Judgment Protects California Desert Lands
Ruling Overturns U.S. Bureau of Land Management Designation of More Than
5,000 Miles of Off-Highway Vehicle Routes in the California Desert
SAN FRANCISCO - September 29, 2009: Eleven environmental organizations secured a favorable ruling in a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages 25 million acres of public land in southern California known as the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA), which is home to numerous critical environmental, recreational and cultural resources, including many protected animal and plant species. The ruling, by the Hon. Susan Illston of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Center for Biological Diversity, et. al. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, et. al., impacts off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes established within the last 30 years and future routes.
Plaintiffs' counsel Sky Stanfield of Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco and Robert Wiygul of Waltzer & Associates in Biloxi, Miss., which together represented seven of the plaintiff environmental organizations, argued that BLM's designation of OHV routes in the Western Mojave region of CDCA violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). These Acts assure that environmental considerations, such as impacts to wildlife, soils, watersheds, vegetation and cultural resources, must be carefully analyzed and minimized prior to BLM's designation of OHV routes.
In its wide-reaching ruling, the Court held that BLM did not adhere to its own regulations in analyzing and minimizing environmental impacts during its designation of 5,098 miles of OHV routes in the Western Mojave region in 2006. The Court also held that OHV route designations developed since 1980 are in violation of the CDCA Plan, which limits route designations to those in existence in 1980. BLM has not adhered to that restriction, allowing development of hundreds of illegal OHV routes during the last three decades. The Court held that BLM must adhere to its regulations in reviewing OHV route designations and that the agency must address the CDCA Plan limitation regarding routes established since 1980 or, alternatively, amend the Plan's requirements through the appropriate public and environmental review processes.
"We are thrilled with the ruling and the fact that OHV use will be held to a much higher standard and one in accordance with BLM's regulations requiring the agency to consider and minimize the impacts of potential OHV routes on sensitive environmental and cultural resources," said Stanfield. "The development and usage of these already plentiful recreational OHV routes significantly impacts the desert habitat. Routes should be carefully considered - including those created since 1980 - as ruled by the court."
Along with holding that BLM did not consider the factors required by FLPMA and BLM's own regulations, the court held that the environmental review under NEPA was flawed in that it failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives and did not identify a clear baseline from which the impacts of the action were to be compared. The court held that the review was insufficient in its consideration of impacts to soil, cultural resources, certain plant and riparian resources, sensitive animal species, and air quality.
"While we are very pleased with the decision and believe this is an important step in protecting the desert, there is still much more work that needs to be done. Our California desert is such a fragile and beautiful ecosystem, and it is rulings like these that will help us continue to fight for its protection. However, it is only Congress that can give wildlands the permanent protection they deserve," said Monica Argandoña, desert program director of the California Wilderness Coalition, a plaintiff in the case.
Farella Braun + Martel LLP and Waltzer & Associates represent the following plaintiffs: Alliance for Responsible Recreation, California Wilderness Coalition, The Wilderness Society, Friends of Juniper Flats, Western San Bernardino Landowners Association, California Native Plant Society and Community ORV Watch. The Center for Biological Diversity and its counsel represented itself and three other plaintiffs, including the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Desert Survivors.
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