March 2, 2005

Groups file suit to stop well project

by Jim Matthews
San Bernardino Sun

This is utterly baffling. Two highly respected environmental groups apparently have been duped into filing a lawsuit to stop the restoration and conversion of four water wells in the Mojave National Preserve to wildlife drinkers.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) announced the lawsuit Tuesday. The 21-page complaint and the press release, however, are riddled with factual errors.

John Buse, the lead attorney on the lawsuit in CDBs Chicago office, said "the desert tortoise is certainly the largest concern we had' in filing the lawsuit. The complaint argues that restoring the four wells would endanger desert tortoises and violates both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the preserve's own management plan.

The problem is simply this: First, the four wells are situated at elevations well above desert tortoise habitat. Tortoises never have been documented in the area around the four wells. That is why these locations were chosen by the hunter-conservation groups that fought to have them restored.

Second, the National Park Service, specifically park superintendent Mary Martin, violated NEPA and the preserve's management guidelines by directing the private land owners who were forced off the preserve to remove the wells. The preserve's management plan said that the staff was required to document any impacts on the area's wildlife before the wells could be removed. Martin illegally avoided this requirement by saying that the private owners wanted to remove their private windmills and stock tanks.

Buse and local CDB attorney Brendan Cummings admitted that the National Park Service violated NEPA and its own management plan when it allowed the wells to be removed, and CDB is contending it is now violating the same rules again by trying to restore them.

Why didn't CDB file a lawsuit when the NPS removed over 125 cattle water sources the first time around? My call is they were duped. Or it is about anti-hunting bias.

The PEER press release riles against Paul Hoffman as a Bush Administration bad guy who went over the preserve staff's head to allow the well restoration, saying it was Hoffman who was forcing the park service to violate the law.

Interestingly, the PEER mouthpiece on this issue is Paul Buono, a former deputy superintendent at the preserve, who is part of a small clique of park service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who are resentful the Mojave was not made into a national park, where hunting is banned, instead of a national preserve, where hunting is allowed.

The anti-hunting bias is pervasive within this small group, and they also form the core of a tiny minority of scientists who believe that wildlife drinkers are detrimental to wildlife, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

One of the most dramatic examples of how the addition of water into a desert ecosystem can benefit wildlife is on the Mojave National Preserve.

Before the area was a preserve, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), Bureau of Land Management, and Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep did surveys on Old Dad Peak. At most it had a dozen sheep. The problem? There were no permanent water sources. The DFG added big-game drinkers, and now that herd numbers more than 200 animals.

Hoffman is no villain. He's the hero in this episode; a hero who was trying to avert a lawsuit from the hunter-conservation community over the illegal NPS' removal of 125 cattle water sources.

It's pathetic that CBD and PEER were conned into filing this lawsuit, a lawsuit that is about anti-hunting bias and not science or environmental law.

Jim Matthews is a freelance writer.