Federal officials have paved the way for expanded use of off-road vehicles at the Algodones Dunes in the Mojave Desert by lifting special protection for a 50,000-acre section of the sand dunes containing rare plants and animals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion this week to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area, that concludes that dune buggies and other off-road vehicles will not destroy habitat of the Pierson's milk vetch plant and the California desert tortoise.
The ruling allows the BLM to finalize its management plan, which calls for all but 26,000 acres of the dunes in the 150,000-acre area to be opened to off-road vehicles. That plan is expected next month and would double the amount of access for off-road vehicles.
The Fish and Wildlife Service decision contradicts its earlier research that concluded that allowing vehicles in the protected area would endanger the milk vetch and destroy tortoise habitat.
That prompted a letter from BLM state Director Mike Pool last year to the service asking the sister agency to not issue a "jeopardy" opinion that would close the section of the dunes to vehicles.
The BLM's anticipated management plan would run counter to an existing agreement between the BLM and several environmental groups whereby only about half the dunes are open to motorized recreation.
Doran Sanchez, a BLM spokesman, said that the agency intends to allow vehicle access to all the dunes outside the 26,000-acre wilderness area and that the Fish and Wildlife Service requires the BLM to educate visitors about plants and animals and keep tabs on the status of the milk vetch.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, if the milk vetch population declines more than 50% from established levels, the BLM may have to reconsider the use of the land.
Environmental groups, which have battled for years to restrict vehicle use in the 40-mile stretch of Imperial County from the Chocolate Mountains to the Mexican border, contended that the decision is a harsh blow to a fragile desert ecosystem.
"It's a lot more than just the milk vetch. We have dozens of rare endemic species in the dunes," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
"It's really about a whole diverse mosaic of wildlife and plant species, also about the recreational opportunity of everyone else who doesn't ride off-road vehicles who are displaced," Patterson said.
"Non-motorized recreation and intensive motorized recreation like you have at the dunes just don't coexist. It's just not safe. This place is hammered by vehicles."
The dunes draw more than 3 million visitors a year. On busy holiday weekends, as many as 250,000 off-roaders gather.
Two years ago, three people were killed and hundreds injured, including a park ranger who was run over, during a Thanksgiving weekend.
In January the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission refused to continue state funding for administration of the recreation area, charging that the BLM has poorly managed the area.