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Sand dunes threatened with closure
Sep 30, 2004

Environmental and conservation groups on Wednesday vowed to file an injunction that would eliminate all off-road vehicle use at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area if the federal government reopens a 49,000-acre portion temporarily closed as a result of a lawsuit filed by those groups to protect a threatened plant species.

"The only legal option we may have is to move for a full injunction which would close all of the dunes to all off-roading. We don't want to be in a position to do that," said Daniel Patterson, conservationist with the Tucson-based Center for Biodiversity.

The controversy centers on Peirson's milk vetch, a threatened plant species, and a pending decision by the Bureau of Land Management to reopen a portion of the land that has been closed since 2000 as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Center, the Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Patterson's statement came within one hour after the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce announced their plans to bring together Off Vehicle Highway users and the United Desert Gateways Communities, a coalition of the Yuma, El Centro and Brawley chambers of commerce, to assist the BLM with monitoring tourism at the dunes. The chamber hosted a presentation on the economic impact of the dunes by University of Colorado Professor Glenn Haas, a recreation management expert.

At the presentation, Yuma County Chamber of Commerce Director Ken Rosevear said the BLM formally accepted two weeks ago a proposal to assist with monitoring visitor use and analyzing the data.

Rosevear said the purpose of the monitoring to is "to work with those numbers in planning, management, safety, and cleanup" of the dunes.

News of the partnership prompted Patterson to send an e-mail letter to Rosevear stating: "We want to be sure you are aware if BLM moves to open conservation areas to ORVs (off road vehicles), it would create a legal situation where we'd likely have to move for complete ORV closure on the dunes. We would be forced to act, and we'd have a strong position, but we'd like to work cooperatively for alternatives."

Critics of the closure, specifically the American Sand Association and chambers of commerce, say environmental groups are halting access to public lands that are popular and bring millions of tourist dollars to gateway communities.

Environmental groups say the closure hasn't hurt tourism and the closure is needed to protect the environment.

Aside from closing a portion of the dunes, the lawsuit forced BLM to revise their recreation plan and is currently waiting on a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether BLM's revised plan will put the plant in jeopardy.

No decision has been made yet and the 2004-2005 visitor season opens Friday.

"It could reopen next month or it could reopen next year," speculated Jerry Seaver, who chairs the ISDRA Technical Review Team.

Seaver said the partnership is not just about off-highway vehicle users.

"There's a perception that we (off-highway vehicle users) aren't concerned about the environment. We are. This partnership is not just for OHV organizations. There's opportunity for people who consider themselves part of the environmental community to step up, too," Seaver said.

"The environmental groups, shouldn't they be participating in the cleanup? How about plant monitoring? Shouldn't they be participating?" Seaver asked.

Casey Meister, chair of the Yuma Audubon Society, attended the presentation and said of the partnership: "The whole concept has been developed with a limited number of parties. In order to make it a comprehensive effort, you'd have to invite other individuals to the group."

Meister said he opposes reopening the closed portion of the dunes and said his group will join in any effort to keep the portion closed.

Jonathan Athens can be reached at [email protected] or 539-6857.

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