WASHINGTON, DC--The Bush administration faces a strong legal challenge from citizens to its plan to open 49,300 acres of endangered species habitat on the Algodones (Imperial) Dunes to intensive off-road vehicle use. Conservation groups representing over two million members filed a legal challenge Monday to the administration's plan for the dunes, detailing how the one-sided off-road plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, National Historic Preservation Act, National Natural Landmarks Program, California Endangered Species Act, four Presidential Executive Orders, and BLM policy and regulations. Two federally listed endangered species would be hurt by the Bush plan, including Peirson's milkvetch and desert tortoise. The Bush plan would also increase air pollution in one of California's most polluted, highest asthma areas.
"Interior Secretary Norton ignored the compelling national conservation interest and wants to scrap balanced management to sacrifice a unique scenic area to the off-road industry," said Daniel Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We're not going to let that happen."
The protest, demanding a new Environmental Impact Study (EIS), was filed with the Interior Department by the Center for Biological Diversity, California Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Desert Survivors, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, Arizona Herpetological Association, Maricopa Audubon Society, Desert Protective Council, Yuma Audubon Society and Imperial County residents.
"The administration is continuing its pattern of ignoring environmental laws when those laws inconvenience Mr. Bush's friends. They make decisions that invite lawsuits, then accuse citizens of being litigious," said Karen Schambach, Director of California Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "And despite the administration's rhetoric about "local" decisions, this was decided in Washington. BLM staff in California are simply the fall guys."
Conservationists won an important legal victory last week when Federal Judge R.M. Brewster threw out a lawsuit brought by the off-road industry that sought to strike down wildlife protections on the dunes. The court also found "no merit" to industry claims that there is no environmental need to keep vehicles out of sensitive dunes habitat.
Located in the Sonoran desert of southeastern California's Imperial County, the Algodones Dunes are the largest dune ecosystem in the U.S. They harbor at least 160 different animal and plant species, many of which are endemic. The dunes also are heavily impacted by as many as 240,000 off-roaders on some weekends. This intensive use destroys vegetation and wildlife habitat, pollutes the air, and creates criminal problems that stress law enforcement. BLM closed 49,300 acres to ORVs in November 2000 to protect endangered species, but 68,000 acres have always remained open to ORVs--an area twice the size of the city of San Francisco.
"The Dunes plan presents a clear threat to recovery of Peirson's milkvetch and the desert tortoise and provides no evidence that it will not severely impact the survival of the flat-tailed horned lizard, burrowing owl, or several other species found only in this fragile desert system," said Cynthia Wilkerson, California Species Associate with Defenders of Wildlife in Sacramento. "As such, this plan clearly violates the BLM's legal requirement to protect ecological values."