So It’s Back to Court Once Again To Protect The Majestic Algodones Dunes

The Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Sand Dunes, is North America’s largest active sand dune formation, covering about 200,000 acres in the southeastern corner of Imperial County and barely dipping into Mexico. It provides unique habitat for many imperiled species including the Peirson’s milk vetch (federally threatened), desert tortoise (federally and state threatened), Algodones Dunes sunflower (State endangered), flat-tailed horned lizard (imperiled), several dozen invertebrates that live nowhere else on earth, and the Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard, which was petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act in July 2012. The east side of the Algodones Dunes intercepts the sparse rainfall runoff coming from the Chocolate Mountains to the east, resulting in rich pockets of desert woodland oases that are refugia for numerous migrating birds, burrow deer, and other desert animals.

Algodones Dunes sunflower, credit Ileene Andersen
Algodones Dunes sunflower, credit Ileene Andersen

A relict of the ancient Lake Cahuilla, which dried up after the Pleistocene, is the sand source for the modern day Algodones Dunes. The Salton Sea now covers this former sand source, so little “new” sand is being added. Yet the wind still blows, and effectively it is moving the dunes to the southeast at about a meter per year. Most of the Dunes are public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Algodones Dunes are a National Natural Landmark and is also considered an Outstanding Natural Area by the BLM.
As much as the Algodones Dunes are an endemic plant and animal hotspot, they are also a mecca for off-road vehicles. During the prime reproductive and growing seasons of the late fall, winter and early spring, up to 200,000 people in off-road vehicles descend upon the Algodones Dunes, most of which are ‘open’ to ORVs. Only 16% of the area is federally designated as wilderness – a designation that does not allow for any motorized access. The Algodones Dunes has also become notorious for off-road mayhem, which results in human deaths annually.

In 2000, Sierra Club joined the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and Desert Survivors in legally challenging management of species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA). As a result of that lawsuit, in order to protect the Peirson’s milkvetch and other species, three closures to off-road vehicles were agreed upon between the conservation groups, BLM, and the off-road vehicle groups. They were put in place until the BLM revised the Recreation Area Management Plan (RAMP). These areas include a large central closure of approximately 48,000 acres, a small closure at the north end of the dunes near Mammoth Wash, and a very small closure south of Interstate 8 (which bisects the dunes). Each of these areas was identified for protection of the Peirson’s milkvech. In all, the existing wilderness coupled with these closures, which have been in place since 2000 protected 54% of the landscape from off-road vehicles. The remaining 46% remained open to ORVs.

In 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and others successfully challenged a Bush Administration RAMP that re-opened the approximately 50,000 acres of closures. Also in 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed critical habitat protection for the Peirson’s milkvetch on over 52,000 acres, but in 2004, ultimately designated only 21,800 acres. By 2006, federal court rulings had kept the closures in place, while directing the BLM to again revise their RAMP. The rulings also directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the critical habitat designation for the Peirson’s milkvetch. By 2009, the court was satisfied with the paltry 12,105 acres of critical habitat that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had designated for the Peirson’s milkvetch. Finally, in 2012, the BLM released a final RAMP, which re-opened all of the closures – the largest conservation rollback in the California deserts in the last 10 years. It fails to protect all of the Peirson’s milkvetch critical habitat, and it fails to consider a limitation on the number of vehicles on the Algodones Dunes at any one time. The final decision for this ill-conceived RAMP was issued in 2013.

Hwy 78 divides wilderness and OHV open areas, credit Ileene Andersen
Hwy 78 divides wilderness and OHV open areas, credit Ileene Andersen

Not only does the flawed RAMP put a long list of imperiled species back in harm’s way, but it is also a blow to sustainable energy planning in the California Desert Conservation Area. Just two days prior to the release of the final decision on the Algodones RAMP, the BLM had assured the public it would take meaningful measures to off-set the impacts of large-scale renewable energy projects in the California Desert Conservation Area. Clearly, reopening previously protected habitat for rare species in an iconic National Natural Landmark to destruction by fossil-fuel guzzling and emission-spewing vehicles misses the mark on every count.

Plants and animals are not the only ones to suffer. Sadly, Imperial County, where the Algodones Dunes are located, has some of the worst air quality in the nation. Dust, also known as particulate matter or PM10, is kicked up by the off-road vehicles as they speed through the Algodones Dunes. Off-road vehicles are also not required to comply with California’s stringent vehicle emission requirements. Once airborne, the small dust particles and exhaust from the off-road vehicles drift into the adjacent communities and exacerbate health related diseases such as asthma in both children and adults.

So the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Desert Survivors, and PEER are once again challenging the BLM in court over this faulty plan. The dazzling beauty, the unique plants and animals, and the local community all deserve a more balanced approach to managing the Algodones Dunes, not one that exacerbates air quality problems and destroys rare plants and animals.

Ileene Anderson is a biologist and Public Lands Desert Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She has worked on Algodones Dunes conservation issues for over 15 years.