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Dynamics Changing in Battle for Desert

Conservationists lose ground as the Bush administration seeks to satisfy users who say they've been locked out.

October 28, 2002|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

CHUCKWALLA BENCH, Calif. — The shallow indent of the desert wash appears to shimmer in the cauterizing heat. Along its sandy banks, a thicket of gangly ironwoods, palo verde and smoke trees offer up intermittent shade. Nothing moves or makes a sound under the relentless sun save the steady thrumming of cicadas.

Here, just south of Desert Center along the desolate Bradshaw Trail, it's still too hot for hikers, too soon for snowbirds, and the terrain is not challenging enough for dune buggy drivers. There's nothing and no one, clear to the horizon.

The emptiness is misleading. Twenty-six years ago the battle for the California desert was joined, and, today, it rages anew. A White House sympathetic to developers, mining companies, ranchers, the military and motorized recreation is drawing a bead on the conservation policies of the last decade.

Once the state's outback, the desert is now the most accessible playground for many of California's fast growing interior communities.

The Mojave and Sonoran deserts sprawl across San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties and define the southern part of the state to the borders with Arizona and Mexico. The region is a pastiche of state, federal, military and private land, beloved by hunters, hikers, campers, rock hounds, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and winter visitors parked for months in recreational vehicles.

In 1994, Congress gave special protection to much of the state's 25 million acres of Mo- jave and Sonoran deserts -- nearly one quarter of California -- and declared the area "extremely fragile, easily scarred and slowly healed." A new national park was created in the eastern Mojave. Death Valley and Joshua Tree were elevated from national monument to national park status and their boundaries expanded.

Now, federal land managers -- at the behest of the Bush administration -- are striving to accommodate groups who say they have been locked out of the desert by the policies of the previous administration.

Building Where Barren

At least some of those interests are having better luck. In eastern Imperial County, the U.S. Department of the Interior reversed a previous decision and may give permission to a Nevada mining company to gouge a 900-foot-long open pit gold mine on land sacred to members of the Quechan Indian tribe. The mine claim had been the first ever to be denied by the Interior Department, which argued that the operation would do "undue degradation" to the tribe's cultural and religious sites.

Next door to Joshua Tree National Park, Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures LLC is poised to begin operating a landfill designed to daily handle thousands of tons of trash from Los Angeles. The trash will arrive on a train hauling it across the desert.

Joshua Tree officials have strenuously objected, arguing that an industrial operation with its noise, odors and blowing trash has no place next to a national park. Furthermore, they are concerned that birds of prey drawn to the dump will end up feasting on park wildlife.

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to reduce protected areas for the threatened desert tortoise by 25%, opening up thousands of acres to allow new roads and mining claims.

The Department of Defense is seeking to exempt the Navy's Chocolate Mountain gunnery range from environmental laws. An exemption would mean that the military would no longer have to consult with wildlife management agencies about the impact of aerial bombing on rare plants, big horn sheep and wild burros.

The BLM still hasn't completed a 26-year-old order to identify and map desert roads and trails. With new roads being blazed in the desert every year, environmentalists say that by the time the BLM identifies and designates legal routes, hundreds of unsuitable tracks across fragile terrain will be included in the official count.

Conservation groups are especially concerned about the impact on desert washes and dry stream beds, more of which will be open to off-road vehicles under BLM plans.

"Desert washes are the vessel of biodiversity -- it's where things happen in the desert," said Steve Hartman, a representative of the California Native Plant Society who served on a BLM advisory council. "Not every wash and not every watershed should be open to vehicles. We need to protect some of them."

In what may be the most hotly contested policy reversal, the BLM has called for opening up 50,000 additional acres of the Algodones Dunes to off-road vehicles. The huge dune field in Imperial County harbors dozens of plant and animal species found nowhere else. The Clinton administration closed the 50,000 acres. Reopening it would remove protection for all but a small slice of dunes that is designated wilderness.

Activists on all sides claim this contested land is at a critical crossroads. The direction taken now, they say, will require the courts to untangle and will take generations to reverse.

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