June 8, 2012

County settles suit over Mojave National Preserve roads

Supervisors sell out property owners for an annual $53,000 savings

From Staff Reports
Victorville Daily Press

Environmental groups reached a settlement with San Bernardino County this week in an ongoing legal dispute over roads in the Mojave National Preserve.

The dispute centered on how many roads the county could claim within the preserve and how the roads affected sensitive wildlife.

The county had sued the federal government in 2006 in hopes of retaining access to 14 county-maintained roads within the 1.6 million-acre preserve between Interstates 15 and 40, west of the Nevada State Line. The federal government agreed to preserve the roads — including Kelbaker, Ivanpah, Essex, Lanfair and Morning Star Mine roads — and take responsibility for maintaining them, the county said.

First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt said the county believes the settlement represents the first time the federal government has formally recognized that county roads on federal land are protected rights-of-way under a federal law passed in 1866.

However, Mitzelfelt blasted the settlement, saying he did not think the National Park Service would have enough funding to maintain the roads and that he fears they may ultimately restrict access to the public.

“Based on my own conversations with the Park Service, I have little confidence that they will be appropriated enough funding to properly maintain and improve those roads,” Mitzelfelt said in a statement Friday. “As far as a process to prevent arbitrary closure of roads, such a provision exists in the settlement. But I fear the Park Service will simply go through the public process and consultations with the county and attempt to close roads anyway based on lack of funds.”

The National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity joined the suit in an attempt to force the county to consider the impacts of the road proposal on sensitive wildlife. The groups had attempted to negotiate a settlement with the county for five years, the Center for Biological Diversity said.

The groups agreed to allow the county to claim two roads — Nipton Road and Goffs Road — on public lands bordering the preserve that were used for travel before 1976, as well as eight other roads within the preserve. But the county was required to give up claims to additional roads in the preserve that the groups say threaten sensitive species like Joshua trees and desert tortoises.

“The sweeping vistas and dark night sky in the preserve will be safeguarded — an important conservation goal as development pressures mount in the Southern California deserts,” Kim Floyd, conservation chair for the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

County officials said they expected to save $53,000 per year by having the federal government maintain the roads.