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For Immediate Release, December 22, 2008

Contact: Chris Kassar, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 609-7685  

Board Denies Off-road Vehicle Access to Death Valley National Park
A Unique Oasis in Southern California's Wildlands Protected Once Again

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif.— The Interior Board of Land Appeals has denied yet another attempt by extreme off-road vehicle enthusiasts to gain access to Surprise Canyon, a rare, fragile desert stream in Death Valley National Park. This is the third failed attempt in the past two years by off-roaders to gain motorized access to the creek, which begins in Death Valley National Park and flows through an area of critical environmental concern managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In the decision released last week, the Board, an agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior, found that the Bureau had properly rejected the application for vehicle use in Surprise Canyon because the applicants didn’t provide details of the proposed access, including measures to protect the environment.  The applicants, a group of ORV advocates, purchased fractional interests in a small property within Death Valley National Park for the purpose of gaining motorized access to Surprise Canyon. 

“Death Valley is a national park — not a playground for off-road vehicles. The Board’s decision once again supports that fact,” said Chris Kassar, associate public lands director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Surprise Canyon’s unique natural values should not be allowed to be destroyed by a handful of off-road vehicle users, especially when there are so many other off-road opportunities available elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.”

Congress and federal land managers have recognized Surprise Canyon’s incredible values for decades. In the 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management designated the lower portion of the canyon as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern.” In 1994, Congress added the upper portion of the canyon to Death Valley National Park and designated the area surrounding the canyon as wilderness. In a compromise, Congress left a narrow strip of land through the canyon out of the wilderness designation to permit vehicle access to century-old mining claims at the top of the canyon, although a major flood had washed out the old dirt road in 1984. No mining has taken place in Surprise Canyon since then.

Previous off-road vehicle use caused serious damage. In the 1990s, highly modified four-wheel drive vehicles began to scale the canyon. The drivers cut down plants and trees, filled in portions of the streambed with rocks, and used winches to pull vehicles up near-vertical waterfalls. A number of vehicles overturned when trying to negotiate the waterfalls and other steep terrain, polluting the stream.

In 2000, conservation groups sued the Bureau for failing to evaluate the harmful effects of off-road vehicle use and other management policies on endangered wildlife. As a result of a 2001 settlement, the Bureau closed the route through Surprise Canyon pending such analysis. The National Park Service closed the upper portion of the canyon to vehicles in 2002.

Since then, Surprise Canyon has experienced a remarkable recovery. Cottonwoods, willows and a lush riparian plant community are flourishing, and rare species such as desert bighorn sheep are thriving. Endangered birds such as the Inyo California towhee have returned to the canyon after decades of absence. The canyon has attracted a surge of dayhikers and overnight backpackers scrambling up the falls and the hiking canyon to visit the remote ghost town of Panamint City and mountain peaks in the Panamint Range.

“Surprise Canyon is on a path to natural restoration. It was torn up and damaged, but now is thriving with native plants and wildlife,” Kassar said. “Allowing damaging off-road vehicle activity to return to the canyon would require cutting down cottonwood trees and other streamside vegetation, setting recovery back by decades. This decision is at least one more step toward ensuring that doesn’t happen.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.


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