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53,000 Acres May Be Designated as Critical Habitat for Plant

Off-road enthusiasts are concerned that federal proposal could affect their access to dunes in Imperial County.

August 07, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Federal wildlife officials have proposed designating about 53,000 acres in Imperial County as critical habitat for the threatened Peirson's milk vetch plant, a move that cheered environmentalists but concerned off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

Such a designation would not automatically close the rugged area to off-road vehicles, but it would prohibit the federal government from funding, authorizing or carrying out activities that could harm the milk vetch, a purple-blooming member of the pea family.

How the government might carry out such a mandate is unclear, although government officials said Tuesday they have no immediate plans to restrict off-road vehicles.

The proposal, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, did not call for limits against the vehicles, but it did say they pose the primary threat to the plant, whose American habitat consists solely of a narrow corridor in the 160,000-acre Algodones Dunes.

The milk vetch, a silvery plant that grows about 2 1/2 feet high, is considered threatened under federal law and endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

The Algodones Dunes, which stretch from the Chocolate Mountains to the Mexican border, have long sparked controversy between conservationists and those who enjoy driving their customized vehicles through the sand. The critical habitat designation would include just a portion of the dunes.

Conservationists praised the proposal, saying it could lay the groundwork for the recovery of the milk vetch.

The proposal caps a two-year push led by Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society.

"It's the first real cut at getting stronger, legally enforceable habitat protection for a much larger part of these dunes," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity.

But, he said, the Fish and Wildlife Service plan can still use revision. For one thing, the four proposed habitat areas are not contiguous, making survival more difficult for the plant, Patterson said.

Off-road enthusiasts said they will fight any attempt to limit their recreational space.

"It's a little premature to make any comments," said Mark Harms, legal chairman of the American Sand Assn., an off-road group. "But my cursory feeling is this isn't acceptable, and more than likely we will contest this in court."

Harms added that he does not believe that driving dune buggies in the Algodones hurts the plant's habitat.

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management emphasized that the habitat designation would not change the direction of the dunes' management, which is undergoing a change under the Bush administration.

The BLM is finalizing a plan for the dunes this summer that would reopen 50,000 acres to motorized recreation. The area had been closed during the Clinton administration. Some of the proposed milk vetch habitat overlaps the 50,000 acres, but the bureau said it would not change its management plan.

"We had already considered all this habitat in developing the management plans and strategies," said Doran Sanchez, a bureau spokesman in Moreno Valley.

He added that the bureau had already agreed to monitor the plant for four years after the plan would take effect.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on the proposed designation until Oct. 6 at its field office in Carlsbad, 6010 Hidden Valley Road, 92009. The agency has until next July to finalize the proposal.

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