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FURNACE CREEK: A RARE DESERT STREAM IN PERIL

Furnace Creek is a rare, perennial desert stream located on the east side of the White Mountains near the California/Nevada border. This delicate creek in the eastern Sierra Nevada winds its way through California’s largest unprotected wilderness and the White Mountains Wilderness Study Area.

Furnace Creek provides riparian habitat used by the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher during migration and provides breeding habitat for Costa’s hummingbird and eight other species of conservation concern, including the Mono Basin sage grouse and possibly the Panamint alligator lizard.

In 2001, as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Center, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to close Furnace Creek Canyon to ongoing off-road vehicle abuse. In reality, the agency finally closed the area in 2003, putting an end to off-roaders riding in the creek bed. The closure helped end damage to fragile riparian vegetation in the creek and illegal road proliferation onto Tres Plumas Flats in the Inyo National Forest. Since then, the riparian area has recovered significantly, and use of the canyon by many rare and imperiled species has increased.

Despite the fact that the Bureau of Land Management received more than 7,000 comments from the public in opposition to new construction, in May 2007 the agency released a plan that would allow the construction of a new road through the creek. However, in response to numerous protests from the conservation community in opposition to road construction and off-roading in the creek, the agency withdrew this bad plan in January 2008 and will now begin the planning process again. In the meantime, recovery of the creek and surrounding lands continues.

If road construction is approved, the agency will allow off-roading again in Furnace Creek Canyon — and more specifically, it will permit 14 stream crossings within a mere 4.5 miles along the creek.

The Bureau of Land Management knows that resuming off-road vehicle use in the Canyon would be devastating to the creek, the riparian woodlands, and the species that depend on this fragile habitat. In its previous environmental analysis it even identified a “preferred alternative” as one that would designate the road closed and allow nature to continue to restore this unique riparian corridor. Why the agency has decided to contradict its own analysis is unclear.

Only if this precious area remains closed will the riparian habitat continue its remarkable recovery. The Center will continue its efforts to protect this special place nestled in the Sierra Nevada.

Photo by Chris Kassar