SAN FRANCISCO – Conservationists received good news yesterday afternoon when Federal Judge Susan Illston issued an order dictating that current off-road vehicle (ORV) closures at the Algodones Dunes must remain in place for at least the immediate future.
The Algodones Dunes are the largest dune ecosystem in the U.S. and a spectacular example of southern California’s unique natural heritage. The Algodones Dunes are home to at least 160 different animal and plant species, many of which are endemic to the Dunes. Sometimes referred to as the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, the Dunes are also one of the most heavily visited off-road vehicle (ORV) playgrounds in the country, drawing literally hundreds of thousands of ORV riders on certain weekends. Heavy ORV use has harmed plants and wildlife, resulted in violent off-road crowds, and over-burdened agency staff and budgets.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Desert Survivors filed a lawsuit in May in part challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) biological opinion for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) proposed Management Plan for the Algodones Dunes. The conservation groups challenged FWS’s determination that BLM’s Management Plan, which would allow virtually unfettered ORV use on the Dunes, would not jeopardize the Peirson’s milk-vetch, a rare, endemic plant protected under the ESA. Because BLM was poised to rely on the flawed biological opinion to finalize its Management Plan and lift all of the ORV closures currently in place, the conservation groups sought a preliminary injunction from the Court to maintain the status quo at the Dunes until the case could be resolved on the merits. In other words, the groups sought to maintain approximately 50% of the Dunes closed to ORVs.
At the hearing on the conservation groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction, defendants FWS and BLM argued that the judge should not issue the requested injunctive relief because the agencies had decided to revisit their biological opinion for the Dunes on their own accord. Yesterday afternoon, the Court instructed the agencies that until FWS issues a new, amended, or revised biological opinion for the Dunes and the Court has an opportunity to rule on the adequacy of the biological opinion, nothing may change on the ground at the Dunes. In other words, BLM is precluded from issuing a new Management Plan and reopening the Dunes to ORVs until after the judge has an opportunity to resolve the legality of the new or revised biological opinion. “We are very pleased with the Court’s decision,” said Julie Teel, CBD Staff Attorney. “While this is only a temporary reprieve from the Bush Administration’s assault on the Dunes, at least we know that this fragile ecosystem is protected from intensive ORV use for the immediate future while we fight for permanent protection.” Karen Schambach, Director of California Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility agrees: “As they say, all environmental victories are temporary. But the idea that at least a portion of this National Natural Landmark will be protected for another season gives me hope that eventually common sense will be forced to prevail in these so-called stewards of the public lands.”
BLM implemented the current ORV closures in November 2000 in accordance with a court-approved consent decree negotiated with conservation groups and several ORV advocacy groups. According to the consent decree, these interim closures are to remain in place until BLM issues a new Management Plan for the Dunes.
Unfortunately BLM’s proposed Management Plan, which FWS blessed with the biological opinion it is now revisiting, intends to eliminate all of the current ORV closures. “While yesterday’s decision does not provide permanent protection for the Peirson’s milk-vetch, we hope that the final decision from the Court will, unless of course FWS and BLM do the right thing in the interim,” said Elden Hughes, Chair of the Sierra Club’s Desert Committee. “As currently drafted, both the Plan and the biological opinion are slipshod. I hope by revisiting these decisions, they ultimately will reflect the needs of the Peirson’s milk-vetch.”
The Center, Sierra Club, PEER, and Desert Survivors are represented in this case by Center staff attorneys Julie Teel and Brendan Cummings and Earthjustice attorneys Michael Lozeau and Deborah Sivas.
* For a copy of Judge Illston’s Order, please contact Julie Teel at (909) 659-6053 ext. 308 or firstname.lastname@example.org