Enviros Split Over Off-Road Areas in Feinstein's Desert Bill

Peace out? | Photo: Patrick Maloney/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A bill introduced into the U.S. Senate that would increase protection on more than 2,200 square miles of the California desert is getting general acclaim from conservationists, but one part of the bill isn't winning unanimous environmentalist support.

The California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015, formally introduced Monday by Senator Dianne Feinstein, would boost protection on 1.43 million acres of the desert, establishing two new national monuments and six new wilderness areas, as well as adding a total of 65,500 acres to the desert's three existing National Parks. Those provisions, as well as others adding 77 miles of desert watercourses to the nation's inventory of National Wild and Scenic Rivers, have a lot of fans.

But that can't be said for a section of the bill that may turn out to be the most controversial: formal designation of about 142,000 acres of the desert in the nation's first-ever National Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas.


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The five off-road areas map more or less precisely to the boundaries of existing off-road areas now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. They include the Stoddard Valley off-road area south of Barstow, the El Mirage area east of Lancaster, Dumont Dunes at the southern end of Death Valley, the Rasor off-road area along the northwest margin of the Mojave National Preserve, and the Spangler Hills area southeast of Ridgecrest.

The new National Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas were also part of a previous version of Feinstein's bill, the unsuccessful California Desert Protection Act of 2010. As was true of the earlier version of the bill, the five off-road areas have been included in the bill as a compromise move intended to mollify off-road vehicle enthusiasts who might otherwise have opposed the new monuments, wildernesses, and park expansions.

All five areas have seen years of relatively heavy off-road use, which has helped some environmental protection activists accept the notion of granting them permanent status as designated off-road enclaves.

"We support both the Wilderness designations and the OHV area designations in the bill because they achieve conservation goals while allowing us to build support among a broader constituency than might be in favor of a Wilderness-only bill," says Patrick Donnelly, executive director of the Shoshone-based Amargosa Conservancy.

According to Donnelly, riders who use the nearby Dumont Dunes area have been willing partners in habitat restoration projects in the Amargosa River drainage, as well as helping clean up trash.

Donnelly's no stranger to the damage improper off-roading can cause: he spent a stint in the Student Conservation Association helping restore desert areas damaged by off-road vehicle use, among other things. But he maintains that polarizing the off-road issue isn't helpful.

"Portraying riders as opponents of environmentalists is counterproductive," says Donnelly. "It negates important opportunities to engage in conservation across all parts of the desert, not just Wilderness areas. By designating permanent OHV areas, we encourage responsible riding within specific areas, and hopefully achieve desert conservation goals while limiting out-of-bounds vehicle traffic."

That out-of-bounds off-road vehicle traffic is one of Terry Weiner's main problems with the off-road provisions of the Feinstein bill. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that both Weiner and Donnelly are colleagues and good friends of mine.) A longtime activist with the San Diego-based Desert Protective Council who has worked to curb off-road abuse in the desert, Weiner fears that giving permanent status to these off-road areas will increase so-called "edge effects" in neighboring lands.

"Three of these off-road areas are directly adjacent to wilderness or proposed wilderness," says Weiner. "All of them are adjacent to land that's protected in one way or another. Off-roaders never stay where they're supposed to. The new OHV Recreation Areas don't just codify OHV use within their boundaries; they also, de facto, codify incursions into adjoining lands."

The three proposed OHV recreation areas Weiner cites that would adjoin wilderness are Rasor, which abuts wilderness in the Mojave Preserve; Dumont Dunes, which lies across two lanes of pavement from the Death Valley Wilderness and isn't far from proposed additions to that wilderness, as well as the Avawatz and Kingston Range wildernesses; and Spangler Hills, which would share about seven miles of boundary with the Golden Valley Wilderness and a proposed addition to that wilderness.

"When you have an off-road area up against a protected area, you don't have to worry just about incursion right on the fenceline," says Weiner. "It's not uncommon for a band of disturbance a mile into the protected area."

Weiner isn't the only activist with such concerns about the OHV areas: the off-road areas are a key reason why the national Sierra Club is withholding its support from the bill as written.

And it isn't just the proposed OHV Recreation Areas that have Weiner concerned about the Feinstein bill, she says. Feinstein's bill would also establish a number of formal OHV routes in the Vinagre Wash Proposed Special Management Area in eastern Imperial County, where off-roaders could ride not far from four newly proposed additions to nearby wildernesses.

"The area's full of important cultural resources," says Weiner, "The local Quechan Tribe has used the Trail of Dreams over Indian Pass for millennia, and off-roading in the Pass would definitely affect that."

"The interests of Native people have been left out of the equation, again," Weiner says.

We'll be covering the renewable energy implications of Feinstein's bill in a forthcoming post.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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