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Activists Challenge U.S. Plan for Desert

Habitat: Groups say Bush administration proposal would damage Sonoran ecosystem.

September 07, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coalition of environmental groups Friday petitioned the Bush administration to provide more shelter and protection for wildlife in its new management plan for the Sonoran desert, a blueprint they say favors commerce and recreation at the expense of conservation.

The 10 groups contend that the desert management proposal violates a slew of federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act, by, among other things, eliminating once-protected terrain for the imperiled desert tortoise, and by allowing motorized recreation in fragile desert washes. The new plan also rejects the federal government's own prescription for saving the endangered tortoise, the groups charged.

The challenge is not a lawsuit, but is considered a precursor to a legal showdown. By filing a formal petition, the environmental organizations hope to move the debate over a giant chunk of desert to Washington, landing it squarely on the desks of U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and President Bush.

If the environmental activists' petition is discarded, they said, they intend to bring a lawsuit in federal court.

At issue is one of a series of Western desert management plans the federal government has been working on for years. It is a draft proposal that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a division of Norton's department, recently released to oversee a portion of the giant Sonoran Desert.

The contested region, often referred to as the Colorado Desert in California, covers 5.5 million acres that extend north from the Mexican border and includes large pieces of Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as well as landmarks such as the Chocolate Mountains and part of Joshua Tree National Park.

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A Unique Ecosystem

Described as North America's hottest desert, the region's unique rain patterns and other ecological factors foster dozens of rare plants and animals. Some species' populations have fallen dramatically in recent years, sometimes because of natural causes, including disease, but often because highways, development, agriculture and recreational uses, such as off-road vehicles, have penned them in or destroyed their habitat.

"After almost a decade of attempting to work with the Interior Department to come up with a plan that's going to restore wildlife in the Sonoran Desert of California, what we see now is a plan that does worse than the status quo," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The nonprofit organization, based in Idyllwild and Tucson, is a frequent critic of the Bush administration's environmental policies and is one of the groups leading the challenge to the desert management plan.

"This plan takes steps back in conservation," Patterson said. "That's why there has been such a strong and broad challenge."

Bureau of Land Management officials in Washington and representatives of Norton did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In California, several BLM officials said they have worked for years in the desert to strike a balance among public access, commercial interests and conservation.

Jan Bedrosian, a BLM congressional and legislative affairs specialist in Sacramento, said the agency's job is similar to that of a baseball umpire: "If we do our job well, we probably shouldn't make either side very happy.

"Collaboration with a wide spectrum of users is the way we do business," she said. "This is a prime example of that. We try to guide ourselves up the middle."

BLM officials readily acknowledged that most of the environmental organizations' charges are true--the government does plan to reduce so-called "critical" habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, for example, and does plan to allow off-road vehicles in the generally dry desert stream beds, known as washes.

But Richard Crowe, a BLM planner and lead author of the agency's proposal, said dozens of groups have had input in the plan, despite charges that environmentalists have been virtually ignored in recent months. Those groups include ranchers, hunters and off-road vehicle enthusiasts--but also conservationists, such as the California Native Plant Society, he said.

The end product, he said, is "common ground."

"Just because all the decisions don't go your particular way, that doesn't necessarily mean you are not being heard," he said. "I'm not trying to be flip. But sometimes if you don't get the answer you want, [you think] there is something wrong with the answer. There are a lot of organizations that are incorporated into this plan."

Among the environmentalists' specific concerns is the fact that the management plan calls for a reduction of more than 150,000 acres of habitat that had been set aside for the desert tortoise.

"The tortoise is fast disappearing from the California deserts," said Michael Connor, executive director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee. "Where is the sense in this?"

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