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Those of us in Southern California may find this of interest.

Friday, March 25, 2005

BLM releases West Mojave plan
Contains policies for 9.3 million acres


BARSTOW — The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday released its West Mojave Plan, a controversial 900-page document that will influence economic growth, development and environmental policies across the desert.

The plan contains land management policies for more than 9.3 million acres — almost the size of Maryland and Delaware put together.

The sprawling plan area stretches roughly from Twentynine Palms and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to Lancaster; goes into Inyo County north of Ridgecrest and Trona; and encompasses Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and Fort Irwin.

The draft plan received criticism from ranchers, miners, off-roaders and environmentalists. And several years ago, local cities formally opposed a draft version of the BLM plan.

On Thursday, local government officials and others began reading through the three-volume plan, and many were reserving judgment until fully digesting it.

Jeanette Hayhurst, who has served on the West Mojave Plan steering committee for about five years, said she thinks the plan strikes a balance between protecting the environment and allowing development.

"The red tape involved with environmental issues is a real hindrance to development," said Hayhurst, a city of Barstow official. "It generally won't stop it outright. But it can delay it so badly, it can just kill it. Time is money to developers. If they have to wait a year or two years, sometimes they'll just go, 'Uh-uh, I'll go somewhere else.' "

The West Mojave Plan includes a framework to encourage development on land that lacks threatened or endangered animals and plants while discouraging development on lands that are important habitat for sensitive species.

The plan designates more than 1.5 million acres for "Desert Wildlife Management Areas" to protect sensitive species, mainly the desert tortoise.

However, Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's desert committee, said he expects to protest the plan.

"The plan started out with at least two stated goals of great significance to us — recover the desert tortoise and keep Mohave ground squirrel from having to be listed," he said. "It fails miserably at both those tasks."

Meanwhile, some leaders had positive things to say.

"It is truly an accomplishment that will help people use and protect our vast desert areas far into the future," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who represents much of the plan's coverage area. "I urge all who love the desert — for preservation, recreation or as a great place to live — to support this plan and help the BLM make it work."

Becky Warren, a spokeswoman for state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, said the senator is "looking forward to working with everyone through the process and (making) sure the public has a voice."

BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez said the plan, which still needs federal approval, will reduce the time it takes to get developers to get permits for their projects.

"Sometimes it can take a year, year and a half, two years by the time you do the studies, submit the paperwork," he said. "Once (the plan is) finalized, this will streamline that process so they can readily get their permits without going through all these huge delays."

If a company wants to build, say, on a previously disturbed vacant lot, it will pay development fees of $385 an acre. To build on undisturbed land, the cost is $770 an acre. However, to build in an area that is designated for protection of desert tortoises, the cost goes up to $3,850 an acre.

That schedule of fees will go into effect on BLM land when the plan is implemented.

As for non-BLM land, cities and counties within the West Mojave Plan area will have to choose whether to adopt the fee schedule or stick with the status quo — establishing fees on a case-by-case basis.

City of Victorville spokeswoman Yvonne Hester said the city will be interested in participating if the program does in fact streamline the process as promised.

Currently, some developers wind up paying no fees. However, the fact that developments can get under way faster — thanks to the speeding up of the permitting process — should outweigh the cost of the fees, BLM wildlife biologist Larry LaPre said.

The latest version exempts builders from doing environmental surveys in some areas — a move that saves time and money.

Currently, new developments always have to have surveying done to look for tortoises and to identify other issues, except for buildings that will be on "in-fills," or lots surrounded by other development. Sometimes, seasonal restrictions on surveys can delay a project for months, LaPre said.

From an environmental standpoint, LaPre said he thinks the best conservation features of the plan are the conservation areas for sensitive species and the restriction of no more than 1 percent new ground disturbance, which limits land uses such as mining.

The plan will be open for public protest until May 2, and this phase is one last step for people to give their views, Jan Bedrosian, a spokeswoman at BLM's California office in Sacramento, said. Only people who have previously submitted comments on the plan can file a protest.

San Bernardino County and the city of Barstow participated in the development of the plan as state lead agencies with BLM, the federal lead agency on the project.
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