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Lawsuit filed to force reopening of 50,000 acres of Imperial dunes

May 18, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A lawsuit filed Thursday in federal district court here is seeking a court order to force the reopening of 50,000 acres of the Imperial Sand Dunes.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Sand Association, the California Off-Road Vehicle Association and the American Motorcycle Association Inc. District 37 against the Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management alleging they failed to follow required procedures before closing the recreational areas to recreational vehicles.

ASA president Jerry Seaver said an order by a San Francisco federal court requires the BLM to undertake an environmental review and a public participation process before closing any areas because there exists no emergency that requires BLM to close the areas immediately.

The lawsuit says BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it closed about 49,000 of the Imperial Sand Dunes to off-road vehicle activities without first evaluating the environmental consequences of those closures, without first allowing public review and comment with respect to the proposed closures and their potential environmental impacts, and that the closures constitutes a significant amendment to the existing California Desert Conservation Area Plan and the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area Management Plan, both of which allow off-road activities on about 70 percent of the dunes.

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The lawsuit could backfire on the plaintiffs, in the opinion of one environmentalist.

Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said it's possible a total closure of the dunes may be sought in response to the lawsuit.

He said the closures are the result of a negotiated settlement reached with several large off-highway vehicle groups and that BLM was well out of compliance with federal law regarding the potential impact of off-highway uses on certain endangered species.

"Certainly there was good reason to close portions of the desert," Patterson said, adding the environmentalists — which include the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — could have sought a total closure but did not because the intention was to negotiate a settlement and leave areas open to recreation.

Patterson said ASA's lawsuit will be aggressively fought.

The dunes were closed in November to protect certain plant species including, Peirson's milk vetch. The plant's numbers were recently monitored by environmentalists, the BLM and OHV groups. Patterson said the plant has undergone "an amazing recovery" in the closed areas and the environmentalists will take aggressive action to keep the areas closed.

Meanwhile, El Centro BLM resources branch chief Roxie Trost said local officials don't know anything about the lawsuit other than what is found in an ASA press release issued Thursday.

She said BLM is not going to reopen the dunes, however.

BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez, in the Riverside office, said he could not comment on the lawsuit as it has not been reviewed by government attorneys.

When asked if BLM is going to reopen the dunes he said, "Not at this point."

Though CBD has said the closures are the result of a negotiated settlement to which some off-road vehicle groups agreed, Seaver said none of the current plaintiffs was allowed to participate in the settlement discussions.

Though the negotiated settlement was hammered out before a federal district court judge in San Francisco, ASA's Seaver said the lawsuit doesn't belong in San Francisco.

"We really feel this is dealing with Southern California and that's where the lawsuit should be," he said.

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On the Web:

www.glamisonline.org

www.sw-center.orgswcbd/

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

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