We analyzed opportunities to offset projected impacts from BLM and private land solar projects by developing mitigation scenarios that differed in 1) the type of land ownership allowed to serve as mitigation, and 2) the mitigation offset ratio. The extent of this analysis included three subregions used in the Assessment: the Western, Central, and South Central Mojave Desert (Figure 2). We used only the northern portion of the South Central subregion (dividing it based on the ecological subsection boundary ) because the southern portion is covered by Joshua Tree National Park and an adjacent Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), which are land designations that do not allow for development.
To estimate subregional impacts, we used the mapped or estimated footprints of proposed solar projects on private lands in Kern, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties within the California Mojave ecoregional boundary and the verified ROW applications for BLM lands in California . For the BLM projects, we used the California verified Right of Way solar projects from a data download from November 8, 2010. For the private land projects, we used maps or available GIS data from Kern, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Specifically, for Kern County projects was a spreadsheet and digital map showing the location of the facilities, acquired from the county and dated September 9, 2010. The facilities were digitized based on this map and a point GIS file was created. The area of the facility was used from the spreadsheet to buffer the point to a circle with an area the exact same size as the listed size in the table. The source for San Bernardino County projects was from April 2010 and included two pre-application projects. These were digitized based on the locations and information in a digital map acquired from the county. We mapped the projects as precisely as possible to get the approximate acreage and location based on the information available, though we were not able to map projects more accurately than the parcel boundary. For Los Angeles County, projects were mapped based on available assessor parcel numbers and parcel data acquired in December 2010 from the county. The three county data layers and the BLM ROW layer were merged into one file within the extent of the subregional area. Each project was assigned to a subregion with no projects straddling subregions. We could not identify a data source for Inyo County in the western subregion.
To estimate potential ecoregional impacts from ROW applications, we included both California and Nevada applications. We assume that the whole area within the ROW would be impacted by the proposed projects, even though in many cases the area of the ROW application exceeds the actual development footprint. We caution that these footprints represent only the direct impacts associated with the projects, not indirect effects. It is also likely that not all of these applications will be developed. However, the purpose of this portion of the study is to characterize the magnitude of the impact of solar development based on a proposed set of projects and resultant mitigation it will require in one portion of the Mojave Desert.
To derive the amount of mitigation needed for species and vegetation system targets, we calculated the extent for each vegetation type and habitat for two species of conservation interest (desert tortoise , Mojave ground squirrel ) within the ROW applications and private land projects in the subregional study area. The calculated impacts for these 45 projects were used to identify potential areas to meet compensatory mitigation needs in the most efficient configuration (based on total area, length of outer boundary of selected hexagons, and conservation suitability described below) while contributing to regional conservation goals. We used the same tool for the mitigation scenarios that was used in the Assessment, Marxan (v. 1.8.10), to identify areas that can meet mitigation needs. We ensured that potential mitigation areas would contribute to conservation goals by allowing Marxan to select only Ecologically Core or Intact areas from the Assessment, without an existing protective designation, such as Federal Wilderness areas or Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. To ensure that the mitigation areas would be ecologically similar to the impacted resources, we required the offsetting to be within the same subregion as the impact. Additional parameters and goal amounts used for Marxan scenarios are shown in Supporting Information S2.
To assess mitigation needs, we used two sets of mitigation to impact ratios. The first set was intended to mitigate for the impacts of existing proposed projects (hereafter “current”). Current ratios were based on available guidance in existing regulations and recovery plans, although we included all target ecological systems, not just those for which mitigation is required under existing laws and regulations. The second set of ratios was intended to be a proxy for potential future build out of solar projects (hereafter “future”). “Future” ratios were defined as double the “current” ratios (Table 4). This simple approach to forecasting mitigation needs can be used to design programmatic investments, such as advance mitigation.
To assess the influence of land ownership on the availability of mitigation options, we ran scenarios with two alternatives: only using private land as suitable sites (hereafter “private land only”) and using BLM multiple use land as well as private land as options (hereafter “mixed ownership”). To ensure that the mitigation areas selected had relatively minimal degradation, we used an index of anthropogenic disturbance (road density, urban and agricultural land) adapted from Randall et al (2010) to define conservation suitability as the “cost” layer input for Marxan. The details of this layer and the input data are shown in Supporting Information S3. Using this cost layer in the Marxan mitigation scenarios provided a basis for comparison of the relative habitat quality available using the two sets of allowable land ownerships for mitigation.
For desert tortoise habitat distribution, we used the output of the habitat model developed by Nussear et al. (2009) and selected the top four scores (>0.6) of the classified output as a conservative representation of higher quality habitat . For Mohave ground squirrel, we used the boundaries of the conservation areas as designated by the BLM in California .
TABLE 4: Compensation ratios for current and future mitigation scenarios.
Mitigation ratios represent the proportional offset needed per unit of impact. Current Ratio refers to a hypothetical degree of offset to compensate for impacts to the target species or system based on a set of proposed projects. Future Ratio refers to a potential amount of mitigation that might be needed based on future build out of solar projects. Unvegetated systems include dunes, cliff and canyon, desert pavement, and playas.