Small plant blocks off-roaders - Milkvetch protected by Endangered Species Act, keeps dune riders out of area 3-1/2 times the size of Manhattan

Arizona Daily Star


GLAMIS, Calif. - A small, broomlike plant found only in the dunes of California's Imperial Valley has turned this vast and desolate landscape into one of the nation's unlikeliest environmental battlegrounds.

The fight pits those trying to protect the fragile habitat of the Pierson's milkvetch against the huge crowds of off-roaders headed to the Algodones Dunes to ring in the New Year by driving and partying in the desert.

The plant, which is protected by the powerful Endangered Species Act, is keeping dune riders out of an area 3 1/2 times the size of Manhattan.

Off-roaders say the milkvetch is emblematic of what's wrong with the Endangered Species Act, which celebrated its 30th birthday Sunday. They contend it locks up huge areas of public land with what they call bad science about endangered species.

Environmentalists counter that the protection given to the milkvetch is keeping life in the nation's biggest and most popular set of dunes from being ground beneath the wheels of dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles.

To protect the plant, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to temporarily ban vehicles from 49,310 acres of dunes in 2000 as part of a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups. Traffic was barred in 1972 from a separate section that was later designated a 32,000-acre protected wilderness.

The BLM says protecting plants sometimes takes a back seat to keeping the peace when huge crowds flock to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, 160 miles east of San Diego and just a few miles west of the Arizona state line. The mix of crowds, drinking, drugs and fast driving has been a recipe for chaos on past holidays.

On the 30th birthday of the Endangered Species Act, Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, led a visitor to a narrow strip of sand that's home to a few Pierson's milkvetch.

The area is marked as off-limits to the vehicles that buzz past on both sides, but the restrictions are difficult to enforce and rangers concede they are routinely violated. Patterson points to fresh vehicle tracks in the sand left behind by an off-roader who took an illegal shortcut.

"There's been a blatant disregard for habitat protection in parts of the dunes," he said. "Anybody who goes in here knows that this area is closed."

While 68,000 acres remains open to vehicles, dune riders chafe at the closures and insist they're being kept out for no good reason. They paid for a study that found the vehicles haven't harmed the plants.

"I'm not in favor of decimating endangered species, but I think a lot of this stuff has been a bunch of hooey," resident Jim Broxholme said from behind a stand where he sells snacks and auto supplies to off-roaders gathering in advance of the holiday.

No one is sure how many of the Pierson's milkvetch exist. Complicating things, the plants have a boom-and-bust cycle that corresponds to rainfall. The BLM estimates it will spend $850,000 in 2004 to send its employees out in the heat to walk a total of 1,700 miles, counting milkvetch.

"This is probably the most expensive monitoring that's ever been done for a listed plant species," said John Willoughby, the BLM's state botanist.


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