WEST MOJAVE DESERT, Calif.—The Bush administration faces a strong legal challenge from citizens to its plan to open up to 1,000 miles of new roads for off-road vehicle enthusiasts across 3.2 million acres of desert tortoise and other wildlife habitat in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern and Inyo counties. Conservation groups representing nearly 800,000 members filed a legal challenge to the West Mojave Off-Road Vehicle Designation Project on Friday, detailing how the one-sided off-road plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, National Historic Preservation Act and the California Endangered Species Act. At least seven endangered species would be affected, including desert tortoise, Inyo California towhee, Mojave ground squirrel, Lane Mountain milkvetch, cushenbury buckwheat, cushenbury milkvetch and cushenbury oxytheca.
“This is the latest example of the Bush administration’s extreme anti-environmental policies and contempt for wildlife conservation.” said Daniel R. Patterson, Center for Biological Diversity desert ecologist. “Mojave desert wildlife and habitat are in decline and off-road vehicles are a major reason, but Secretary Norton wants to increase off-roading. It’s absurd and illegal, and it will not stand.” The overwhelming majority of the 1,000 miles of new routes run through desert tortoise habitat, while at least 455 miles of the additional open routes run through the species’ federally designated critical habitat. These additional open routes and their location are enormously significant when viewed both in the context of the declining Western Mojave Desert tortoise population and in the context of the entire Mojave Desert. Berry (1996) found that tortoise populations decreased significantly with increasing mileages of linear disturbances associated with roads, trails, routes, and tracks, while USFWS concluded that “as mileage of roads, trails, and tracks increased on BLM study plots in California, desert tortoise populations declined at greater rates.”
“It’s a sorry day when the stated goal of the BLM’s plan is to better protect endangered species and the plan leaves the endangered species worse off,” said Elden Hughes, longtime desert conservation champion and Chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee
“The west Mojave ORV plan is yet another indication that BLM has given up on its obligation to manage ORVs in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Karen Schambach, Director of California PEER. “Instead, it represents this administration’s philosophy of pandering to off-roaders, regardless of how damaging they are to natural and cultural resources.”
Overall this “route designation” process is actually “route proliferation” done under the guise of a formal designation and mapping of “existing” routes, many of which were created by off-roaders driving cross-country across the desert. Authorizing the opening of these additional routes without any further action on the part of BLM will result in the violation of several state and federal laws:
1. The proposed Plan Amendment–if adopted as written–will violate NEPA; the opening of this additional route mileage will unquestionably result in significant effects to the surrounding environment. Therefore, BLM will be in violation of NEPA if they do not do a full Environmental Impact Statement for the project; 2. The proposed plan would violate the Clean Air Act, because it will increase harmful particulate dust (PM10) emissions in an area already designated as a federal non-attainment area for PM10;
3. The proposed Plan Amendment–if adopted as written will–violate the National Historic Preservation Act because a full inventory of the areas cultural resources has yet to be done and therefore no determination of the plan’s effects on such resources can yet be determined;
4. The project will violate the Endangered Species Act if the proposed plan is adopted without formal consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency must make a jeopardy determination on the desert tortoise and other listed species in the area. If the proposed plan does not receive formal consultation under Section 7 of the ESA, the proposed plan will violate Section 9 of the ESA, because the route proliferation will result in unauthorized take of listed species without an incidental take statement.
Interior Secretary Norton was unresponsive to these points during the comment period. Contact BLM Director Kathleen Clarke for comment, at (202) 208-3801