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For Immediate Release: Sep 06, 2002
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

BUSH ADMINISTRATION FACES LEGAL CHALLENGE TO 5.5M ACRE CALIFORNIA DESERT LAND PLAN

BLM's NECO Plan Reduces Conservation, Harms Desert Tortoise, Biodiversity and Wilderness


Washington, DC - Signaling strong and broad conservationist rejection of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Northern and Eastern Colorado Desert Plan (NECO), ten prominent organizations with collectively more than 1.5 million American members filed a formal legal protest this week with BLM Director Kathleen Clarke. The protest seeks to have BLM officials analyze and address critical and long-raised wildlife and native plant conservation issues on 5.5 million acres of federal public lands in Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, California.

"The plan is so environmentally harmful, and BLM managers have so blatantly ignored their responsibilities and the public, NECO should really stand for 'No Environmental Conservation Offered'." said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center in Idyllwild.

"The tortoise is fast disappearing from the California deserts," said Michael Connor, Executive Director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee. "As participants in the seven year NECO planning effort we repeatedly asked the Bureau to consider implementing the recommendations of the Fish and Wildlife Service's 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan to help reverse this trend. The Bureau has ignored our requests. Instead, they have proposed a plan that will worsen an already bad situation for the tortoise. Where is the sense in this?"

Specifically, the ten organizations challenge BLM's NECO Plan for its failure to provide adequate environmental protections against off-road vehicle impacts; failure to properly respond to public comments; failure to adequately analyze the environmental impacts of the proposed plan, including ecological impacts to air and water resources; failure to analyze a reasonable range of alternatives; failure to comply with the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan; failure to comply with federal laws including the Endangered Species Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Executive Orders, and the Wilderness Act; and a failure to be consistent with the California Desert Conservation Area Plan.

Examples of major flaws in the BLM NECO plan include: Failure to protect washes from off-road vehicles: Washes harbor the highest biological diversity in the desert; and threatened desert tortoises spend most of their active time foraging and mating in washes. BLM's NECO plan unacceptably calls for opening all washes across 481,000 acres to off-road vehicles, threatening tortoise recovery. NECO also keeps cross-desert race routes. ORVs harm wildlife, water quality and the public lands experience of others.

Failure to follow the tortoise recovery plan on livestock grazing, vehicle routes: Signed by BLM and other agencies in 1994, the recovery plan is the science-based blueprint for tortoise recovery. BLM's NECO plan harms tortoise recovery by continuing livestock grazing by one public lands rancher on over 300,000 acres of desert tortoise critical habitat. Alarmingly, during this extreme and prolonged drought, BLM seeks to reduce even its current inadequate grazing management. BLM also fails to designate routes open or closed to motor vehicles, violating the recovery plan, agency regulations and executive orders.

Big reduction critical habitat in Cadiz area: The NECO Plan proposes to reduce critical habitat essential for tortoise survival and recovery by 62,000 acres. Although requested, no explanation for this habitat cut is given by BLM, but the likely reason is to help speed construction of the controversial Cadiz water project and pipeline.

Degrade wilderness with unnatural "guzzlers" and related driving: Wilderness areas are primarily designated by Congress to be free from man-made developments, yet BLM proposes to degrade six areas with 22 "guzzlers" (artificial water tanks). Guzzlers throw the desert ecosystem out of balance by favoring game species, while killing birds and other wildlife, and unnaturally provisioning ravens and other tortoise predators.

Big trucks and backhoes, usually prohibited in wilderness, are used to install guzzlers. Roads to guzzlers are created and CDFG will want to use trucks to maintain the tanks constantly threatening wilderness values. NRDC, Desert Survivors and other groups filed a separate protest, mainly in opposition to the guzzler plan.

"Neither the BLM nor the Department of Fish and Game have any study that demonstrates that guzzlers improve bighorn herd health or increase herd numbers." says long-time desert champion Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club. "We have absolute proof that guzzlers have killed bighorn sheep either by trapping them or poisoning them."

"Although artificial water sources are proposed to increase game species, the plan fails to evaluate the ability of the land to withstand inflated game species, or impacts to rare plants from their increased grazing." says Ileene Anderson, CNPS Botanist and Interior Secretary-appointed member of BLM's Desert Advisory Committee.

"This plan violates BLM's own guidelines and runs counter to the California Desert Conservation Act," said Karen Schambach, California Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Rather than weighing the benefits of each proposed route, as required, BLM is providing an ORV 'free for all' in extremely valuable tortoise habitat."

"By ignoring key parts of the desert tortoise recovery plan, NECO provides yet another example of a federal government intent on ignoring the needs of endangered species and the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," said Kim Delfino, California Program Director with Defenders of Wildlife in Sacramento.

California's Sonoran Desert area covered by the NECO Plan harbors interesting, rare and endangered species such as the desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, Coachella Valley milkvetch, Burro deer, Mountain lion, California leaf-nosed bat, Mecca aster, Golden Eagle, Burrowing owl, Southwestern willow flycatcher, Chuckwalla, and the Flat-tailed horned lizard.

The protest presents an important opportunity for the agency to avoid litigation, by fixing flaws in the plan before issuing a record of decision. For a copy of the protest, please contact Daniel Patterson at dpatterson@biologicaldiversity.org.