Bishop, CA — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced that it is withdrawing its environmental assessment on a proposal to allow the construction of a new road through Furnace Creek. This rare perennial desert stream in the eastern Sierra Nevada winds its way through California’s largest unprotected wilderness, including the White Mountains Wilderness Study Area.
In response to numerous protests in opposition to road construction from the conservation community and the California Department of Fish and Game, the Bureau withdrew its environmental assessment and proposed amendment to the California Desert Conservation Area Plan “for further consideration.” The Bureau received more than 7,000 public comments in support of protecting Furnace Creek from unnecessary off-road vehicle damage, and the agency’s own analysis estimated that the new road would be used by only a dozen people per year.
“This decision is a victory for the responsible majority of public-land visitors,” said Paul McFarland, executive director of Friends of the Inyo. “With massive budget shortfalls for public-land management, we need to focus on what we can do to make recreation and land health better for everyone.”
Furnace Creek’s wetlands have been protected from needless off-road vehicle abuse since 2003, pursuant to the settlement of a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.
“Water binds the desert web of life together, and many desert creatures rely on riparian areas for survival. Preserving rare and unique desert oases like Furnace Creek is critical to ensuring the health of the entire desert ecosystem,” said Chris Kassar, wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our victory means that this fragile place and the life it supports will now have the opportunity to recover even more fully. This is a great day for Furnace Creek.”
Furnace Creek provides streamside habitat used by the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher during migration, along with nesting habitat for Costa’s hummingbird and eight other bird species of conservation concern, as well as important fawning and winter habitat for mule deer. The closure has also helped curtail illegal road proliferation into the heart of the White Mountains on the Inyo National Forest, home to sage grouse and the world’s oldest trees, bristlecone pines.
Owing to the fragile nature of Furnace Creek’s desert wetlands and the steep, erosive canyon walls, it is not possible to resume off-road vehicle use without causing substantial adverse impacts to the creek, the wilderness character of the area, important water resources, and other natural values. Unlike a handful of other, well-used routes that cross water in the eastern Sierra, such as the Wyman-Silver Canyon Road, Furnace Creek lacks a discernable, passable and used route over much of its length since washing out in the early 1980s.
“We trust this reversal signals a final end to a bad idea,” added Karen Schambach, California director for PEER. “Given the unmet funding needs for critically needed ecosystem restoration and road maintenance on our public lands, this project was a boondoggle that should have been dead on arrival.”