SAN DIEGO, Calif.–Conservationists won an important legal victory recently when Judge R.M. Brewster threw out a lawsuit brought by the off-road industry that sought to strike down endangered species protections on the Algodones (Imperial) Sand Dunes.
“The court upheld the legality and need for the closures to protect endangered species,” said Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a big win for the environment and a big loss for the off-road industry, but these fragile and scenic dunes are still threatened by a pending Bush administration decision to open all the conservation areas to intensive off-roading.” The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued the vehicle closures in November 2000 to implement a court-approved settlement it agreed to with conservation groups and some off-road organizations. BLM closed 49,300 acres to off-road vehicles to protect the Peirson’s milkvetch and other endangered species, while leaving 68,000 acres open to intensive off-roading. Shortly after the closures BLM initiated a review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This process included an environmental assessment, public comment, a finding of no significant impact and a September 2001 decision record to keep the closures in place. The off-road industry then sued BLM claiming NEPA and the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA) had been violated.
In his eight-page decision Judge Brewster noted that the federal government did not violate NEPA or FLPMA and did not need a NEPA review to institute the closures. He found that an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is not necessary for federal actions that conserve the environment. He also noticed the off-roaders misrepresented a scientific study of the vehicle impacts to rare dunes dune species, and found that their “argument that there is no support for the need for closures is without merit.”
“This was a timely message to off-roaders that the goal of NEPA is to protect the environment, not to delay environmental protection,” said Karen Schambach, Director of California Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Located in the Sonoran desert of southeastern California in Imperial County, the Algodones Dunes are the largest dune ecosystem in the U.S. They harbor at least 160 different animal and plant species, many of which are endemic. The dunes also are heavily impacted by as many as 240,000 off-roaders on some weekends. This intensive use destroys vegetation and wildlife habitat, pollutes the air, and creates criminal problems that stress law enforcement. Despite this legal victory, the dunes remain in danger due to a pending Bush administration decision to open all the closed areas. Conservation groups will fight that decision in court.