March 25, 2005

Federal Plans Aim to Control Use of the Desert

Development and off-road use in the Mojave and Algodones Dunes would increase. Critics threaten to sue.

By Janet Wilson and Julie Cart, Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times

Federal officials on Thursday released a pair of desert management plans to accommodate recreation, development and wildlife in the booming western Mojave and in the Algodones Dunes, a popular destination for off-road vehicles in far southeastern California.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said its design for 9.3 million acres of the western Mojave Desert is the largest habitat conservation plan in the United States, encompassing parts of four counties and numerous towns.

The plan, one of nearly 500 around the country, is aimed at expediting development in western San Bernardino, Kern, Los Angeles and Inyo counties while seeking to preserve more than 100 rare plant and animal species, including the threatened desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel.

Such plans allow home builders, miners, water and sewage companies, and others to destroy endangered and threatened species in exchange for setting aside or paying to preserve wildlife habitat elsewhere.

"Everybody out there in this tremendously large, 9-million-acre area will know which areas are targeted for conservation and which areas would be allowed for development," said Jan Bedrosian, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management's California office, which began developing the plan a decade ago.

Larry Lapre, the BLM staffer overseeing final development of the plan, said the fast-growing area covered under the plan stretches from the San Gabriel Mountains east to Baker, and from Olancha in the Owens Valley south to Joshua Tree National Park. It takes in Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Apple Valley, Lancaster, Palmdale and Ridgecrest.

"It's an hour away from 15 million people," he said.

"Lancaster and Palmdale in particular are experiencing very rapid growth, and Victorville is too…. It's suburban sprawl."

"Every time you do a subdivision in Victorville, you have to do a tortoise survey and a ground squirrel survey and a burrowing owl survey, and usually you find one of each," Lapre said. "Then you have to go get permits, and there's hundreds of those pending. Hundreds of housing projects are being delayed."

Under the new plan, developers could pay fees or set aside land, then acquire one "take" permit covering all the species.

Lapre, a biologist who has worked on such plans for years, said the large swaths of land that would be set aside for the tortoise and other wildlife would help preserve them.

But environmental groups disagreed sharply. Daniel Patterson said the Center for Biological Diversity would sue if necessary to block the plan, which, he said, would ignore an existing recovery plan for the tortoise.

The BLM plan for the Algodones Dunes, long a mecca for off-road vehicle enthusiasts, calls for opening all of the areas that were placed off-limits as a result of a temporary court settlement five years ago.

However, Bedrosian of the BLM said the closures on slightly less than one-third of the area — 49,300 acres — would remain in place until at least Oct. 15 while a federal judge considers competing lawsuits from off-roaders and environmentalists.

Most of the currently restricted area — about 33,000 acres — will be opened to limited motorized use. The BLM said it would issue up to 525 permits per day for that part of the dunes, prohibit overnight camping, and close the area from April to mid-October.

For the time being, the BLM proposes instituting a zoning system that divides the entire 160,000-acre dune system into eight management areas. The 26,000-acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness area would be closed to any motorized travel, for example, and the 21,000-acre Gecko area would be open to unlimited off-road use.

Altogether, more than 85% of the dunes would be open to off-road vehicles.

Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, assailed the plan as a reversal of the 2000 court agreement and said it fails to provide protection for a threatened plant.

"The worst part is that the plan fails to deal with the crowds," Patterson said. "They totally failed to consider the carrying capacity of the dunes. The caps are only for a small area. It's a paper plan that will have no on-the-ground enforceability."

On holiday weekends, as many as 250,000 people roar over the dunes in sand rails, trucks and dune buggies. Four years ago, three people were killed and dozens injured, including a park ranger who was run over during the Thanksgiving weekend.

Bedrosian said the agency considers the 33,000 acres of limited use a "laboratory," adding that vehicle limits could be adjusted if necessary.