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BLM assessment on closures of dunes open for public comment

June 20, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

An environmental assessment on the closures of certain Imperial Sand Dunes areas to off-road vehicles is available for public viewing and comment.

The assessment was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in response to a court order and is based upon those dunes areas closed last November.

El Centro BLM resources branch chief Roxie Trost told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday the closures are considered interim pending a consultation on the issue with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The closures are part of five so-called stipulations resulting from an agreement between BLM, several environmental groups that filed a lawsuit against BLM alleging it failed to consult with Fish & Wildlife over potential impacts to endangered species from off-road vehicle use in the sand dunes, and several off-highway vehicle groups. A decision to not litigate the issue by the federal government led to the settlement.

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Trost told the Board of Supervisors the size of the closed areas remains the same and the environmental assessment justifies the closures. The deadline for public comment on the assessment is July 9.

Trost told the board two roads in the Painted Gorge area have been proposed to be closed to protect the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep. The proposed closures would be from Jan. 1 through June 30 each year. The roads would have gates placed across them and are described as extending from the end of Painted Gorge Road. Their designations are T670130 and T670214. Also, roads T670121, T670128 and T670129, which lie behind the proposed gated areas, would be inaccessible.

An environmental assessment for the road closures is open for comment through July 2.

Trost told the board that the size of the camping area closure east of Glamis Road is still under negotiation with environmental groups and that an environmental assessment is due on the issue within about 30 days, including the closure boundaries.

Environmentalists argue that campers spilling over across Highway 78 to the east from the Glamis area are destroying critical desert tortoise habitat.

One of the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit against BLM is the Washington D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Supervisor Joe Maruca asked Trost how many PEER members are at the El Centro BLM office and whether any are involved in the scientific studies being performed by BLM. He said research conducted by such people would be questionable in light of their affiliation with PEER.

"I am not aware that any staff are specifically a part of that group," Trost said, adding that PEER is a national group.

She said this year's monitoring of endangered species in the sand dunes area included individuals from off-road vehicle groups and environmentalists in efforts to ensure the results were not skewed. She said there are four so-called "transects" where plants must still be counted and that this year's results should be known sometime next year.

Supervisor Wally Leimgruber said the county must take advantage of the opportunity to comment on the issue.

"Our goal is to see some additional areas opened," he said, emphasizing the economic impact on the county due to possible losses in recreational activities available.

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

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