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Dunes areas to reopen under plan

March 26, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

Half of the areas closed for environmental reasons last October at the Imperial Sand Dunes will be reopened for the next off-road season under a draft area management plan, county officials say.

Other changes in the plan include closing at night Competition Hill, an infamous rowdy area of the dunes, and limiting alcohol to camping areas, county Supervisor Wally Leimgruber said.

Leimgruber was briefed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last week on the contents of the draft plan.

Sand dunes enthusiasts and environmentalists have anxiously awaited the recreation area management plan, released late last week by the BLM, which oversees the dunes.

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Copies of the plan will not be available at the BLM's El Centro field office until Friday, said Bruce Shaffer, associate district manager of the bureau's California Desert District.

The BLM closed a total of 49,300 acres last fall to vehicles in five separate areas in the dunes as part of a settlement with environmental groups after they sued the bureau.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued BLM to force it to close portions of the sand dunes in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Endangered species found in the Imperial Sand Dunes include the desert tortoise and the purple-flowered Peirson's milk vetch.

"I can tell you right off the bat we'll be fighting them," said desert ecologist Daniel Patterson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Patterson said he hasn't seen the document but he is certainly opposed to the BLM reopening half the area closed last fall. He thinks reopening those areas will put a strain on an already short number of rangers.

"What is their scientific basis for doing this? The best available science shows the Peirson's milk vetch needs protection," he said.

Patterson was angry that governmental officials were given details of the plan before environmentalists.

The BLM is sponsoring six public hearings in April to get comments on the draft plan.

Patterson said environmentalists are concerned the BLM has scheduled meetings where a concentration of off-roaders live.

He said it is too early to determine if there will be another lawsuit as a result of the draft plan.

American Sand Association president Jerry Seaver said he hasn't seen the draft plan but he's not surprised to hear it proposes to close Competition Hill at night or limit alcohol.

"The bureau has been talking about doing these things for several years now," Seaver said.

He said an evaluation by the bureau several years ago made the same suggestions.

Peirson's milk vetch was put on the endangered species list based on a 1990 BLM report that said the main threat to the plant was off-highway vehicles, Seaver said. A report in 1998 reached the conclusion the plant is as plentiful as it was during an earlier study in 1977.

Seaver said he does not expect to get a copy of the draft plan until Friday. He and members of his organization will be attending the draft plan public hearings.

"It's important for us to give input on this. We'll have to live with it for a long time," Seaver said.

>> On the Web: The public hearing schedule is available online at: http://www.ca.blm.gov/elcentro/isdradates.html

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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