SAN FRANCISCO – On Tuesday, September 26, a federal court ordered that the current off-road vehicle closures in the Algodones Dunes in southern California’s Sonoran Desert will remain in effect for the foreseeable future.
The continuing injunction will keep critical protections of sensitive habitat at the Algodones sand dunes in place. Following up on the March 14, 2006 ruling, the court ordered that the current off-road vehicle closures in the Dunes will remain in effect until Bureau of Land Management (BLM) revises the environmental review for the management plan and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) revises the critical habitat designation for the Peirson’s milk-vetch.
For years the dunes have been the scene of many controversies involving off-road vehicles and harm to threatened wildlife.
“This injunction is critical to preserving the unique habitat at the Dunes for the species that depend on them,” said Lisa Belenky, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court required nothing more than that the agencies comply with the law. BLM certainly knows that adequate environmental review must be completed before any changes in management at the Dunes can take place but it tried to cut corners and ignore many of the impacts of off-road vehicle use.”
The off-road vehicle closures at issue encompass 50,000 acres of the 180,000-acre dune area and since 2000 have been protected for wildlife and recreation by keeping off-road vehicles in other areas. Although this multiple-use management has worked fairly well on the ground, helping to preserve the threatened Peirson’s milk-vetch, desert tortoise, flat-tailed horned lizard, and other wildlife on the dunes, the off-road vehicle groups and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) pushed to end protection of these refuge areas.
“We are gratified that the court maintained these closures which have allowed the native plants and wildlife to thrive in at least one part of the Dunes,” said Karen Schambach, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility’s California Director. “The devastation of large areas throughout our public lands by off-road vehicles must be reigned in.”
“One has but to drive Hwy 78 across the dunes to see the remarkable difference on the north side of the highway with protected wilderness and the south side with vehicles everywhere,” said Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club. “The north is alive with desert plants and animals. The south side has few plants and no animal life. The rare and threatened species of the Dunes need the protections the judge has given them.”
The court vacated BLM’s decision and the environmental review for the Algodones Dunes plan (RAMP) and remanded those decisions to the agency to revise. The court previously found that the agency failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, all key national environmental laws.
The court also vacated the biological opinion from FWS that BLM relied on and remanded the biological opinion and incidental take statement to FWS to revise. FWS also must revise its decision on critical habitat for the Peirson’s milk-vetch. The court ordered that protections under the 2004 critical habitat designation will remain and that the 2003 proposed critical habitat will be reinstated during the time it takes FWS to revise the designation.
“The critical habitat protections for the Peirson’s milk-vetch are essential to the long-term survival of this unique desert plant,” said Ileene Anderson, wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The milk-vetch has taken a beating from off-road vehicles, including fragmentation of historic habitat and loss of young plants before they can reproduce and set seed that will become the next generation.”