June 14, 2007

BLM offers divergent view of controversial mountain road

Descriptions and comments from environmental groups ‘misleading,’ say agency and advocacy group

Inyo Register
By Jon Klusmire

A dry creekbed that occasionally carries water from higher up on Furnace Creek and Furnace Creek Road at one of six locations where the road and creek cross on BLM land. Photo courtesy BLM

Repairing and opening a short section of Furnace Creek Road won’t be expensive, will maintain a historic vehicular access route in the White Mountains and will fulfill the multiple use mandate on Bureau of Land Management lands, according to the BLM.

The Bishop-based Advocates for Access to Public Lands applauded the BLM’s decision. The group also said its volunteers were more than ready to help complete any necessary work to get the road open.

And in the ongoing war of words about roads and access, the AAPL members said overheated rhetoric and factual errors about Furnace Creek and the decision to re-open the road distorted what was really happening on the ground and distorted what was a simple, common-sense decision by the BLM.

The recent decision to open about 3.75 miles of the road drew a vociferous and vehement response from environmental groups which had sued to close the road and force an environmental study of the impacts created by the use of the road.

If the decision stands, Furnace Creek Road would be re-opened from where it is currently gated to the border between BLM and Forest Service land. The road originates in Nevada and then crosses into California and Mono County.

Some of the comments were incorrect, said Dave Sjaastad, the BLM Ridgecrest Office team leader for Furnace Creek.

First off, Furnace Creek is not a “perennial” creek, he said, it is an “ephemeral” stream. That means water does not run down the full length of the streambed all year-round.

The Friends of the Inyo, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics all made statements in press releases or in interviews that said Furnace Creek was “a rare perennial desert stream,” to quote the Center for Biological Diversity.

While Furnace Creek does have water in it year-round at its higher reaches, such as where it moves through Forest Service Land, Sjaastad said only seasonal flows reach the BLM-managed portion of land. And, he noted, those flows only come during wet winter years.

Even after the record winter of 2005-06, five of the six stream and road intersections on BLM land were completely dry, Sjaastad said. Plus, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board classifies Furnace Creek as “an ephemeral stream,” he noted, meaning it does not run year-round for its full length.

“It’s a seasonal stream, at best,” said Dick Noles of AAPL, and for the environmental groups to say otherwise is “misleading.”

Another bit of mis-information corrected by Noles and AAPL member Dave Mattovich was that Furnace Creek is not in a Wilderness Study Area. Instead, the section of creek in the Forest Service land is “cherry stemmed,” meaning the WSA boundary goes around the creek and road, but does not include it.

The 2002 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity temporarily closed the road until the BLM could conduct an Environmental Assessment. That assessment showed “really there was no significant impact to reopen the road,” said Sjaastad. “It was a pretty straightforward decision.”

The road has been in use for about 100 years, said Mattovich, and that “historic use” played into the BLM’s decision, noted Sjaastad. Not only had the road been used for a long time, keeping the road open provided access to BLM and Forest Service lands, and “promotes the multiple use mission of the BLM,” he added.

As for the places where the road crosses the streambed, Sjaastad noted that virtually all of the six stream crossings rarely have water in the road and stream at the same time.

The work to “harden” those crossings will involve putting rocks in the streambed/road, noted Greg Weirick, of AAPL, and some other well-known techniques to protect the stream and keep the road from washing out.

There are “thousands” of instances where roads cross dry streambeds in the region governed by the BLM Ridgecrest Office, noted Sjaastad, so the Furnace Creek situation is not unusual or unique.

The BLM will consider the work on the crossings as “routine maintenance,” he noted. “There will be no major construction.”

And the BLM is counting on the volunteers from AAPL to help do the work. “It won’t cost BLM a thing,” promised Noles, who said the group was ready and able to work with BLM on the job.

Sjaastad said the decision to open up the drier portions of the road on BLM land makes sense for several reasons. First, the length of road provides access through the somewhat barren, arid section of the canyon to the higher, greener areas of Furnace Creek.

“It just seems like a natural border” between the BLM lands and the Forest Service lands, he said.

Noles concurred that “the Forest Service part is wet.” The debate over that part of the road is completely different, he noted, with one plan being to construct a trail alongside the stream, but not allow a road.

The Forest Service has not presented a timelime for its final decision about the future of the road or possibly a trail on its portion of Furnace Creek. The BLM’s decision should not be construed as an endorsement of opening the road on Forest Service land, Sjaastad noted.

Noles stressed the BLM decision had nothing to do with the remaining stretch of road on the Forest Service land, even though the environmental groups made it sound like the whole road was now being prepared to be opened.

There is a reason, according to Noles, the environmental groups are trying to make the BLM decision spill over onto the Forest Service section of Furnace Creek: “They have an agenda to close the road so they can say this should be a Wilderness Area.”