BLM Provides Offsite Mitigation for Private Land Development… Gets $ for Restoration.. Without Conservation Leasing


We’ve been following the federal land preservation vs. renewable energy build-out debate for some time.  Right now this seems to have caught some media attention as the Joshua Trees vs. solar panels debate.  According to K.T. Lynn, who writes the Substack “The Joule Thief”,

Last week, a little-known conservation group called Basin and Range Watch went viral in energy and environmental circles on Twitter (now X), drawing attention to the imminent plight of the Joshua trees in the following post:

4,200 Joshua trees are scheduled to be removed are [sic.] replaced by solar panels for the Aratina Solar Project near Boron, CA in June of this year. They will not be salvaged but funds based on the size of the tree will be placed in a mitigation bank

According to its Draft Environmental Impact Report, The Aratina site sits on 2,317 acres of privately owned land in the high desert of eastern unincorporated Kern County. Project plans include the installation of 530 MW of solar PV modules, and an energy storage facility providing capacity of up to 600 MWh for the electrical grid. Located in the Antelope Valley on the western edge of the Mojave, the topography is elevated and mostly flat, and therefore highly suitable for utility-scale solar.


The L.A. Times’ environment columnist Sammy Roth mentioned Avantus in an ode to building renewables on public lands , praising the company’s habitat restoration projects — a classic PR deflection technique that should have raised skepticism and prodded further investigation. As Mr. Roth accurately reported, Avantus purchased 215,000 acres of grazing rights in Kern County from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in order to retire those rights and restore the natural Mojave ecosystem, including desert tortoises, burrowing owls, ground squirrels, and…Joshua trees. What the Times apparently did not bother to find out was that this land acquisition serves (at least in part) as the mitigation bank that will be used to offset the destruction of the 4,200 Joshua trees on the Aratina solar site. For those unfamiliar with the mitigation bank concept, it is a variation on the carbon offset program, where, according to Investopedia “ecological loss…is compensated by the preservation and restoration of wetlands, natural habitats, and streams in other areas.” These plans are blatantly stated on Arantina’s website:

One novel mitigation approach is the Onyx Conservation Project, which Avantus created in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In Eastern Kern County, Onyx permanently protects 215,000 acres of critical California habitat – home to 20 sensitive wildlife species, including the Mojave desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel, as well as an estimated 80,000 acres of western Joshua Tree habitat.

The story of Joshua Tree protection is fairly interesting.  KT goes on to say:

It is likewise noteworthy that supposed environmental NGOs are fully onboard the bandwagon to build utility solar on virgin desert, without so much as acknowledging the apparent contradiction to their original missions of conservation. In a letter to BLM submitted by a coalition of advocacy groups (NRDC, Audubon, The Wilderness Society) and for-profit energy companies (EDF Renewables, Intersect Power, Longroad Energy), the unholy alliance of signatories urged the agency to hasten the construction of solar projects on federal lands (which inevitably comes at the cost of performing due diligence and thorough environmental impact studies).

What was most interesting to me, though, is the Onyx Conservation Project which “permanently protects” 215K acres of critical habitat.  It sounds like the company bought out a grazing allotment and has done some kind of deal with the State of California for that to count for mitigation for their industrial facility on private land.  From Power magazine:

The resulting Onyx Conservation Project (Onyx), in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reflects Avantus’ creative and concerted approach to building clean energy responsibly while preserving precious land and delivering on President Biden’s America the Beautiful campaign. Onyx conserves and reallocates more than 215,000 acres — roughly seven times larger than San Francisco — from an active grazing allotment to an area permanently dedicated to wildlife forage in Kern County.

Here’s a bit more explanation:

Going beyond the requests of local residents and requirements of the WJTJCA, Avantus purchased the grazing rights on 215,000 acres of federal land in Kern County and created the Onyx Conservation Project. The contiguous land area is seven times larger than the city of San Francisco and considered among the largest mitigation projects in the nation.

The habitat is home to 20 sensitive wildlife species including the California condor, Mojave Desert tortoise, American badger, Mohave ground squirrel and golden eagles. It is also estimated to include more than 80,000 acres of western Joshua tree habitat, including 3,000 acres of dense woodland. This conservation effort will help sustain the health and diversity of the desert ecosystem, which is underlaid by designated Wilderness Areas, Desert National Conservation Lands, and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. All 215,000 acres will also be open for public recreational use, including hiking and camping.

Avantus will also invest millions of additional dollars for habitat enhancements across Onyx to jumpstart restoration for desert plants and wildlife species.

I’m glad that Avantus buying the grazing leases didn’t enable them to kick off the public.

My Questions:

1. Should federal land (possible removed from current uses) be used to mitigate private development? Since most federal land is more or less conserved, wouldn’t it be better for the environment to buy and mitigate private land?

2. If industries are using taxpayer land for mitigation (remember conservation now counts as a use, at least according to BLM PR) how much should they be paying the taxpayer? Should this be consistent? What should it be based on?

3. Is the concept of “permanent” as in “permanently dedicated” a journalistic error, or is there something going on outside the RMP process, or were they already permanently protected by  their existing RMP based status and this is just marketing for the company to claim credit?

4. If the BLM can do this kind of thing already, why did it need a new rule to do “conservation leasing”?

5. Could this increased desire for mitigation on federal lands have anything to do with political donations?

In some areas, if you take off cows, you end up with large amounts of dry grasses that are fire hazards.  Hopefully that is not the case in this area.

4 thoughts on “BLM Provides Offsite Mitigation for Private Land Development… Gets $ for Restoration.. Without Conservation Leasing”

  1. Seems like she’ll game to me. Also Joshua trees have a complex life style involving a moth that lives underground part time. They need protection where they occur.

  2. In this dry environment, how many acres does it take to feed one AMU?

    I think 500 acres may be a possible answer.

    215,000 acres / 500 = 430 Animal Unit Months X $1.30 per AMU = $559/month – the fee for the grazing lease, or $6708/year.

    If these numbers are anywhere close, then the company is getting off pretty easy.

    • Glenn, those are interesting questions. Supposedly they retired the lease… how much does it cost to retire a lease? The State BLM public affairs folks should be able to answer if you want to look into this further. Plus the company apparently committed some dollars to restoration, that should be in the agreement. Or the company media relations might tell you about it. Anyway, if you’re interested in pursuing, I’ll post what you find on TSW.

  3. Three thoughts on your questions:

    1. You can protect more acres if you don’t have to buy the land (but conservation easements that restrict uses can be purchased on private land). You also have to compare the conservation value of the parcels of land, and there may not be a lot of private land that provides comparable values in some cases. I wouldn’t complain about an “all of the above” strategy here (but choosing specific actions would also depend on who pays who and how much)

    3. I would question this, too. It looks like all they have done is buy out grazing rights, but those rights aren’t permanent. (I believe there is an ongoing dispute over reopening areas to grazing that were previously bought out.) RMPs/LMPs don’t make “permanent” decisions.

    4. Mitigation banking requires damage somewhere else; conservation leases would not.


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