Washington, DC —Late Monday a federal judge rejected a Bureau of Land Management plan for managing millions of acres of public land in the California desert. In response to a challenge brought by a coalition of conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Desert Survivors, the court ruled that the Bush-era West Mojave Plan violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by favoring off-road vehicle use over protection of sensitive desert resources such as endangered species and archeological sites.
“This is a huge win for the California desert,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court’s decision takes the Bureau of Land Management to task for designating thousands of miles of off-road vehicle routes while ignoring the significant damage these vehicles cause to our public lands and the wildlife that depend on these lands for their survival.”
The court rejected the Bureau’s use of a route designation “decision tree” that the agency used to designate areas for off-road vehicles – a decision tree that failed to take into account such legal requirements as the minimization of routes to limit damage to public lands and disruption of wildlife and habitats. The court found that the Bureau failed to provide adequate explanation for many of the route changes and actually added routes beyond the limit expressly set in the agency’s own planning documents.
It also found that the Bureau violated the law by failing to analyze alternatives that would reduce the number of miles of off-road vehicle routes so as to reduce impacts to resources; that the agency’s analysis of impacts of off-road vehicles on air-quality cultural resources, riparian resources, unusual plant assemblages, and sensitive species such as the Mojave fringe-toed lizard was inadequate; and that the Bureau failed to look at the impacts of cattle grazing on sensitive desert soils.
“BLM ignored essential environmental criteria when it designated off-road routes throughout critical desert wildlife habitat,” said California PEER Field Director Karen Schambach. “Besides wasting 10 years, BLM tiered numerous other bad decisions to this management plan. We hope they finally understand that sustainability of the desert ecosystem, not keeping off-roaders happy, is their top priority.”
"The BLM planning was backwards,” said Elden Hughes, honorary vice president of the Sierra Club. “They should first analyze the resources, natural, cultural, wildlife, etc., and then plan the route network. They put the route approvals first.”
The West Mojave Plan, under development for more than a decade, was finalized in March 2006 (incorporating the 2003 route designation), and the lawsuit was filed in August 2006. While the court’s decision concluded that the Bureau of Land Management violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, the court found that a review of the plan’s impacts on the desert tortoise undertaken by a different federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, did comply with the Endangered Species Act.