January 28, 2009

S.B. County suing federal government to get road

The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County officials this week agreed to sue the federal government to gain control of a 42-mile stretch of mostly dirt road that cuts through undeveloped public land between Barstow and the San Bernardino Mountains.

The county's 6-year-old effort to wrest legal rights to Camp Rock Road from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has raised concerns among some environmentalists, who say they fear county control could put wildlife at risk.

Camp Rock Road, a public-access route to a large section of open desert southeast of Barstow, crosses territory that is designated as critical habitat for the desert tortoise, a species threatened with extinction. It also skirts two wilderness areas in the Newberry and Rodman mountains south of Interstate 40.

"If the county were to pave the road or increase traffic on the road, it would be a detriment to desert wildlife, including the desert tortoise," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a wildlife advocacy group.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said the county has no plans to pave or otherwise improve the road, which he said is used principally by recreationists and miners. The county already maintains it.

"We just seek to keep it open for the various uses, as it has been many years," Mitzelfelt said. "We have an obligation as a county to keep it as a county road."

He added that the county is also in court to fight road closures on public land in the Mojave National Preserve.

San Bernardino County submitted an application to the BLM in 2003 to take over Camp Rock Road, but the bureau has not acted, according to a county petition filed in U.S. District Court.The suit asks the court to order the BLM to process the county's application.

Alan Stein, a BLM deputy district manager, said the agency has not acted because of unresolved disputes about a statute that allows counties to take over federal rights-of-way.

Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said environmental groups are concerned because counties are not obligated to protect wildlife while the BLM must adhere to the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Mitzelfelt said the road could not be improved without extensive environmental reviews.