Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

News Release For immediate release Tuesday, May 29, 2001


Contact Daniel Patterson, Desert Ecologist, CBD 520.623.5252 x 306
Elden Hughes, Chair, Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee 562.941.5306
More information: California Deserts, Goldenstate Biodiversity Initiative, Federal Register Notice for Surprise Canyon.

PANAMINT RANGE, INYO COUNTY CA ­ The unique, lush riparian habitats of the Surprise Canyon Area of Critical Environmental Concern were protected today when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a protective closure notice in the federal register. The protective measures to ban motor vehicle use in the canyon go in to effect immediately and will remain at least until BLM completes its National Environmental Policy Act and California Desert Conservation Area Plan amendment processes. The vehicle closures may remain in place for good, as permanent protection of Surprise Canyon will be a top option considered by BLM.

“Protecting Surprise Canyon guards the essence of biological diversity in the California Desert,” said Daniel Patterson, CBD’s Desert Ecologist. “Surprise Canyon is a crown jewel desert riparian area and it will now be allowed to thrive, and be sustainably enjoyed by people, without the constant attack and pollution of off-roading.”

Surprise Canyon, adjacent to Death Valley National Park, is an important habitat and water source for wildlife in this ultra-arid part of California. It is known to harbor the rare endemic Panamint alligator lizard and is potential habitat for endangered riparian obligate birds such as the Southwestern willow flycatcher and Least Bell’s vireo.

“The Bureau of Land Management has not protected the wonderful hourglass riparian areas of the Panamint Mountains.” said Elden Hughes, Chair of the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee. “It is finally happening, but it’s a shame it has taken a lawsuit to do it.”

For years, BLM had allowed unregulated extreme off-road vehicle use of Surprise Canyon. Off-road vehicles regularly winched-up unique waterfalls, cut native vegetation and spilled oil & gas in to the water. The damage is so bad that BLM states in today’s notice: “The canyon riparian zone currently does not meet the BLM’s minimum standards for a properly functioning riparian system due to soil erosion and streambed alterations caused by off-highway vehicle use.”
“The trashing of Surprise Canyon by off-roaders forced this closure,” said Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Washington DC-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “BLM must take these actions to avoid a contempt of court citation.”

This conservation action arises from the big desert lawsuit settlement between the BLM and the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and Sierra Club. The Clinton and Bush Interior Departments as well as off-road vehicle & multiple use group interveners earlier signed the stipulations to protect the Virginia-sized California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA).

“We’re pleased that BLM is starting to catch up and implement the settlement, after being motivated by the court nearly holding them in contempt for delays.” said plaintiff’s attorney Jay Tutchton of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.
BLM’s action to protect the canyon comes 3 ½ months past deadline. A settlement agreement signed by the plaintiffs and BLM in January set a February 15 closure date for Surprise Canyon.

The CDCA lawsuit was orignially filed March 16, 2000 in the Northern District of California and assigned to Judge William Alsup. The court will hear a compliance update on all remaining CDCA settlement actions on June 14. Full CDCA details and a link to specific info and photos at Surprise Canyon.


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