The proposed monument includes vital habitat for threatened and endangered desert wildlife, including the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, and chuckwalla lizard as well as being the proposed location for the reintroduction of Sonoran Pronghorn antelope, and also offers important outdoor recreation opportunities for nearby communities. The area includes the ancestral homelands of the Iviatim, Nüwü, Pipa Aha Macav, Kwatsáan, and Maara’yam peoples, and contains sacred sites and objects, traditional cultural places, geoglyphs, petroglyphs, and pictographs. The proposal offers methods for Tribes to collaborate with the federal government, including potential co-stewardship of the monument.
The monument proposal is the result of careful planning and outreach conversations that prioritized conservation and cultural preservation, while still allowing renewable energy generation in the areas most compatible with development. These areas were designated through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a plan that balances conservation in the California desert with appropriate renewable energy development. Federal and state agencies adopted the DRECP in 2016, coming to a historic agreement on how to prioritize both conservation and renewable energy to reduce the impacts of climate change. The plan designates appropriate uses based on each area’s unique characteristics, including renewable energy potential, recreation opportunities, and conservation value.
“For renewable energy development, the companies are looking for flat land that is close to roads and close to transmissions. It was a massive planning effort where we looked across the whole desert and we looked at areas that have high conservation value, areas that have high cultural resource value, and high recreation value,” said Kim Delfino, California Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife on a 2019 episode of CWP’s The Landscape podcast. “We said let’s take those areas off the table, and let’s look at the areas that are left that have that flatness and closeness to roads, what’s left on the table? We were able to identify these Development Focus Areas on nearly 400,000 acres of land, which is much more than what the California Energy Commission says it needs [to meet state renewable energy goals].”
The DRECP designates 4.2 million acres as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Conservation Lands system, where energy development is limited to protect vital habitat and wildlife corridors. It also identifies 388,000 acres of Development Focus Areas, where solar, wind, and geothermal resources are plentiful, transmission is available, and negative impacts on biodiversity would be limited. Other BLM lands not designated for conservation or recreation remain available for energy development, though without the streamlined permitting process granted to the Development Focus Areas. Development Focus Areas can have a combination of available renewable energy resources including solar, wind, and geothermal areas, though the area surrounding the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument is primarily of interest for solar development.
Importantly, not a single acre of land within the proposed Chuckwalla National Monument boundaries overlap with the areas identified as Development Focus Areas (map 1). While there are areas where the boundaries are adjacent, the monument would not interfere with potential renewable energy development for these areas, and the DRECP would remain in effect for potential renewable expansion in these areas. This type of arrangement has worked for national monuments in the past; the nearby Mojave Trails National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama in 2016, is also directly adjacent to DRECP Development Focus Areas.
The proposed monument boundaries also overlap significantly with areas that the DRECP identifies as high conservation value (map 2), where energy development is off-limits. Through the DRECP, these areas were added to the BLM National Conservation Lands system, a broad term for any BLM-managed land with a conservation designation, which can include national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness, or wilderness study areas. The monument also includes areas outside the DRECP boundaries that already have conservation designations, including the Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness. In total, all but 1.5% of the proposed monument is already designated as Wilderness, National Conservation Lands, or an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument rejects the idea that conservation and renewable energy development on public land are at odds and instead embraces the challenge of achieving what’s best for wildlife, people, and the planet through careful planning. By designating the monument, President Biden has the chance to uphold his administration’s dual goals of expanding renewable energy and protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. This plan is a win-win for all aspects of the environment and provides a blueprint for how conservation and decarbonization can be achieved together on public land in the future. It’s time to make Chuckwalla a reality — the rapidly warming California desert has no time to wait.