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Dynamics Changing in Battle for Desert

Times Staff Writer

The shallow indent of the desert wash appears to shimmer in the cauterizing heat. Along its sandy banks, a thicket of gangly ironwoods, palo verde and smoke trees offer up intermittent shade. Nothing moves or makes a sound under the relentless sun save the steady thrumming of cicadas.

Here, just south of Desert Center along the desolate Bradshaw Trail, it’s still too hot for hikers, too soon for snowbirds, and the terrain is not challenging enough for dune buggy drivers. There’s nothing and no one, clear to the horizon.

The emptiness is misleading. Twenty-six years ago the battle for the California desert was joined, and, today, it rages anew. A White House sympathetic to developers, mining companies, ranchers, the military and motorized recreation is drawing a bead on the conservation policies of the last decade.

Once the state’s outback, the desert is now the most accessible playground for many of California’s fast growing interior communities.

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The Mojave and Sonoran deserts sprawl across San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties and define the southern part of the state to the borders with Arizona and Mexico. The region is a pastiche of state, federal, military and private land, beloved by hunters, hikers, campers, rock hounds, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and winter visitors parked for months in recreational vehicles.

In 1994, Congress gave special protection to much of the state’s 25 million acres of Mo- jave and Sonoran deserts -- nearly one quarter of California -- and declared the area “extremely fragile, easily scarred and slowly healed.” A new national park was created in the eastern Mojave. Death Valley and Joshua Tree were elevated from national monument to national park status and their boundaries expanded.

Now, federal land managers -- at the behest of the Bush administration -- are striving to accommodate groups who say they have been locked out of the desert by the policies of the previous administration.

Building Where Barren

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At least some of those interests are having better luck. In eastern Imperial County, the U.S. Department of the Interior reversed a previous decision and may give permission to a Nevada mining company to gouge a 900-foot-long open pit gold mine on land sacred to members of the Quechan Indian tribe. The mine claim had been the first ever to be denied by the Interior Department, which argued that the operation would do “undue degradation” to the tribe’s cultural and religious sites.

Next door to Joshua Tree National Park, Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures LLC is poised to begin operating a landfill designed to daily handle thousands of tons of trash from Los Angeles. The trash will arrive on a train hauling it across the desert.

Joshua Tree officials have strenuously objected, arguing that an industrial operation with its noise, odors and blowing trash has no place next to a national park. Furthermore, they are concerned that birds of prey drawn to the dump will end up feasting on park wildlife.

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to reduce protected areas for the threatened desert tortoise by 25%, opening up thousands of acres to allow new roads and mining claims.

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The Department of Defense is seeking to exempt the Navy’s Chocolate Mountain gunnery range from environmental laws. An exemption would mean that the military would no longer have to consult with wildlife management agencies about the impact of aerial bombing on rare plants, big horn sheep and wild burros.

The BLM still hasn’t completed a 26-year-old order to identify and map desert roads and trails. With new roads being blazed in the desert every year, environmentalists say that by the time the BLM identifies and designates legal routes, hundreds of unsuitable tracks across fragile terrain will be included in the official count.

Conservation groups are especially concerned about the impact on desert washes and dry stream beds, more of which will be open to off-road vehicles under BLM plans.

“Desert washes are the vessel of biodiversity -- it’s where things happen in the desert,” said Steve Hartman, a representative of the California Native Plant Society who served on a BLM advisory council. “Not every wash and not every watershed should be open to vehicles. We need to protect some of them.”

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In what may be the most hotly contested policy reversal, the BLM has called for opening up 50,000 additional acres of the Algodones Dunes to off-road vehicles. The huge dune field in Imperial County harbors dozens of plant and animal species found nowhere else. The Clinton administration closed the 50,000 acres. Reopening it would remove protection for all but a small slice of dunes that is designated wilderness.

Activists on all sides claim this contested land is at a critical crossroads. The direction taken now, they say, will require the courts to untangle and will take generations to reverse.

For environmentalists who spent years campaigning for protections, the policies emerging under the Bush administration represent a giant step backward.

“This is the template for the future of the desert, and it’s a bad template,” said Elden Hughes, the Sierra Club’s veteran desert expert. “We see a weakening of environmental laws, at the least. If it’s a model for the West, then we are in serious trouble.”

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The Bureau of Land Management is preparing six plans that will lay down a blueprint for how the 11 million acres it controls in the desert will be managed. Each of the plans addresses a different piece of the desert.

The plans are the result of eight years of effort to accommodate disparate, highly polarized groups. Dick Crowe, the BLM manager who is in charge of developing one of the plans, believes that the process is giving all sides a say. But the veteran manager suspects the work will likely end up where previous desert plans have -- in the courts.

“They are all going to get shellacked by lawsuits -- from all sides,” Crowe said, looking out at the sun-baked wash and sighing.

During President Clinton’s two terms, ranchers, miners and recreationists believed environmentalists enjoyed privileged access to the Oval Office.

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Now, the roles are reversed, and it’s the environmental community’s turn to complain about special interest groups gaining an audience with the administration.

“The BLM’s mission is multiuse, but that doesn’t mean you have to have every single use on every single acre,” said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which says it will take the agency to court over the plans. “Their ideology is: We’re going to continue to run the desert as an off-road vehicle destination.”

Conservationists, recreationists, and other users have always been critical of the multiple-use doctrine that has guided BLM decision making. Multiple use may be the most democratic solution to appeasing conflicting interests. But the principle clashes with environmentalists’ vision of public land as a refuge for rare and fragile wildlife, recreational users’ desire to fully explore the landscape aboard a vehicle, and miners’ and ranchers’ need to use the land free from restrictive rules.

Fierce Competition

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Sixteen groups have filed protests against the BLM’s new desert strategy, even before four of the agency’s six plans have been made public.

Several groups maintain that more than 100 vulnerable species of plants and animals will be harmed by the proposals. In particular, environmentalists fear that the plans will jeopardize the habitat of the imperiled California desert tortoise, whose numbers have declined because of disease and intrusions into its habitat.

Much of the desert already carries the scars of man’s presence. In the Mecca Hills Wilderness Area, atop the San Andreas Fault, eons of tectonic activity have produced a series of low-slung undulating mountains. Although these mountains were designated wilderness areas, they are crosshatched with mining roads.

Crowe said as long as the BLM’s mandate is to promote multiple use, people -- and animals -- are going to have to learn to get along.

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“I have a vision, that we have enough land here to take care of all of these issues. It’s an enormous, enormous place. I try to tell people that there’s enough room for critters and people. I hope there is.”

Yet, events have outdistanced the government’s ability to referee competing uses.

In the eight years since Congress called for special handling of the California desert, dozens of imperiled species have been identified, but little has been done to protect them.

Development has rushed to the edge of the desert and visitors have followed, flocking to casinos and resorts strung along Interstate 10 through the Coachella Valley. In the Imperial Sand Dunes alone, a quarter of a million off-road enthusiasts gather on some weekends.

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But even though their access in the dunes is doubled, off-road groups say the new plan is still too restrictive.

Roy Denner, president of the Off Road Business Assn., a San Diego-based trade group, calls for opening the 27,000-acre section of the dunes set aside as wilderness, saying the vehicles do little harm to the area.

Off-road advocates also point to the proposed closure of two small off-road recreation areas elsewhere in the desert that the BLM said were little-used.

“We are heading for disaster, [environmentalists] want to close the entire California desert,” Denner said.

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“The BLM is hellbent on closing lands -- it’s the easiest course for them to take,” he said. “All of this is going to court. We won’t allow it.”

Advocates on all sides are grimly determined. Their wildly different views share only one common theme: litigation. Land managers say lawsuits create inertia, prevent them from doing their jobs and quickly consume budgets.

That may be precisely the goal for many activists.

“What these plans say is that future land management decisions are going to be removed from the hands of the BLM and put into the hands of federal judges,” Patterson said. It’s sad, but that’s where we’re headed. If these two plans are any indication of what’s to come, there will be no peace.”

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