"Closed Dunes May Reopen"

Mike_McCluskey

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\"Closed Dunes May Reopen\"

This was in Thursdays edition of the Press Enterprise. The article about the lawsuit Page mentioned comes out in Fridays paper I believe.

Closed dunes may reopen
FINDING: A federal agency says off-roading in Imperial County won't hurt threatened species.

04/10/2003

By JENNIFER BOWLES
THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE


Off-roading on nearly 50,000 acres of dunes in the Southern California desert won't push a rare plant or the desert tortoise into extinction, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Wednesday.

The agency's finding means that one-third of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, closed for more than two years to protect a flowering plant knows as Peirson's milk-vetch, could be reopened for the next dune season in November.

The decision generated cautious optimism among off-roaders who use the tall, windswept sand dunes. An estimated 1 million people make the journey each year to ride or drive in the dune system near the Mexican border in Imperial County.

The Fish and Wildlife opinion drew anger from environmentalists who have fought to protect the milk-vetch and other imperiled species that grow only at the dunes.

"This thing is a politically driven permit to kill endangered species," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Idyllwild. He said the group would challenge the decision.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's plan to reopen the closed areas is not likely to jeopardize the existence of the milk-vetch, listed as threatened in 1998, nor of the desert tortoise, a threatened species whose habitat borders the east side of the dunes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service suggested banning off-road vehicles from a central patch of dunes, but such a ban is not required.

The wildlife agency called for a four-year monitoring program in which the BLM would study the plant and the effects from off-roading. Depending on what the study finds, recreation rules at the dunes could change again, officials said.

"At that point, we'll have much better information to make an informed decision," said Pete Sorensen, acting assistant field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Carlsbad office.

If the number of plants decline by half of the current population, Sorensen said, action would be taken sooner.

The four-year study period means prolonged uncertainty for off-roaders, who call the dunes "Glamis" for the one-store town nearby.

"For us, that's going to be a sword hanging over our heads," said Greg Gorman, spokesman for the American Sand Association, which has 9,000 members in California.

The BLM will use the wildlife agency's recommendations in finalizing a management plan for the 160,000-acre dune system, said Lynnette Elser, the BLM's resources staff chief in El Centro. The plan would be available for public review at the end of May or early June, she said.

The BLM closed nearly one-third of the dunes in November 2000 after environmentalists sued, alleging the bureau was failing to protect imperiled species in the dunes and elsewhere in the desert.

That decision touched off a legal and political battle. Off-roaders have tried to get the milk-vetch removed from the threatened-species list. Environmentalists have sought federal protection of another dunes species, the Andrew's dune scarab beetle.

Fish and wildlife officials, in their dunes opinion, said that the growing numbers of visitors -- as many as 1.6 million by 2012 -- could mean more plants are likely to be run over, damaged or killed.

Plant destruction could be limited, they said, by cordoning off groups of milk-vetch plants and by closing a large area in the center of the dunes.

The BLM does not have to follow those recommendations, Sorensen said. However, to protect the desert tortoise, the bureau is required to increase public awareness of tortoises and improve trash management to discourage tortoise predators such as coyotes and ravens.

The service also recommended setting up an interpretive center at the south end of the dunes to educate the public about the environment.

Reach Jennifer Bowles at (909) 368-9548 or jbowles@pe.com
 
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