February 7, 2008

Furnace Creek Road revisited

By Ken Koerner
The Inyo Register

When it comes to public lands, few disagree with the premise that they belong to everyone; it’s how they’re accessed and used that causes the disagreements to pile up.

Even just a procedural announcement by the Bureau of Land Management’s Ridgecrest office last week drew comments of support and consternation from both sides concerned with off-highway vehicle access in the Furnace Creek area of the eastern White Mountains. The assessment will initiate a new review on whether to reopen a road into the area that is currently closed.

“Following some 180 protest comments related to Furnace Creek that were received in the BLM’s Washington, D.C. office,” said BLM’s Ridgecrest Field Manager Hector Villalobos, “staff back there reviewed our prior environmental assessment and determined there were a couple areas of weakness which should be reviewed before we move forward” with reopening the road.

OHV proponents, such as the Bishop-based Advocates for Access to Public Lands (AAPL), find no shortage of arguments to support the contention that OHV access to public lands on existing roads is appropriate. The Friends of the Inyo, however, have a different perspective.

Responding to the Jan. 29 announcement of BLM’s decision, Paul McFarland, executive director of Friends of the Inyo, remarked, “There are thousands of miles of road for people on diverse public lands. With massive federal budget shortfalls for public-land management, the BLM can make a better investment of its limited funds in places that benefit a majority of people recreating on public lands, while protecting rare places like Furnace Creek.”

“We’ve been fighting this battle for four years,” said Advocates for Access to Public Lands spokesman Dick Noles. “That road has been in use for 100 years and should remain open – and our AAPL members are equally dedicated to protecting the integrity of the riparian area of Furnace Creek … there are ways to do that and still have access for people that can’t walk up in there.”

“The fact that we’re pulling our environmental assessment,” said Villalobos, “means that as we revisit the document we will once again be opening up another period for public comment.”

The BLM’s timetable for additional public comment doesn’t have a date-certain at this point, but, Villalobos said, “Sometime in the spring of this year we will have that required public comment period opened. The public comments that are then received will be reviewed and reflected in the next environmental assessment on Furnace Creek that is released.”

The road that leads toward the Furnace Creek area has been behind a locked gate since 2003, as a result of a lawsuit filed by those with concerns about negative impacts that could accompany OHV access.

AAPL’s Noles said, “There’ve been a few mindless OHV users that have been up in the Furnace Creek area in years past and we intend to make sure that sort of activity is policed and prevented in the future.”

The Friends of the Inyo has played an active role of photographically documenting what it attests are the negative environmental impacts of OHV use along and within the Furnace Creek stream. According to information published on its website, there are fewer than 20 OHV users that visit the area annually.

Americans of all opinions on the matter of Furnace Creek’s potential access via wheeled vehicles will have the opportunity to take advantage of the public comment period to make their feelings known.

In the meantime, the road is closed and the exploration of the policy decision to be reached continues.