Coordinator Karen Schambach. “The unspoken plan is for corporate conversion of large parts of the CDCA into giant energy farms and transmission corridor superhighways.”
The local congressional representative, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), reportedly wants to keep most of the CDCA out of the NLCS, while the state’s senior senator, Diane Feinstein, has pledged to have the entire CDCA included. To paper over the difference, the bill managers for the 153-bill omnibus measure containing the NLCS authorization will add a floor amendment stating that “public land within the CDCA is administered by the BLM for conservation purposes” but that language will leave to BLM discretion which lands will actually be included in the NLCS.
“Why does the National Landscape Conservation System need to be dismembered in order to become permanent?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Interior Inspector General is currently investigating alleged collusion between BLM officials and organizations sponsoring the NLCS bill. “The omission of the California desert is no glitch; this is a hidden development agenda cloaked in happy talk about conservation.”