Off-roaders, business owners, government officials question Center of Biological Diversity's motives
Off-roaders see the center as a threat to their way of life. Delmar Foote, owner of KD Cycle, which sells off-roading equipment and gear, contends that the center is abusing environmental laws and using "frivolous" lawsuits to keep the dunes closed to vehicles.
"These people portray themselves as being very concerned about the environment," he said. "As off-roaders with ORBA (Off-Road Business Owners Association), we offer to do accurate scientific studies with an independent scientific board and match the center dollar for dollar to find out what's going on in the desert. We've found very conflicting information about what is endangered and what isn't. We've found some issues that need to be looked at and some issues that they're using that aren't endangered at all."
Foote said the center's lawsuits have tied the legal system up with environmental issues.
"If everything is tied up in the courts for 15 years, nothing gets better," he said. "Wrong or right, if the animals needed to be protected, nothing changed because it was all tied up in court. Even the purest off-roader doesn't want to see the environ- ment destroyed. The whole idea of going out there in the first place is to see the most pristine of it. In a lot of ways, off-roaders themselves are environmentalists."
Foote said the dunes closures have not impacted his business as much as they have the people who use the dunes to recreate.
"We're now putting more people into a smaller area, increasing the risk of injury and not having the solitude to recreate a little more secluded because we're packed together in an urban environment when we're trying to go to the country," he said. "The sand dunes being closed is not in Yuma's best interest. I don't think Yuma could afford the $8 or 9 million a year it would lose in its local economy."
According to Ken Rosevear, executive director of the Yuma Chamber of Commerce, the Center's activities have had minimal economic impact on Yuma, but only because Yuma, with the help of some independent organizations, has been able to offset some of the Center's "bad" science with good science.
"If we hadn't given the other side of the story on most of their issues there would have been a real negative impact," Rosevear said. "A prime example is the Pierson's milk vetch. They said that it was almost extinct. It really boiled down to if it got water it grew, if it didn't get water, it didn't grow. In the areas that were closed, the plant counts were lower than in the areas that remained open."
Rosevear says the Center's motives, at least in Yuma, have nothing to do with endangered species.
"They have to do with their desire to have public areas closed to the public," he said. "I think it's in their charter. They want things back to a pristine condition that will never happen. I think I share the feelings of a lot of people in this community that want a balance of the ecology, but we certainly don't want it toward where all these areas are closed to us. This is an example of someone coming in from Tucson and telling us what's good for Yuma."
The off-road community and chamber of commerce aren't the Center's only opponents. The Arizona Game and Fish Department and U.S. Bureau of Land Management have been named in a lawsuit the Center filed in July involving the maintenance of artificial water holes for wildlife in the desert in and around Yuma. The Center contends artificial water holes throw the desert ecosystem out of balance by favoring game species, while ignoring other wildlife, such as migratory and game birds, bats and tortoises.
The Center's lawsuit could have a devastating impact on the desert wildlife populations struggling in the midst of a drought, said John Hervert, wildlife program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Hervert said the Center's argument that man-made waters disrupt the natural ecosystem doesn't hold water.
"They basically try to portray it like that ecosystem is unaltered and in a very natural state, and what we're doing is altering it and making it a very unnatural place by adding waters," he said. "That's highly incorrect. The habitat is altered already because of the many human impacts that have been thrust upon it over the last couple of hundred years. We've built highways and canals that some species either can't cross or drink from. We've converted agriculture from one type that was once good for a particular (species) to something else that's no longer of value to (that species). We've introduced disease by way of livestock."
Because of these man-made alterations that occurred long before the establishment of the water holes, there are many areas in which water from natural springs that was once accessible to certain wildlife is now cut off from them, Hervert said.
"Do we just shrug our shoulders and ignore the impacts we've made and the wildlife affected?" he said. "We should be doing something to relieve the stresses we've imposed on wildlife. Building waters in addition to the springs is a good first step."
Matt Riehl can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6851.
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