A sweeping look across southeastern California’s Algodones Dunes betrays little but a wide expanse of rolling dunes and deep-blue desert sky. But just at and beneath the surface of the shifting sands, this ecosystem literally crawls with life.
Stretching 40 miles north from the United States-Mexico border in western Imperial County to form the country’s largest dune system, the Algodones Dunes are biologically unique on a global scale. Because of the region’s extremely dry conditions, radical temperature swings, and ever-changing wind-sculpted landscape, this habitat has reared numerous rare species — including reptiles, plants, and more than a dozen insects — evolved to live nowhere else. The eastern dunes, acting as a natural dam to block waters flowing toward the Salton Sea from the Chocolate Mountains, additionally make possible special desert pools that support a diverse woodland community.
But the Algodones Dunes are also a magnet for off-road vehicles, annually drawing millions of dune buggies, motorcycles, jeeps, ATVs, and monster trucks that tear up the desert landscape and kill plants, animals, and even people. Historically, vehicles were banned from just 16 percent of the dunes’ 160,000 acres — the 25,800-acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, an area far too small to significantly prevent devastation of the dunes’ native flora and fauna.
To give the dunes and other desert ecosystems a fighting chance, the Center and our allies sued the Bureau of Land Management in March 2000 to challenge the impacts of livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, mining and other activities on 11 million acres of land within the California Desert Conservation Area. Later that year, the BLM agreed as part of a legal settlement with the Center and our allies to temporarily ban off-road vehicles from 49,310 acres of the dunes, and the off-road industry lost when it challenged the ban and the Center intervened. That case resulted in a rule to maintain the ban pending a permanent solution to protect the Pierson’s milk vetch, a threatened Algodones Dunes plant.
However, against the opposition of environmental groups, conservation experts, local American Indian tribes, and the state of California, the Bush administration proposed a recreation area management plan that would re-open conservation areas to vehicles; it later issued a biological opinion declaring that the plan wouldn’t jeopardize or adversely modify Peirson’s milk-vetch habitat. Thankfully, in response to the Center’s legal opposition, a 2006 federal court ruling upheld protections for the Algodones Dunes, proclaiming that current off-road vehicle closures would remain in effect for the foreseeable future.
Despite this success, many Algodones Dunes species remain imperiled. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored the Center’s 2004 petition to list 16 endemic insect species, including the rare Andrew’s dune scarab beetle, and in 2007, the Service reduced critical habitat for the Peirson’s milk vetch by 25 percent. The Center continues its efforts to protect these species from the crush and chaos of tires tearing through the sand.