Raise the topic of suburban sprawl in California, and you most likely launch a conversation about the San Fernando Valley, coastal Orange County, or the bedroom communities inland of San Francisco Bay. Only belatedly, if at all, will the conversation wander to the high desert, historically home only to scattered, windblown settlements scraped out of sand and creosote bush.

That image is no longer accurate. The high desert is booming, particularly the Antelope Valley and the hinterlands of San Bernardino County, thanks to cheap desert land, soaring housing costs near the coast, and the apparently boundless willingness of Californians to commute on congested freeways.

That boom has raised the stakes with regard to a habitat conservation plan (HCP) released in March by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and two local agencies. The West Mojave Plan is the largest HCP ever developed in the United States, a complicated set of strategies intended to balance development and other activities with conservation of habitat for more than 100 sensitive wildlife species. The plan encompasses 9.3 million acres, a tenth of the state.

The planning area includes public and private land in Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Inyo counties; 11 incorporated cities, including Palmdale, Lancaster, Victorville, Apple Valley, Yucca Valley, Ridgecrest and Barstow; four military bases; and two national parks. It runs from Olancha south to Joshua Tree, and from the San Gabriel Mountains east to Baker. About 2.9 million acres in the plan area are privately owned; the remainder is in public hands.

Twelve years in the making, the plan consists of two parts: new management regulations for the BLM's domain in the west Mojave - part of the sweeping California Desert Conservation Area established more than two decades ago - and an HCP governing private activities that affect protected species of plants and animals.

The HCP is intended to streamline a permitting process that developers and property owners decry as time-consuming, costly, uncertain and needlessly complicated, thanks to Endangered Species Act protections for federally listed species such as the desert tortoise, and for candidate species such as the Mohave ground squirrel. Legal protections for unlisted species such as the burrowing owl, commonly found in urban areas in the desert, make the development process even more complicated and expensive.

The Mojave HCP is like the other 500 or so HCPs adopted nationwide, in that it trades permission to destroy protected species and their habitat in exchange for preservation of habitat elsewhere and other protective measures.

The Mojave Plan sets aside specific zones around the region's fast-growing cities and towns where development will be allowed without requiring individual landowners to conduct wildlife surveys and apply for incidental take permits under the ESA. Local governments must sign on to the plan for its provisions to apply to development in their areas. Once they do, landowners will be able to obtain incidental take permits from the federal government through the standard city or county planning and approval process.

Streamlining that process for fast-growing desert communities was one of the primary reasons so many local agencies participated in the long, delicate process of negotiation that produced the plan, said Larry LaPre, desert district wildlife biologist for the BLM.

The plan sets aside 1.5 million acres as “desert wildlife management area” to protect the tortoise and other sensitive species. In those areas, some activities such as mining, off-road vehicle use and grazing will be allowed, but under strict limitations intended to keep ground disturbance to 1% or less of the surface area, LaPre said.

The plan also establishes a schedule of mitigation fees for development in the west Mojave, ranging from $385 an acre for construction on already disturbed land to $3,800 an acre inside wildlife conservation areas. The money is intended to help pay for $79 million worth of conservation projects identified in the document, LaPre said. The BLM will impose the fees for development on its property as soon as a record of decision is signed and the plan is implemented. For the fees to take effect on private property, individual cities and counties will have to adopt them by ordinance.

Local government officials and planners were cautiously optimistic about the plan, development of which was spearheaded by the BLM, San Bernardino County and the City of Barstow.

“We believe the plan strikes a good balance between protecting the environment and the sensitive lands while allowing for growth consistent with the city's general plan,” said Scott Priester, Barstow's community development director.

Environmentalists, however, are alarmed by increasing pressure to develop the high desert. And environmentalists are less enthusiastic than local officials about the West Mojave Plan, saying the restrictions it places on development, mining and off-road use are inadequate to recover the desert tortoise and protect other species.

“Because the government has decided to ignore science and endangered species recovery, the West Mojave Plan will be challenged” in court, said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The plan really is a giveaway to industry … It's a big disappointment to the conservation community.”

No matter one's view on the plan, growth is proceeding at a rapid pace, as illustrated by a recent U.S. Census report. According to figures released April 14, San Bernardino County grew 3.2% last year, adding about 59,000 residents. Over the past four years, the county's population has grown by 12.4%, more than twice the rate for the state as a whole. That growth is most rapid in the high desert. Victorville, for example, expects to see 4,000 new houses this year alone. On the western edge of the high desert, the Antelope Valley continues to boom. The combined population of Lancaster and Palmdale is now more than 260,000.

What the populous and pleasant coastal counties cannot offer, however, is relatively affordable housing, and that is the factor largely responsible for population growth in such places as Victorville and Morongo Valley. Although increasing demand is driving up prices even in desert towns, the desert remains considerably more affordable than the Southern California metropolitan area as a whole. The median house price in the Southern California metro region in March was $439,000, but in the high desert the median price was only about $260,000.

Larry LaPre, Bureau of Land Management, (951) 697-5220.
Daniel Patterson, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 623-5252.
Scott Priester, City of Barstow, (760) 256-3531.
San Bernardino County, (909) 387-4147.