Algodones Dunes, California Desert Conservation Area-The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has caved to political pressure and issued a permit to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that allows opening of 50,000 acres of endangered species habitat to damaging off-road vehicle use, despite asserting "destruction of plants and modification of habitat associated with off-road vehicle activity is considered the primary threat to Peirson's milkvetch." The biological opinion fails to use the best available science, instead relying heavily on an off-road industry funded report that lacks scientific credibility and has never been peer-reviewed or published.
The BLM will likely complete a plan in the next month to remove conservation of 50,000 acres currently protected by a 2000 agreement between BLM, off-road groups, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club. Under the settlement agreement, over 106 square miles are open to unlimited off-road use, while the other roughly half of the dunes are protected for wildlife and scenic non-motorized recreation. This has been abandoned.
"Citizens are outraged that anti-environmental bureaucrats are trying to kill balanced dunes management, by relying on biased industry reports to ignore clear evidence of off-road damage," said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We will challenge the Bush administration to protect the dunes, and we are confident we'll prevail in court."
Land managers with the two Interior Department agencies had been in a disagreement over the environmental harm of opening sensitive habitat on the Algodones Dunes to off-road vehicle use (see the L.A. Times: BLM, Wildlife Agency at Odds Over Off-Roading at Dunes, 9/13/02). The FWS is charged with overseeing federal planning that may affect endangered species, such as the BLM proposed plan for the dunes currently under review. In rare cases where the plan proposed would be so damaging as to drive an endangered species to extinction, FWS may issue a "jeopardy" biological opinion¾ordering significant revisions to a plan or action to allow species to survive. FWS biologists and managers in the Carlsbad field office had concluded last summer that the BLM plan would jeopardize the continued survival of endangered dune species.
The State of California Off Highway Vehicle Commission weighed in on the plan in December, denying BLM $1.1 million in state funding due to repeated failures to protect the dunes and manage for sustainability.
In issuing the permit, FWS noted a 111 percent increase in off-road use at the dunes between 1994 and 1999, and projected that this figure will double by 2012. They also noted that the BLM plan would significantly elevate impacts to desert tortoise, and BLM will not be implementing an Off-Road Vehicle carrying capacity.
"The opinion gives BLM another four years to come up with a management plan for the Peirson's milkvetch, when they've already had several years and have yet to take any action unless ordered by the court," said Karen Schambach, California Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "It does make some good conservation recommendations, but I've yet to see this administration undertake any voluntary actions to help endangered species." The pro-industry biological opinion continues a pattern of environmental neglect at the dunes by Bush's Interior Secretary Gale Norton. In January, FWS withdrew a proposal to protect the imperiled flat-tailed horned lizard. FWS has also missed a legal deadline to respond to a Center for Biological Diversity petition to list the Andrew's dunes scarab beetle. FWS is under a court order to soon propose critical habitat for the Peirson's milkvetch.
The key legal issue is survival and recovery of endangered species on the dunes, including the Peirson's milkvetch, a rare and attractive plant, and the desert tortoise; both must be preserved under the Federal Endangered Species Act. As indicators of overall dunes ecosystem health, the milkvetch and other rare species including the Andrew's dunes scarab beetle, Algodones Dunes sunflower, Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard, flat-tailed horned lizard, sand food and giant Spanish needle have been severely harmed by off-roading on the dunes. The BLM plan to remove 85 percent of their protected areas would be devastating to rare species, greatly worsen air pollution, and run off hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others.