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Opponents to dunes closure allowed to plead case during hearing in San Francisco

February 16, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Opponents of the two most recent interim agreements affecting the desert areas of Southeastern California had their day in federal court Wednesday and were allowed to plead their case.

The agreements are part of five stipulations resulting from an agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, several environmental groups that filed a lawsuit against BLM alleging it failed to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on potential impacts to endangered species from a wide range of activities allowed in the sand dunes, and several off-highway vehicle groups. A decision to not litigate the issue by the U.S. Justice Department led to the settlement.

Under two of the stipulations, thousands of acres have been closed to off-highway vehicles and camping. Environmentalists argue that indiscriminate OHV use is detrimental to endangered plants such as the Peirson's milkvetch, and that campers spilling over eastward across Highway 78 from the Glamis area are destroying critical desert tortoise habitat. The latest stipulation actually includes several dozen actions required to be completed by BLM.

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Imperial County Supervisor Wally Leimgruber was one of many allowed to testify. He said he emphasized the economic impacts to the county from the closures.

In addition, Leimgruber read portions of a legal brief supplied to the court. The brief stresses the lack of scientific studies to support claims of damages to endangered species; that limitations on shooting will affect the local economy and that there is no scientific evidence showing animals ingest bullets or lead shot; that due to the extreme summer temperatures the stipulation should not place restrictions on utility line maintenance; that numerous sand, gravel and mining operations have been properly permitted and they face new restrictions; among others.

Others allowed to speak were OHV group representatives and Paul Turcke, a Boise, Idaho, attorney representing OHV groups, said the hearing was intended to further "a process" and not to require actions.

"It doesn't require BLM to close any areas. It requires certain processes," he said.

Turcke also said anyone who objects to any of the forthcoming court orders has the right to challenge them.

"We specifically negotiated for that right in the agreement," Turcke said.

He said the guaranteed process is good and that he expects the negotiating parties will likely reach consensus on many issues.

"But it's up to BLM how it will move forward," he said.

Meanwhile, negotiations are under way to decrease the amount of area that will be closed to camping east of Highway 78, according to Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Control, and one of the groups that filed the suit against BLM.

"We're cooperatively working with BLM on that," he said, adding the most sensitive area for tortoises is along Vista Mine Road.

"The problem is the area east of Glamis becomes a de facto off-road open area and it causes extensive damage," he said, adding off-road groups recognize the damage being done.

Patterson was asked if required consultation between BLM and Fish & Wildlife had been conducted as alleged by others.

"That's a complete misinterpretation," he said. "BLM has done some but not all. That's an absolute fact."

Patterson said the reason BLM chose to not fight the original lawsuit was BLM knew it had not conducted consultations with Fish & Wildlife and thus knew it didn't stand a chance in court. He said the reason BLM settled is because the settlement is a good one.

"We decided to pursue a long-term approach to reach a settlement on this," Patterson said, adding CBD never pursued an injunction to completely close the desert. "It's a negotiated compromise. This settlement brings in a well-balanced land-use to the sand dunes."

The purpose of the hearing was to receive input from those opposed to the latest stipulations, one concerning closures to protect bighorn sheep and the other referred to as "all further injunctive relief."

Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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