Algodones Dunes, California Desert Conservation Area-With its latest environmental rollback, the Bush administration has finalized a plan to remove conservation of 50,000 acres of endangered species habitat on the Algodones Dunes that is currently protected by a 2000 agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), off-road groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The final plan is even worse than the bad draft. BLM grants new favors to industry by removing protections for the desert tortoise, moving a strategic ranger station, adding new vendor areas, arbitrarily increasing carrying capacity, and removing a requirement that off-roaders would have to pass an ecological awareness test before motoring into sensitive areas. Under the settlement agreement, over 106 square miles are open to unlimited off-roading, while the other roughly half of the dunes are protected for wildlife and scenic non-motorized recreation. This balance is abandoned and all available lands at the dunes are opened to intensive off-roading.
"Citizens are outraged that they're being ignored by anti-environmental politicians and bureaucrats who are trying to kill balanced dunes management," said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with CBD. "Secretary Norton just made a bad plan worse, and she invites litigation. We will challenge the Bush administration to protect the dunes, and we are confident we'll prevail in court."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently found that "destruction of plants and modification of habitat associated with off-road vehicle activity is considered the primary threat to Peirson's milkvetch." The BLM plan fails to use the best available science, instead relying heavily on an off-road industry funded report, which lacks scientific credibility and has never been peer-reviewed or published. BLM also ignored thousands of comments from citizens who want the conservation areas maintained to protect endangered species.
The State of California OHV Commission weighed in on the draft plan in December, denying BLM $1.1 millioin in state funding due to repeated failures to protect the dunes and manage for sustainability. The Imperial County-based Quechan Indian Tribe has also opposed BLM's plan.
FWS noted an off-road use increase at the dunes of 111% between 1994 and 1999, and projects that it will double again by 2012. They also noted that BLM's plan would significantly elevate impacts to the desert tortoise, and BLM will not be implementing an ORV carrying capacity.
"We'll be looking closely to see if BLM fully adopts the Fish and Wildlife Service recommendations, and if they haven't then we will challenge the plan," said Karen Schambach, California Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The pro-industry final plan 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 CBD petition to list the Andrews' 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 which must be preserved under the federal Endangered Species Act. As indicators of overall dunes ecosystem health, the milkvetch and other rare species including the Andrews' 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 the protected areas would be devastating to dozens of rare and endemic species, greatly worsen air pollution, and run off hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others. In addition to allowing intense environmental harm, opening conservation areas to off-road vehicles will displace non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in the Imperial Valley and Yuma at least $3.3 million annually in sustainable recreation related spending.
The conservation areas remain closed for at least another month to allow legal protests to be filed against the BLM plan.