Does it Adequately Protect Park Resources?
by Jeff Aardahl and Mark R. Faull
The California Department of Parks and Recreation completed the revised General Plan for Red Rock Canyon State Park and Environmental Impact Report (EIR).1 Both were approved by the California State Park and Recreation Planning Commission at a public meeting on March 3, 2023 in Lancaster, California. According to the State Park planning team, a General Plan is a framework for future decisions about land use, facilities, recreation opportunities, and management of natural, cultural, and physical resources. The EIR is supposed to analyze and disclose impacts and identify any measures necessary to avoid and minimize damage. Unfortunately neither were included in the EIR. The revised General Plan must be consistent with and support the purpose of Red Rock Canyon State Park, which is to “protect and perpetuate the spectacular high desert landscape, associated natural ecosystems, and important archeological values for public enjoyment and inspiration, and for scientific study” (Red Rock Canyon State Park General Plan, 1982). Being merely a “framework” the General Plan fails to ‘protect and perpetuate’ the features and resources of Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Red Cliffs Natural Preserve, Red Rock Canyon State Park. Photo by Mark R. Faull
The first General Plan for the park was approved in 1982 when the unit was comprised of about 4,000 acres of state land. The park subsequently expanded to approximately 8,100 acres by 1993, and to approximately 25,400 acres in 1994 when 16,700 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management were added to the park under Section 701 of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. The purpose of the land transfer was to provide maximum protection of the region’s outstanding scenic and scientific values. Revision of the 1982 plan began in 2002 but was halted several times until in 2018 a full revision of the plan for the expanded park began with formal public scoping to identify management opportunities and issues.
Numerous special status species occur within Red Rock Canyon State Park, including the threatened desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel. Berry and Keith2 studied desert tortoise populations within the park in 2002-2004 and reported they occurred throughout the western portion of the park, but densities were low in 2004 at 9.2/mi2 compared to those that were nearly three times higher in 2000 based on analysis of shell remains. The authors attributed the low desert tortoise population to the effects of disease, human-related impacts, and deteriorated habitat. The low and declining tortoise population in 2004 indicates the species will eventually be extirpated unless immediate protective management actions are implemented by park management and staff. No similar desert tortoise surveys have been performed within the expanded portion of the park located east of Highway 14. The Mohave ground squirrel has been documented to occur in northern portions of the park in creosote bush scrub and Joshua tree woodland habitats from live-trapping surveys, which is located within the Little Dixie Wash Core Population Area .
Sampson3 studied off-highway vehicle (OHV) effects on prehistoric and historic cultural resources within Red Rock Canyon State Park from 2004-2006 and found that 36 out of 147 known sites within the park were directly impacted by vehicles using dirt roads and informal trails, and that 13 of 36 prehistoric occupation sites with surface and subsurface cultural deposits were impacted by vehicles using dirt roads and informal trails.
Impacts from vehicles included degradation of surface and subsurface cultural material, soil erosion, gullying, vegetation loss, and artifact collection. One road within the park that is now designated as open to motorized vehicles, including unlicensed OHVs, is Sierra View Road, which traverses KER-246, a documented prehistoric (3,000 year-old) site with both abundant surface and subsurface cultural materials. Remains of a prehistoric fire hearth were found within the footprint of Sierra View Road, where vehicle use has resulted in the loss of 1.7 feet of soil View Road through displacement and subsequent erosion by wind and water. The entire length of Sierra has never been surveyed for cultural resources.
Looking west along Sierra View Road within Red Rock Canyon State Park near the northern boundary with BLM lands. Photograph was taken after a rain event, illustrating how the incised dirt road captured water, resulting in soil erosion. Note the parallel route on the left illustrating the problem of vehicle route proliferation caused by vehicle operators deviating from the eroded existing route.
Credit: from Fig. 4 in Sampson (2007)
Since the General Plan provides a framework for subsequent plans and projects within the park, the State Park planning team stated that not all issues can be resolved until such subsequent plans and projects are developed and implemented. Examples are plans for transportation, habitat and species conservation, and restoration of previously disturbed areas. Public comments on the draft plan from Defenders of Wildlife and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 4 Office in Fresno recommended that an impact analysis, impact mitigation measures and conservation actions for various special status species of plants and animals be included in the plan to avoid and minimize adverse impacts to these species and their habitats. Again, the State Park planning team dismissed those recommendations by stating “The goals and guidelines in the General Plan are intended as management and protection tools, not as mitigation measures...” and “If future CEQA analysis identify specific impacts to biological resources, and these impacts cannot be avoided through implementation of goals and guidelines in the General Plan, then mitigation measures in these documents would be developed to be standard mitigation measures that are actionable and enforceable.” The State Park planning team concluded there would be no impacts because the General Plan is simply a framework and not a site-specific or species-specific plan. Thus, adverse impacts to special status species and their habitats that are occurring now will continue to occur until such a time (unspecified) that plans and projects are developed, rendering the General Plan ineffective in protecting these species and their habitats.
One significant issue raised during the public comment period on the draft General Plan and EIR was allowing unlicensed OHVs to use Sierra View Road, an unimproved dirt route in the park that connects with BLM routes entering the northern and western boundaries of the park, as shown on the following map.
Proposed routes open to non-street legal vehicles
California Vehicle Code (CVC) Section 38026 would allow for the designation of connector routes within State Parks as open to the use of unlicensed OHVs provided those routes do not exceed 3-miles in length. The length of Sierra View Road, as measured on the map of park routes provided in the draft and final General Plan, is approximately 4.5 miles, 50% greater than the 3-mile limit. This issue was raised by Defenders of Wildlife, the Desert Tortoise Council, and Western Watersheds Project in a letter to the State Park planning team on December 2, 2022: “Designation of OHV routes within the Park is a discretionary action and not a legal requirement. Since Sierra View Road, designated for OHV use in the proposed Plan, totals 4.5 miles and exceeds the three mile limit in CVC Section 38026, it needs to be eliminated as available for OHV use in the proposed Plan and Final EIR.” The State Park planning team responded, stating “State Parks measured the proposed Sierra View Road connectivity route...which measured 3.1 miles from the western edge of the Park boundary to the northern edge of Park boundary. Additionally, the Plan is providing non-street legal OHV connectivity on two existing designated street-legal vehicle roads that are continually monitored and assessed for safety and impacts to sensitive resources. Furthermore, if State Parks were to close the route to non-street legal OHVs, there would be no clear path for access between the non-street legal OHV permitted use areas that border the Park, which would increase the potential for illegal crossing of the Park through sensitive resource areas. Providing a well-marked connectivity route for non-street legal OHVs pursuant to CVC Section 38026 would allow the Park to better coexist with adjoining OHV use areas to the north and west while protecting sensitive resources.”
Jeff Aardahl from Defenders of Wildlife submitted another letter to the planning team on March 9, 2023, stating in part, “I remeasured the length of Sierra View Road on map in the General Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report and it is 4.40 miles, not 3.1 miles, far longer than the 3.0 mile limit as per CVC Section 38026.” After recognizing the error, the State Park planning team submitted an Addendum to the Final General Plan and Final EIR to the State Clearinghouse on March 27, 2023, stating in part, “Shortly after project approval (on March 9, 2023), State Parks received correspondence from an interested party questioning the accuracy of the length of Sierra View Road through the Park [and] this Addendum provides additional information regarding Sierra View Road. CVC Section 38026 allows State Parks to designate three miles of a highway within a State Park classified unit, providing a connecting link between OHV trail segments. State Parks stated during the planning process and at the March 3 commission meeting that the segment of Sierra View Road through the Park measures 3.1 miles. Upon receiving the comment on March 9 stating that the commenter believes the segment was significantly longer than the 3.1 miles...State Parks reexamined the GIS data for Sierra View Road and park boundaries and determined that minor errors occurred during calculations...which were determined to add up to 3.86 miles.”
“In response to this re-calculation, this Addendum to the Red Rock Canyon State Park General Plan and EIR revises the length of Sierra View Road that would allow continued OHV travel through the Park from 3.1 miles to 3.86 miles. The change in length of Sierra View Road does not necessitate any changes to the EIR analysis or its impact conclusions. Vehicle travel on Sierra View Road is currently occurring and will continue to occur with General Plan implementation. The EIR did not identify any significant impacts resulting from General Plan Implementation. …State Parks will address this inconsistency issue in the Roads and Trails Management Plan called for in General Plan Section 4.7.1 to address this code inconsistency.” Again, the EIR for the General Plan found no impacts because no impact analysis was performed.
On April 3, 2023, the Center for Biological Diversity (Center) filed a lawsuit against Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Park Planning and Recreation Commission in the State Superior Court for Sacramento County, alleging they violated the California Environmental Quality Act by certifying the Final EIR that 1) did not include an analysis of the impacts of allowing unlicensed OHVs to use Sierra View Road and the road leading to, within and from Ricardo Campground on special status species of plants and animals, cultural resources, and park visitors; 2) was based on an inadequate inventory of rare plants; and 3) violated CVC Section 38026 by allowing such use on routes exceeding the three-mile limit. The Center is now assembling the administrative record comprised of all documents pertaining to the General Plan and Final EIR for submittal to the court; has asked the court to set aside and vacate the certification of the Final EIR supporting the approval of the Red Rock Canyon State Park General Plan; and asked the court to impose a temporary stay, a temporary restraining order, and preliminary and permanent injunctions restraining State Parks staff from taking any action to implement, fund, or construct any portion or aspect of the Project, pending full compliance with the requirements of CEQA, the Public Resources Code, the Vehicle Code, and all applicable regulations.
The Department of Parks and Recreation appears to have prioritized just one-third of its mission (providing recreation opportunities) and leaving the other critical components (preserving biodiversity and protecting natural and cultural resources) in the dust. We hope that the lawsuit filed by the Center will correct the deficiencies in the General Plan and Final EIR so that Red Rock Canyon can be managed to preserve biodiversity, protect natural and cultural resources, and provide the public with the opportunity to experience the outstanding features that make the park one of the crown jewels of the State Park System.
Formerly a biologist with the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, Jeff Aardahl now works with Defenders of Wildlife focused on wildlife and habitat conservation, endangered species recovery, land use planning, and similar conservation matters.
Born in northern California and now retired, Mark Faull worked twenty years at Red Rock Canyon State Park. His passion for and understanding of the importance of park values to society continues.
2) Berry, K., K. Keith and T. Bailey. 2008. Status of the Desert Tortoise in Red Rock Canyon State Park. California Fish and Game 94(2): 98-118.
3) Sampson, M. 2007. The Effects of Off-Highway Vehicles on Archaeological Sites and Selected Natural Resources of Red Rock Canyon State Park. California Department of Parks and Recreation. https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24576