SAN FRANCISCO— A federal judge Saturday issued an order forcing the Bureau of Land Management to redo its plans for off-road vehicle use on millions of acres of public land in the California desert and requiring the agency to implement protections for wildlife, water and air quality.
In response to a challenge brought by a coalition of environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Desert Survivors, the court issued a final order following up on a Sept. 29, 2009, decision rejecting BLM’s plan. It 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, including endangered species and archeological sites.
“This order provides immediate vital, protections for the resources of the California deserts from expanded off-road vehicle use unlawfully adopted by the Bush administration,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center. “The BLM has been ordered back to the drawing board on off-road vehicle route designations in the West Mojave to take into account the significant damage these vehicles cause to our public lands and the wildlife that depend on those lands to survive.”
The court’s order formally sets aside many of the route designations in the West Mojave while keeping in place critical conservation measures, including limits on development in areas of critical environmental concern and much-needed monitoring of impacts to species, water resources and air quality. It implements the court’s earlier decision, which rejected the Bureau’s use of a route designation “decision tree” to designate areas for off-road vehicles on the basis that it failed to comply with the law requiring minimization of routes in order to limit damage to public lands and disruption of wildlife and habitats.
Because the Bureau violated the law by failing to analyze alternatives that would reduce the number or miles of ORV routes to reduce impacts to resources — and the court determined 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 — the Bureau is now required to restart the process. The court also found that the Bureau failed to look at the impacts of cattle grazing on sensitive desert soils; the new order requires the Bureau to reconsider grazing designations. While the Court did not close any areas to all off-road vehicle use, it did roll back the expanded 2002 route designation.
"In the West Mojave Plan the Bureau ignored essential environmental criteria when it designated off-road routes throughout the West Mojave," said Karen Schambach, California field director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Besides wasting 10 years, the Bureau failed to implement the important conservation measures in the plan; now the court has ordered them to do so. We hope the Bureau finally understands that sustainability of the desert ecosystem is their top priority, not keeping off-roaders happy."
"The Bureau’s plan was flawed and the on-the-ground implementation was lopsided,” said Elden Hughes, honorary vice-president of the Sierra Club. “The Bureau opened new routes without implementing the protective measures for sensitive natural resources, wildlife and cultural sites. They didn’t even provide accurate maps of routes.”
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.