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Desert Plant has Environmentalists, Off-Roaders in Battle Over Sand Dunes

Federal officials will have to consider a rare desert plant as they draw up plans to manage the Imperial Valley's sand dunes. The Bureau of Land Management is squeezed between off roaders who want the

Desert Plant has Environmentalists, Off-Roaders in Battle Over Sand Dunes

Federal officials will have to consider a rare desert plant as they draw up plans to manage the Imperial Valley's sand dunes.  The Bureau of Land Management is squeezed between off roaders who want the freedom to ride and environmentalists who want to protect a delicate habitat.  KPBS Reporter Erik Anderson has details.

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The scrubby Pierson's Milkvetch scrapes out a fragile existence among the shifting hills of the nation's largest sand dune park.  The plucky plant is also at the center of a long running dispute.  Federal law requires protection for the threatened species, but off-road advocates aren't convinced the plant is at risk.  Steve Razo work's for the Bureau of Land Management.  He says the federal agency has struggled to find a balance.  

<b> Razo: </b> Our congressional charter is to manage for multiple use, so we do have a responsibility to conserve, conservation is a critical part, as well as, you know, having access for the american public to join their public lands. <br>

The milkvetch landed on the threatened species list a decade ago.  A court ordered settlement in 2000 ordered temporary off limits signs for vehicles on about 50,000 acres of the dunes.  That's just under half of the 40 mile long swath of sand that reaches from the Mexican border to the Chocolate Mountains east of the Salton Sea.  The Desert Protective Council's Terry Weiner wants those protections to become a permanent part of the Dunes management plan.

<b> Weiner: </b> They still have 69,000 acres to do off roading in.  That's a huge amount of land and then people who want to go on a bird watch and hike across the dunes and not have to listen to the noise or smell the fumes will have half the area too. <br>

Off road advocates just lost a three year battle to have the Milkvetch removed from the threatened species list.  The American Sand Association's Michael Sommer says the dunes frequently attract more than 100-thousand people on winter holiday weekends.  He says the Association won't give up its fight for more access, because more riding room means a safer off road area.   

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<b> Somer: </b> People will adjust out in the Sand Dunes, and you know is just, we're constantly losing piece by piece portions of a large riding area. <br>

The courts have already rejected one Bureau of Land Management plan because it gave too much access to off road vehicles.  The Fish and Wildlife Service Decision to keep the Peirson's Milkvetch on the threatened species list will play a major role in the second version of the plan.  That blueprint is due out next year.

Erik Anderson KPBS News.