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BLM, Wildlife Agency at Odds Over Off-Roading at Dunes

Policy: Bureau pushes for more recreational acreage despite its sister agency's concerns about an endangered plant.

September 13, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, already under fire for attempting to open much of the 150,000-acre Algodones sand dune system to off-road vehicles, has rejected the warnings of a sister agency about the future of a rare plant there.

Moreover, the bureau is seeking to deflect concerns for the plant's survival by urging biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider contradictory research--some of it paid for by the off-road industry group lobbying to open the dunes in the southeastern corner of California.

At issue is the Bush administration's proposal to overturn a Clinton-era legal settlement banning off-road vehicles on about 50,000 acres of the Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.

The plan has been contentious from the start, pitting conservationists against outdoor enthusiasts, who believe more public land should be open to motorized recreation.

The dunes, which stretch nearly 40 miles from the Chocolate Mountains to the Mexican border, are enormously popular with off-roaders who zoom up and down their peaks with dune buggies and other customized vehicles.

But environmental advocates say the dunes are also a unique ecosystem--one that could be destroyed by increased vehicle usage. Many of those claims focus on the milk vetch, a plant that, though perhaps a little homely, is a threatened species subject to federal protection.

The Bush administration wants to reopen about 16,000 more acres of the dunes to unlimited off-road vehicle use and an additional 33,000 acres with limits on the number of vehicles allowed each day. Roughly 70,000 acres are open today.

Most of the northern end of the dunes, known as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area--north of California 78 and protected through an act of Congress more than 15 years ago--would not be affected by the proposal and would remain off-limits.

The Bush administration hopes to finalize its decision in coming weeks, officials said Thursday. Before it can proceed, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency often responsible for the scientific decisions made under the Endangered Species Act, must sign off on the plan.

According to documents, Fish and Wildlife officials in Sacramento are considering issuing what is known as a "jeopardy opinion"--asserting that opening more of the dunes could mean the end of the milk vetch.

Last month, Mike Pool, California director of the Bureau of Land Management, asked the Fish and Wildlife Service not to issue the jeopardy opinion.

In a letter, Pool said his agency now questions the science that resulted in the milk vetch's threatened status in the first place--a stance long embraced by off-road vehicle groups looking to open more dunes.

Other studies, Pool wrote, indicate that the milk vetch would survive the Bush administration's proposal. That conclusion, Pool wrote, is based in part on three studies conducted by an Arizona environmental consultant and paid for by the American Sand Assn., an Arizona-based industry group that is leading the effort to open more of the dunes.

Pool also suggested that the Fish and Wildlife Service look at surveys of the plant conducted by the BLM over the last four years.

A jeopardy opinion, Pool wrote, would throw off the administration's timetable.

"We do not believe a jeopardy opinion is warranted," Pool wrote. "If the opinion of the [Fish and Wildlife] Service is jeopardy, the

Neither Pool nor his counterpart at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Steve Thompson, could be reached for comment Thursday.

But other officials of the two agencies insisted there is no rift between the two agencies and denied that the BLM is trying to bully its sister agency to avoid the jeopardy opinion.

According to Miel Corbett, Fish and Wildlife's endangered species program manager in Sacramento, the Endangered Species Act specifically suggests that the federal government weigh studies paid for by industry and commercial groups when making conservation decisions.

"Good scientific information is good scientific information," she said. "Everyone says, 'Well, some of these groups are going to provide biased information or stretch the truth.' But it's science."

What's more, Corbett said, that doesn't mean the Fish and Wildlife Service will take the American Sand Assn.'s studies as gospel.

"It's relatively easy to follow the logic path of some of the science that was done to see if you agree with the conclusion," she said. "We really just want the best thing for the species. BLM is taking an active role in this, and they deserve some credit."

BLM spokesman John Dearing denied that the Bush administration has pressured its Sacramento office to push the off-road vehicle proposal through.

"Is there undue pressure? No," he said. "If anything, we're probably putting pressure on ourselves. The [off-road vehicle] season is coming upon us--soon. We want to get this done before that occurs."

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