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SAN DIEGO–Shunning environmentalists and the local Congressman, U.S. Reps. Richard Pombo and George Radanovich will host a meeting August 18 at Sea World. The so-called Congressional hearing will focus on the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA), especially the controversial Algodones (Imperial) Sand Dunes. Only off-road industry representatives and local anti-environmental politicians have been invited to participate. There will be no environmental voice included in a panel of "stakeholders," and the Congressman for Imperial County, Bob Filner, was not invited to participate. Environmentalists will boycott the event.

"They are missing a chance to get the full story–clearly this is not a legitimate hearing to gather information from all sides of the issue," said Daniel Patterson, Center for Biological Diversity ecologist who formerly worked with BLM in the California Desert. "Pombo’s dishonest and divisive one-sided ‘hearing’ is un-American and anti-democracy. It is nothing more than an anti-environmental rally for destructive industries that want America’s scenic public lands all to themselves. They want excess, not access."

Designated by Congress in 1976 as a fragile, scenic place that is easily scarred and slow to heal, the CDCA includes 11 million acres of public lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The area harbors 24 federally-listed endangered species, including the desert tortoise, Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep, Peirson’s milkvetch, desert pupfish and Inyo California towhee. The CDCA offers no shortage of off-roading opportunity–often to the detriment of endangered wildlife–with over 16,000 miles of open off-road vehicle routes and over 600,000 acres of off-road vehicle "open areas" where intensive use and cross-country travel is allowed (BLM figures).

Located in the Sonoran desert of southeastern California’s Imperial County, the scenic and remote 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.

On August 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the need for conservation at the dunes by proposing 53,000 acres for critical habitat designation. The wildlife agency recognized off-roading as the primary threat to endangered species on the dunes, and noted that a proposed BLM plan will not protect them.

Karen Schambach, California Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called the hearing "an embarrassment to Congress." "Pombo is an opportunistic rabble rouser whose real problem with the Endangered Species Act is not that it hinders legitimate use of public lands, but that it might restrict his own voracious real estate ambitions. This rally will be industry beating up on public servants who are trying to follow the law."

"Pombo’s event is nothing but a cover-up for a big desert land-grab," explains Ron Gaul, local angler and multiple-use advocate from Ocotillo, Imperial County. "The off-road, mining and livestock industries want to lock up our public lands for their own uses, violating BLM’s own multiple use policy."

This event is part of a larger trend of Representative Pombo promoting his agenda to rollback our nation’s environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. Beginning in June, his committee issued a series of press releases attacking environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, and conservation organizations.

"Chairman Pombo’s real agenda is to rollback our nation’s environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act," stated Brock Evans, Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition. "We hope that he does not use this congressional hearing as a stage to push his anti-environmental views."

Pombo’s aggressive style has upset many of his Congressional colleagues, including follow Republicans. After Pombo was elected chairman of the House Resources Committee in a heated contest, Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado resigned from the committee in protest. (Sacramento Bee, Pombo Lashes Out on Environment, June 29, 2003).

The major newspaper in the Algodones Dunes area, The Imperial Valley Press, recently criticized the closed nature of the hearing.

"We cannot take this meeting very seriously," said Terry Weiner, Conservation Coordinator of the San Diego-based Desert Protective Council. "Pombo is excluding environmental voices and using county officials, federal employees and industry representatives as puppets to further his own anti-environmental agenda."

"This is another of Pombo’s sham field hearings where only those who agree with him are invited," said longtime desert protection champion Elden Hughes, Chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee. "The traditional off-roading areas in the dunes have never been closed. The real issue is saving species on the brink of extinction, which requires reasonable limits on off-road vehicles such as the current 50/50 management."

"Chairman Pombo and the Resources Committee need to hold fair and balanced hearings on these important natural resource issues, instead of organizing this one-sided rally to build momentum to roll back wildlife and wilderness protection," stated Sarah Matsumoto, Western Organizer for the Endangered Species Coalition.

"This is a missed opportunity for Congressmen Pombo andRadanovich to be educated on the full-range of issues in congressionally-designated California Desert Conservation Area." said Ileene Anderson, southern California Botanist for the California Native Plant Society and past two-term appointee and elected Chair of the BLM’s California Desert Advisory Council. "By not including scientists having actual on-the-ground experience on the panels, our elected representatives and decision makers are not able to access the latest research and best available science. A Congressional hearing needs to be about hearing all the facts on issues, not selective spin from special interest groups."

Environmentalists, off-roaders and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reached an agreement in November 2000 for balanced management of the Algodones Dunes to protect endangered species and allow off-roading. Thousands of public comments to keep the balanced dunes management in place were ignored by the Bush administration, which is directing BLM to finalize a plan later this summer that would roll-back environmental protections and open 50,000 acres of currently protected dunes habitat. Parts of that plan are already being challenged in court by conservationists.

The State of California OHV Commission weighed in on the BLM plan last December, denying BLM $1.1M in state funding due to repeated failures to protect the dunes and manage for sustainability.

The off-road industry lost a lawsuit in June challenging the dunes balanced management. Federal judge R.M. Brewster in San Diego upheld the legality and need for the partial off-road vehicle ban to protect wildlife, and found industry arguments challenging the need for closures "without merit."

On August 19, environmentalists will hold a "Rally for the Whales" in protest of a similar closed-door hearing in San Diego on the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Info: Mark Palmer at 415.788.3666 x 139.


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