Another law, the Endangered Species Act, forces the BLM to protect the area because it is habitat for the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep. The flat-tailed horn lizard, which is proposed for the threatened species list, also has primary habitat in western Imperial County.
The BLM asked for input at a public meeting Tuesday night on the proposed trail changes.
County Intergovernmental Relations Director Bob Ham said the BLM needs to consider the county's R.S. 2477 assertion.
Other California counties, such as San Bernardino and Riverside, have used the statute to keep public lands open, but Ham said he did not know if they were successful using it against the federal government.
Private companies also depend on the trails to access their mining operations, he said.
Quechan tribal member Preston J. Arrow-Weed of Winterhaven said the lizard needs to be protected from off-road activity. The lizard is part of the Quechan creation story and important to his people.
Arrow-Weed said the two sides need to negotiate.
"From what I've seen, it's all just money, money, money. Money isn't everything — yes, at times it's important — but the price we pay for it — destroying everything in the world — is too much," he said.
Jim Strain of the Imperial County Gem & Mineral Society said his group works with schools to teach students respect for the desert. If the trails are closed, rockhounds and students the could not access mineral deposits.
"The average age of our group is 64 years old. Many are retired and a lot are handicapped. When trails are closed, it severely limits access," Strain said.
Desert Protective Council conservation coordinator Terry Weiner said the BLM needs to address how many miles of trails are necessary.
Since 1994, routes have grown in the West Mesa area by 40 percent and in the Yuha Desert by 25 percent, Weiner said.
"It's unconscionable to wait until the flat-tailed horned lizard is listed to protect it," Weiner said.
"Ocotillo Wells has hundreds of trails. How much is too much?" she asked.
A final meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Hilton San Diego Mission Valley, 901 Camino Del Rio South.
The BLM will accept written comments until May 31.
>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or email@example.com