Covering more than 25 million acres — about a fourth of California — the geologically diverse California Desert Conservation Area includes sand dunes, canyons, dry lakes, 90 mountain ranges, and 65 wilderness areas. This huge expanse of land is also home to numerous imperiled species, including the threatened desert tortoise, the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, the cushenberry buckwheat, and many other rare plants and animals adapted to live in harsh desert environments. Congress designated the area in 1976, and the 1994 California Desert Protection Act further increased protection by setting aside as wilderness 3.5 million of its acres, turning the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments into national parks and establishing the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve.
But the Bureau of Land Management, entrusted with protecting the conservation area for the sake of wildlife, plants, and sustainable human enjoyment, continues to support destructive human activities within its borders, and imperiled species suffer as planning efforts to protect their habitat are delayed time and again. For the past decade, the Center has been leading the fight to hold the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accountable for their failure to protect these precious public resources.
In March 2000, the Center, Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility stepped in to initiate a revolution in wildlife and ecosystem protection across the California Desert Conservation Area, filing suit against the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of 24 endangered species that had been hurt by poor land management. Thanks to a series of sweeping settlement agreements in 2000 and 2001, millions of acres were protected from destructive human impacts when the Bureau of Land Management promised to prohibit mining on 3.4 million acres, reduce or prohibit livestock grazing on 2 million acres, prohibit off-road vehicles on more than 550,000 acres, close more than 4,500 miles of roads, and increase wildlife surveying, monitoring, and conservation plans. The agency also agreed to protect the Peninsular bighorn sheep and its habitat, close a sand and gravel mine threatening the arroyo southwestern toad, require the use of wildlife-safe engine coolant, and make power lines raptor-proof.
Even before its 2000 lawsuit, the Center took other critical actions to preserve the area. In 1999, a notice of intent to sue resulted in the permanent closure of the gigantic Cima Cinder Mine, which destroyed large portions of desert tortoise critical habitat and annually stripped away 7,500 tons of cinder from a cinder cone supposedly protected within the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. In the same year, the Center, the Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility brought about the closure of the Bureau of Land Management’s 339,553-acre portion of the Lanfair Valley grazing allotment, which lay within critical habitat for the desert tortoise. In March 2000, public pressure and a threat to sue led to the permanent cancellation of livestock grazing on the 276,125-acre Granite Mountains allotment, which lies within the Bristol Mountains Wilderness, the Mojave National Preserve, and the University of California’s Granite Mountains Natural Reserve.
Unfortunately, the California Desert Conservation Area is still far from immune to destructive human activities, and the Center has continually had to work to keep them out. Since the landmark 2001 settlement, we’ve helped protect the area by protesting destructive mining practices, petitioning for hunting regulations, blocking the installation of resource-guzzling artificial water systems, and filing suit to prevent off-road vehicles from destroying millions of acres of wildlife habitat. In 2003, the Center won an injunction against the Bureau of Land Management’s policy designating hundreds of miles of so-called “open wash zones” for off-road vehicles in desert tortoise habitat in the area. Unfortunately, the agency reopened these areas very soon after, and in 2006, the Center and allies again filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service for allowing excessive and destructive off-road vehicle use and grazing to continue in critical habitat for the desert tortoise — habitat required by law to be set aside for the protection and recovery of the species. In 2007, the Center and other conservation groups intervened in lawsuits brought by Inyo County and San Bernardino County claiming rights-of-way in the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park under the antiquated law R.S. 2477. The next summer, a judge largely tossed out Inyo County’s suit, dismissing its demand to open routes within park wilderness areas in Greenwater Valley, Greenwater Canyon, and Last Chance Canyon .
In January 2008, the Center and our allies won a victory against the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to build an off-road vehicle route through Furnace Creek in the White Mountains. Furnace Creek provides rare, desert riparian habitat that supports many rare and imperiled species, including the migrating southwestern willow flycatcher. Keeping this area closed on Bureau of Land Management lands protects hundreds of square miles of wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, including Tres Plumas Flats, from destruction by off-road vehicle route proliferation.