By Richard Crowe
The purpose for my writing this article is not to denigrate recreation vehicle use in the California Desert (Desert) nor promote it for its importance for many families, racing clubs, and the commercial recreation vehicle industry. I also do not cast judgment on the importance of the U.S. Marine Corps training facility (it is important) and the merits of the proposed expansion to recreation vehicle use on public lands. My purpose is to provide an overview of a very controversial, complicated, and long-time building situation - one that involves many interests, and one that I spent most of my career on (1978-2007) working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Desert as a manager, staff manager, and finally as a species-habitats plan lead.
Recreation vehicle users (i.e., both people who drive dirt roads to get somewhere as well as motorcycle, ATV, and dune buggy riders who enjoy family fun and competitive racing in desert “open areas” like the Johnson Valley Open Area and the Imperial Sand Dunes) have seen an erosion of space and roads for their interests in the Desert since the 1930s. This is why they are so concerned with the proposed expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center into the Johnson Valley Open Area. In fact, vehicle use is at the very heart of a fight among competing interests and land uses on public lands that BLM has been dealing with for 40 years. Below is a chronological overview of milestone events that have affected Desert vehicle access and the situation at hand:
1. Until the 1930s one could take a vehicle just about anywhere a vehicle could go
2. 1930s: 2 national monuments are designated, Death Valley and Joshua Tree
3. 1940s: withdrawal of several large tracts of public lands for WWII and post-war military training, research and development, and testing
By 1945 approximately 25% of the Desert is off limit or severely restricted to recreation vehicles. The effect of recreation vehicle use is light at this point.
By the end of the 1960s there was considerable public concern over the growing use and effects of unmanaged vehicle use and it resulted in the 1976 Congressional designation of the 25 million acre California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) and a mandate for BLM to address these conservation issues and develop, with considerable public and stakeholders involvement, a comprehensive land use plan for the area by 1980. The completed CDCA Plan in of itself did not close vast areas of the Desert to recreation vehicle use but did define the end for unbridled proliferation of vehicle roads and trails and did set a blue print for further planning and management for all Desert resources and uses. An array of multiple use management designations and commitments were set in place for a host of resources and uses: route designations (open or closed), areas open and closed to vehicle use, areas of critical environmental concern, grazing, wild horses and burros, mining, utility corridors, species and habitats conservation, and cultural resources protection. It also proposed a set of areas for wilderness designation by Congress.
The fight over land uses did not go away with the completion of the CDCA Plan. Species were increasingly being listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), due to disease and human encroachment; and, not satisfied with the outcome of the CDCA Plan, environmental groups agitated for more wilderness than was recommended and expansion/creation of federal parklands. Vehicle users, mining companies, and ranchers were becoming increasingly worried…and some military units began to see the need for more land as technology and warfare changed.
4. In 1994 Congress addressed the wilderness and parkland proposals by BLM and environmental groups with the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA). While the 1980 CDCA Plan recommended 2.1 million acres for wilderness designation, Congress designated 3.8 million and transferred an additional 3.5 million of public (BLM) land to the National Park Service, most of which was designated wilderness, too.
The CDPA hit vehicle use and mining hard: the amount of Desert off limit or severely restricted to vehicle use jumped from 25% to 50%. Affected were many favorite roads and camping areas, 50% of the favorite rock hounding areas, the availability of 40 out of 49 kinds of minerals, and many options for expansion of utility corridors and military reservations. The impact of this number increases with 2 perspectives:
a. half of the other 50% of the Desert is private land: off-limit to public use.
b. most of the designated wilderness is high elevation – mountainous – and above the range of critical habitat for most species listed under the ESA (so the CDPA ignored resolution of serious species and habitats issues). Consequently, about half of the remaining 25% of the Desert that is not military, not wilderness, not parkland, and not private – i.e., not off limit for vehicle use - is affected by species and habitat issues and subject to further vehicle restrictions when those species are addressed (below).
5. In 1990 the desert tortoise was listed as a threatened species under the ESA. This listing, geographically having the most widespread effect in the Desert, and other listings (e.g., Pierson’s milkvetch in the Imperial Sand Dunes and bighorn sheep in the Peninsular Range west of Palm Springs-La Quinta) required BLM to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildife Service (FWS) to address the adequacy of the CDCA Plan to resolve the species issues. (Other federal agencies with affected habitat had to revisit their land use plans, too.) It was decided that the CDCA Plan did need to be amended. In doing this BLM embarked upon six geographically separate plan amendments in the early 1990s. But in 2000, while the amendments were still in preparation, three environmental groups sued the BLM in federal district court in San Francisco to (in my mind) swing the decisions of the amendments to a more preservationist conclusion – i.e., to force more restrictions on vehicle use than might otherwise come out of the plan amendment processes. (Other uses, mainly sheep and cattle grazing, were targeted as well. The six plan amendments would now have to satisfy both the species recovery requirements of the ESA and resolve the lawsuit.
While the six plan amendments have since been completed to the satisfaction of the agencies involved – primarily the BLM and FWS, the 2000 lawsuit still rages: three environmental groups on one hand and the combined science and wisdom of a host of federal, state, and local agencies and a considerable array of stakeholders on the other. Through the combined six plan amendments, popular vehicle open areas remain open, but 3,671 miles (20%) of 17, 588 miles of inventoried roads in the Desert were closed (not counting the miles of roads closed with the passage of the CDPA in 1994).
The beat goes on. Not one but two military base expansions onto public lands are under consideration today: Ft Irwin, north of Barstow, and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center, north of Twenty-Nine Palms. As with anywhere, there is only a finite amount of land. Vehicle users feel they are being painted into a corner and the corner continues to shrink. The public should now better understand why they are upset. This is not the only Desert resource management story, but it is one that hits home for vehicle users and should be an environmental consideration under “cumulative effects” in an environmental impact statement.
Richard Crowe worked for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for 37 years, 33 years of which were served in the California Desert. His job assignments included Field Manager in the BLM Needles office, staff manager for Operation for the entire California Desert, and lead for Northern & Eastern Colorado Desert Plan, a species and habitats plan amendment to the 1980 California Desert Conservation Plan. Dick retired from BLM in 2007 and lives in Beaumont, CA.