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Desert coalition: County must be proactive on dunes closures

March 17, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

A common thread running through a recent meeting of the Desert Southwest Coalition is that parties interested in reversing a series of desert closures must become proactive.

Representatives from the community, desert users, law enforcement and government groups expressed their concerns Friday with the closures and gave updates on the issue.

Bob Ham, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business of Imperial County, said the county should stop talking about the issue and take proactive actions. He said the county is in a position to offer options to the new secretary of the interior in regard to closures not yet in effect.

He urged the county officials to align the county behind a potential lawsuit by the La Verne-based American Sand Association.

"Let's get those sand dunes reopened," Ham said.

Several ASA representatives urged the county to become more involved in ASA's efforts, with or without financial support.

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"There needs to be a proactive stance on desert issues," said Jerry Seaver, ASA chief financial officer.

Several individuals, including Yuma Chamber of Commerce executive director Ken Rosevear and Imperial County Executive Officer Ann Capela, suggested the county join national efforts to reform the 1972 federal Endangered Species Act.

Rosevear said the law is not being used as intended, rather, that environmentalists are using it to close areas through lawsuits.

Rosevear said he is not ready to join ASA's potential lawsuit, that the issue is not as well-publicized in the Yuma area as it is locally and a study of the economic impacts of the closures is under way.

Capela added that, besides reforming the ESA, a letter-writing campaign to elected officials might be effective.

Ham disagreed with Rosevear and Capela.

"The issue here is getting the sand dunes reopened soon," he said after the meeting, adding efforts to reform the ESA have been in place for 15 years. "To undo what's been done in the courts you have to go to the courts. To do otherwise merely prolongs the agony."

Cathy Kennerson, representing the Imperial Valley Joint Chambers of Commerce and the El Centro Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, said the joint chambers have contributed financially to ASA's efforts, and the California Center for Border and Regional Economic Studies at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus was asked to study the economic impacts locally.

Meanwhile, updates on the closures were given by local officials.

Sheriff Harold Carter said the law enforcement presence in the dunes area was increased three years ago in response to requests from families using the areas. Additionally, he said two new deputies will be hired full-time to patrol the dunes, and that during high-use weekends there will be additional support. The money to hire the two deputies comes from a grant, he said.

Carter said Bureau of Land Management rangers are now authorized to issue citations for violations of state law.

El Centro BLM field manager Greg Thomsen gave an update on the status of the lawsuit filed against BLM by environmental groups. The lawsuit, filed in March 2000, has resulted in five stipulations, or agreements, three of which have been formally signed by a federal judge. Of the three, one resulted in 50,000 acres of dunes closures to off-road vehicles to protect Peirson's milkvetch, an endangered plant.

Thomsen said the remaining two stipulations have not been signed by the judge. The fourth stipulation sets aside habitat for peninsular bighorn sheep, including areas in Imperial County. The fifth stipulation, referred to as "all encompassing" includes 46 separate actions, among which is the closure of 54,000 acres east of Highway 78 to camping.

Thomsen said as more and more people camp in the desert tortoise habitat area, it becomes a staging area for more and more off-road vehicles, thought to be damaging to the habitat.

He said talks are under way to reduce the size of the camping-closure area.

BLM outdoor recreation planner Roxie Trost told the coalition the latest monitoring program for the milkvetch is set to begin. Recent monitoring programs date to 1998 and as early as 1977.

County property manager Randy Rister gave an update on the milkvetch, including a briefing on a 1998 monitoring study of six special status plants in the sand dunes that show plant numbers, when compared to a similar 1977 study, have increased in areas open to off-highway vehicles while in some instances the numbers decreased in closed areas.

Rister pointed out the numbers of off-road vehicles was about 15,000 in 1997, and about 90,000 today, and that with the closures put in place since 1977, that the number of people using the area are in a smaller area. Thus, despite a higher density of users, the numbers of plants has increased.

Factors affecting plant numbers include surface disturbance and rainfall, he said.

He said the study about to begin will likely confirm the higher numbers.

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

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