ALGODONES DUNES, CA - In response to the need to protect ecological recovery, and assist over burdened U.S. Bureau of Land Management Rangers, environmentalists will again be carefully monitoring the dunes on the ground and from the air between Christmas and New Years.
Nearly 50,000 acres of the dunes have been protected from off-road vehicles since November 2000 when the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Sierra Club reached an agreement with BLM and five off-road groups to restrict off-roading to protect the endangered Peirson's milkvetch and other rare dunes species. In some places, the recent recovery of plant life on the dunes impressive, but still threatened by off-road vehicles.
Conservationists want the current negotiated closures to work, but warn that additional violations will be carefully documented and could force them to return to federal court to move for complete closure of the dunes. They are committed to real recovery of the dunes, not just a paper closure that is not respected or enforced.
"We'll be primarily monitoring the closed areas, and hopefully we'll see unique plants and animals thriving - not being run over and killed." said Daniel Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Idyllwild who formerly work with BLM. "But if we see more blatant willful off-roading in the protected areas we will to take further action to protect the dunes." He explains, "If leaving over 68,000 acres of the dunes open to motor vehicles means the protected areas are still frequently violated, then the whole place may have to be closed to off-roading."
Off-roader compliance with laws protecting the six off-limits areas of the dunes has been mixed. Protection of habitat is particularly compromised on busy holiday weekends when the dunes are overrun with close to 200,000 off-roaders, many of whom blatantly violate protected areas. Many of the protected areas were damaged this Thanksgiving as motorized mobs swarmed the dunes. Rangers who are trained in natural resource protection were forced to respond to fatal accidents, a shootout, and stabbings, instead of focusing on their normal duties. Worse, one ranger fanced an attempt on his life.
Imperial County Supervisors declared a local state of emergency Tuesday (12/18/01) because of increasing mayhem at the dunes. On December 6, BLM Rangers filed a formal complaint about unsafe working conditions with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Karen Schambach of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says limiting numbers of off-roaders is imperative. "Current numbers are excessive both ecologically and sociologically. This year's crowds at the dunes forewarn of future problems elsewhere in the desert, as California's population continues to explode. We want BLM to manage the dunes in the context of the entire desert. No one wants to simply relocate the problems."
Calls from conservationists and others to reduce pressure on the dunes and and attempts by BLM to limit visitation to more reasonable numbers, have resulted in little real action by the agency. Instead, the BLM is to pulling law enforcement from elsewhere, including other states.
"Instead of establishing reasonable limits at the dunes to reduce the mob mentality, Interior Secretary Norton is compromising other remote wild lands by moving more Rangers to the dunes, leaving millions of acres unprotected." said Patterson. "BLM has to learn to turn on the 'no vacancy' sign. The agency's duty is to protect all lands it manages, and pulling Rangers from other sensitive areas to police rowdy off-roaders ignores the big picture of desert-wide protection."
For more information on the dunes, please visit: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/goldenstate/cdca/algodones.html