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Algodones Dunes, Imperial County, S.E. CA – A coalition of environmental groups led by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, and including the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), settled on Friday the first major issue in their 10.5 million acre, 24 endangered species lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by agreeing to habitat protection by limiting off-road vehicle (ORV) use through large area closures on the Algodones Dunes.

To protect the threatened Peirson’s milkvetch and other imperiled species, BLM agreed to cease off-roading on approximately 48,000 acres of the 150,000 acre dune ecosystem – the largest in California – of which about 118,000 acres or 77% was being managed by BLM exclusively for intensive ORV use. Protection of the 48,000 acres, combined with the 32,240 acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, brings more balanced land use to the dunes by increasing the amount of protected land to about 80,240 acres – 54% of the dunes. Most of the protective closure is focused on the central area of the dunes, with smaller closures north of the wilderness area and south of Interstate 8. An estimated 69,760 acres – 46% of the dunes – will remain open to ORVs.

“Our agreement with BLM is based on the biological needs of the species and will shield the minimum amount of habitat needed to protect and recover the Peirson’s milkvetch,” said Daniel Patterson, Desert Ecologist with CBD who formerly worked with BLM in the California desert. “It took our lawsuit to push BLM managers, but they are finally taking on-the-ground conservation action to save the milkvetch from extinction and protect the unique Algodones Dunes ecosystem.”

The settlement agreement, signed Friday by the plaintiffs and U.S. Department of Justice attorney Lisa Lynne Russell on behalf of BLM, went in to effect Friday afternoon and will become a court order upon approval by the Judge. The protective closures will remain in place at least until BLM completes a desert-wide consultation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and that agency issues its biological opinion; likely in late 2001.

“For a decade the BLM has ignored its resource protection responsibilities in the Algodones Dunes,” said Elden Hughes, longtime desert environmental champion and Chair of Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Desert Committee. “It is a shame that it takes a lawsuit and a settlement to get the BLM to do what it should have done years ago.”

“PEER hopes that this agreement marks a new understanding by BLM that managing off-road vehicles involves more than simply accommodating the use,” said Karen Schambach, PEER’s California Coordinator. “We look forward to working with BLM to ensure that the appetite of off-roaders for the California desert won’t drive to extinction plants and animals that live nowhere else on earth.”

Peirson’s milkvetch (Astragulus magdelenae var. peirsonii) is a silvery, short-lived perennial plant. A member of the bean and pea family, it can grow to 2.5 feet tall and is notable among milkvetches for its greatly reduced leaves. It produces attractive, small purple flowers, generally in March or April, on stalks with 10 to 17 flowers per stalk. Peirson’s milkvetch also has the largest seeds of any milkvetch, an important adaptation to it’s dunes habitat. Large seeds provide a greater reservoir of stored food and enable a seedling to grow a greater distance before emergence and/or depletion of their stored energy. In the U.S., the plant is known only on the Algodones Dunes. It is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) lawsuit, CBD et al v. BLM, C-00-0927-WHA, was filed March 16 in the 9th district federal court in San Francisco and assigned to Judge Alsup. BLM admitted liability and non-compliance with the Endangered Species Act in the case on August 25, 2000. The agency agreed to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over desert-wide cumulative effects of land management as prescribed in BLM’s 1980 CDCA public land use plan and negotiate settlements with the plaintiffs to avoid further litigation.

The Algodones Dunes settlement is the first of what may be several agreements between the plaintiffs and BLM to better protect and recover endangered species across the vast CDCA. The CDCA stretches over 400 miles from the US-Mexico border to Death Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The CDCA harbors 24 federally listed endangered plant and animal species and includes over 10.5 million acres of BLM public land featuring some of the California desert’s most scenic areas in Imperial, San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Inyo and Mono counties. Negotiations are on-going between the environmentalists and BLM to settle other major environmental issues raised in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are represented in this case by attorneys Jay Tutchton of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (Denver) and Brendan Cummings (Berkeley).

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