SAN FRANCISCO – A broad coalition of public employees, rural property owners and conservation groups today challenged the Bush administration in federal court for failing to protect private property, conservation lands and endangered wildlife from off-road vehicles across 7.1 million acres of the California Desert Conservation Area in Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Kern and Inyo counties.
“There is no question that excessive off-roading causes extensive damage to desert soils, vegetation, and wildlife,” said Jeff Aardahl, a respected biologist and manager who recently retired after working for 35 years in the California desert with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service. “BLM and FWS are well aware of the harm off-road vehicles are causing to public and private lands and the Desert Tortoise in the California desert, but they are doing little to nothing to stop it and are even making it worse by expanding excessive off-roading.”
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and others detail how new management and recreation plans by BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have turned a blind eye to the damage caused by off-road vehicles in the Western Mojave Desert (WEMO) and Northern & Eastern Colorado (Sonoran) Desert (NECO) regions of southern California. Congress created the California Desert Conservation Area in 1976 to protect the region's biological, ecological, cultural and aesthetic resources, which are “extremely fragile, easily scarred, and slowly healed.”
“Agency staff and the public are fed up with this administration’s ‘let ‘em eat cake attitude’ as the Desert Tortoise and other endangered species slide towards extinction,” said Karen Schambach, California Director of PEER. “It's a disgrace we have to go to court to save species from agencies that are supposed to be protecting and recovering them.”
There have been numerous complaints by private property owners about vandalism, violence and other damage caused by illegal off-road vehicle use, but poor BLM enforcement has left these problems unchecked. BLM’s new management and route designation plans – which allow increased off-road vehicle use – make matters worse, not only for area property owners but also for endangered wildlife, namely the Desert Tortoise.
“The science-based, proactive measures outlined in the 1994 Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan must be implemented on the ground to stabilize and recover Desert Tortoise populations,” said Dr. Michael Connor, a tortoise biologist. “In contrast to the recovery plan’s recommendations, BLM’s NECO and West Mojave plans authorized more off-roading and other harmful activities that are incompatible with tortoise recovery. The Desert Tortoise was listed 17 years ago. It is high time that these problems were fixed.”
The Alliance for Responsible Recreation brings a strong challenge to the BLM’s flawed, pro off-road “decision tree,” used to determine if specific off-road routes will be open or closed. The “decision tree,” designed by an off-road advocate, almost always results in routes being designated open to off-road vehicles, even when they harm endangered species or lead to illegal off-road trespass on private property bordering BLM lands.
“The BLM is not being a good neighbor when it invites people to trespass across private property, and it's not being a good steward of our public lands when it arbitrarily creates a spaghetti bowl of off-road routes without care of its impact on our public lands,” said Jason Fried of the Alliance for Responsible Recreation.
“Desert Survivors has led hundreds of group trips on public lands throughout the California Desert Conservation Area and we keep seeing the same thing: off-road vehicles speeding everywhere, desert washes treated like motocross race tracks, livestock grazing where there is no grass, and new wildlife guzzlers proposed in roadless wilderness,” said Steve Tabor, President of Desert Survivors. “It's time for a change. In the age of Bush irresponsibility, this lawsuit is absolutely necessary.”
The legal challenge – which also addresses harm from commercial livestock grazing and artificial water tanks – seeks an invalidation of BLM’s NECO plan, WEMO plan and its WEMO route designation as well as FWS’s permits for them. The lawsuit also seeks a court order that will truly protect and recover the tortoise and other endangered species by requiring that the Department of Interior draft new plans.
“We have no choice but to go to court to challenge the unsupportable decisions of the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service in the California desert,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who formerly worked with BLM in the California Desert Conservation Area. “The Endangered Species Act works, and swift, corrective action to follow the law must taken by the Interior Department so the Desert Tortoise and other endangered species can stabilize and recover.”