Imperial County, CA -- The Algodones Dunes, a scenic and active dune system harboring many rare, threatened, and endemic species, may be condemned to becoming an off-road vehicle sacrifice area. Last Friday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published their proposed Land Management Plan, which would open up over 40,000 acres that were protected from off-road vehicle damage. This decision flies in the face of several conservation organizations that fought to preserve more acreage in the dunes to ensure the survival of endangered species such as the attractive Peirson's milkvetch plant that lives only on the dunes.
"The Algodones Dunes are a unique and amazing natural area, not an off-road sacrifice zone." said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center. "We will fight this BLM special-interest scheme to remove balanced dunes management, and we will win."
Based on conversations with BLM managers, the plan's preferred alternative would reopen all currently protected dunes and adopt an "adaptive management" program that would attempt to limit the number of off-road vehicles present at any time in designated areas to 525. However, with a small enforcement staff at the dunes, monitoring the number of vehicles present at any time in these sensitive areas will remain a problem as it has in the past. Currently, BLM limited use areas are closed to off-road travel, and conservationists are concerned this will set a bad precedent.
"The new leadership at the Department of Interior is undoing even the fragile progress made in the Dunes over the past two years," stated PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer. "BLM's retreat means more money devoted to litigation rather than preservation."
The Algodones Dunes, stretching over 40 miles northward from the US-Mexico border in Eastern Imperial County, California, have been a topic of controversy for some time. National coverage has documented the off-roader violence toward BLM Rangers and extensive off-road vehicle abuse in the area whereby species such as the endangered milkvetch and desert tortoise habitat have been destroyed by off-roaders. Last fall, a New York Times headline declared the dunes, "The Most Illegal Place in the World." Historically, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allowed off road vehicles to dominate 77% of the 150,000 dune ecosystem, leaving only the 32,240 acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness closed to off-roading.
In November 2000, to protect dunes, wildlife BLM and five off-road groups agreed to ban off-road vehicles from an additional 49,310 acres of the Algodones Dunes as the result of a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The agreement, which leaves half the dunes open to off-roading, is to remain in effect until a permanent solution is developed to save the Peirson's milkvetch from extinction by off-road activity. However, the Bureau's plan is wrought with incorrect and misleading studies and a lack of appropriate analyses that would make the environmental impact statement complete and accurate. For example, by comparing aerial surveys done in a drought year to on-the-ground surveys by botanists in a very wet year, the BLM concluded that the milkvetch did not decline in the two seasons they looked. However, the Bureau is not an organization that can make that determination and it is speculated that the data used was old and inaccurate. It is not scientifically valid to draw this conclusion based on only two years study.
In November, the Center and California Native Plant Society sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service over their failure to designate critical habitat on the dunes for recovery of the Peirson's milkvetch. Habitat has not been designated and this lawsuit has not been settled.
Formed in 1954, the Desert Protective Council, a national organization with a long history of plant monitoring at the Dunes, wants the new management plan to protect the portions of the dunes that have been closed to protect rare and endangered plants, and designate the large central closure area wilderness.
"After fifty years of intense off-road vehicle abuse, many of the plant and animal species that have historically inhabited the dunes have declined or been eliminated," says Terry Weiner, Conservation Coordinator of the DPC. "We want the BLM to protect the remaining diversity of life in the dunes. Full protection for the remaining diversity in the fragile Algodones Dunes system is not even an alternative in the Draft ISDRA," she says. "That's a shame."
Another concern regarding the Land Management Plan is that the dunes are located in an air quality non-attainment area, meaning that clean air considerations regarding particulate matter, specially PM 10 dust, must be part of the monitoring. According to Roxie Trost, the Plan Manager at the BLM in California, the Bureau has done no air quality testing at the dunes, nor to they plan to do it.
"With the Algodones Dunes being located so close to a non-attainment area, I find it hard to believe that the BLM would not monitor air quality," said Alix Rauschman of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition. "Failure to include this potentially required analysis calls this proposal immediately into question."
Other people working for dunes conservation are: Paul Spitler, State of California OHV Commissioner and Executive Director of the California Wilderness Coalition in Davis CA, and Ileene Anderson, Botanist with the California Native Plant Society in Los Angeles.
There is a 90-day comment period for the Land Management Plan.
For more information on the BLM plan, contact Greg Thomsen, BLM El Centro Field Office Manager, 760.337.4410.
For photos and background on the Algodones Dunes, please visit: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/goldenstate/cdca/algodones.html