EL CENTRO, CA – The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to sign a record of decision for the controversial Algodones (Imperial) Sand Dunes Recreation Management Plan (RAMP) tomorrow. The one-sided RAMP seeks to eliminate habitat protections on nearly 50,000 acres of endangered wildlife habitat, sacrificing 86% of the Algodones Dunes National Natural Landmark to the off-road lobby. The Bush plan would also increase air pollution in one of California’s most polluted, highest asthma areas.
A federal court must rule on the legality of the RAMP, so BLM’s record of decision will not change any on the ground habitat protections in place since a 2000 court-approved cooperative agreement. The Center and other conservationists are confident the RAMP will be struck down by the court.
The Bush plan is a giveaway to industry, despite frequent off-road mob violence, deaths, attacks on rangers, and destructive chaos that lead the New York Times to label the dunes ‘the most illegal place in the world.’
“By refusing to deal with the issue of insanely large crowds and inadequate law enforcement, the Bush administration has chosen to continue to expose BLM employees unnecessarily to dangerous situations,” said Karen Schambach, California Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The primary harm to Algodones Dunes wildlife is intensive off-road driving – the dunes are hammered by upwards of 240,000 off-roaders on a single weekend. Off-road vehicles at the Algodones Dunes include sand rails, motorcycles, trucks, and ATVs whose tires cut deeply into the sand habitat, even when accelerating on level ground (Stebbins 1995).
The 2000 agreement between BLM, off-roaders, and conservationists leaves over 68,000 acres open to unlimited off-roading, while 49,310 acres of the dunes are protected for wildlife, and scenic non-motorized recreation. BLM refused to even consider an alternative of keeping current balanced management in place, despite the fact it has worked well for conservation and off-roading for five years.
“Interior Secretary Norton continues to ignore her conservation responsibilities at the Algodones Dunes,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center. “The Bush administration wants to scrap successful management and sacrifice the fragile dunes web of life to the off-road industry. The conservation community is forced to challenge this terrible decision, and we have a strong case to continue balanced dunes management.”
The BLM plan to remove the protected areas would be devastating to dozens of rare and imperiled species – including the Peirson’s milkvetch, desert tortoise, Algodones dunes sunflower, flat-tailed horned lizard, burrowing owl, and Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle – greatly worsen air pollution, and run off hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, Native Americans and others. In addition to allowing intense environmental harm, opening conservation areas to off-road vehicles will displace and keep away non-motorized visitors, costing nearby communities in the Imperial Valley and Yuma at least $3.3 million annually in sustainable recreation related spending.
In June 2003, conservation groups representing over 2 million members nationwide filed a legal protest to the RAMP, detailing how the one-sided plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, National Historic Preservation Act, National Natural Landmarks Program, California Endangered Species Act, Four Presidential Executive Orders, and BLM policy and regulations. Signing of the RAMP record of decision now subjects the plan to these important legal challenges. The protest, demanding a new EIS, was filed with the Interior Department by the Center, California Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Desert Survivors, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, Arizona Herpetological Association, Maricopa Audubon Society, Desert Protective Council, Yuma Audubon Society, and Imperial County residents.
“The dunes fully warrant continued protection,” said Elden Hughes, chair of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee. “BLM signing a plan otherwise doesn’t mean it can ever be implemented if the plan is illegal.”
The administration is also in clear violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to respond to two scientific petitions filed with FWS, one to list the Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle, and the other to list 16 Algodones Dunes endemic species, as threatened or endangered. The RAMP ignores these endemic species, and in December the Center put the Bush administration on notice that it will challenge these violations of U.S. conservation law.
Dunes are hotspots of desert biological diversity, likely because they are more mesic than other desert habitats due to their ability to store water. The Algodones Dunes are no exception, harboring dozens of rare endemic wildlife and plants within its habitat island. Animal species endemic to the Algodones Dunes are adapted to the hot, arid Sonoran Desert environment and often exhibit habitat specialization, such as dependence upon a particular host plant. Narrow endemic species and habitat specialists are considered more prone to extinction than widespread habitat generalists (Rabinowitz 1981, Sarre et al. 1995, Fischer and Stocklin 1997, Henein et al.1998).
During daylight and early evening, 80% of desert fauna are buried underground, and are subsequently crushed and maimed by off-road vehicle tires (Stebbins 1995). For example, scientific surveys comparing areas used by off-road vehicles with protected areas at the Algodones Dunes indicate that off-roading causes drastic reductions in the abundance of several beetle species (Luckenbach and Bury 1983). Off-roading also resulted in reduced plant cover, further threatening the survival of the rare endemic species of the Algodones Dunes that depend on these plants for food and breeding sites. Studies at the dunes have shown that even moderate off-road vehicle use results in significant reductions of plant cover (Luckenbach and Bury 1983, Hess in prep.).
BLM has continued to push its abysmal management plan despite scientifically proven adverse impacts of off-road vehicles on the species that inhabit the Algodones Dunes. Therefore, vulnerability from human-caused habitat destruction and unique restricted range and habitat specialist conditions for wildlife puts endemic species at the Algodones Dunes at risk of extinction.
In 2004, FWS rejected a petition by the off-road industry to remove Endangered Species Act protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch, finding that the rare and attractive flowering plant is harmed by off-road vehicles and in need of continued legal protection.
The Center and others attempted last year to negotiate with the American Sand Association, an off-road lobbyist group, seeking an agreement on long-term sustainable management options at the dunes, but ASA refused after the November election saying they expected favors from the Bush administration.
Conservationists want current successful dunes management continued, and BLM to produce a new RAMP that fully analyzes and considers current balanced management as an alternative.