In January 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Protective Council filed a lawsuit to prevent the California Department of Parks and Recreation from issuing a permit to the California Off-Road Vehicle Association for an “extreme” off-road event through sensitive desert parkland scheduled for January 20 and 21, 2007. The suit was also aimed at ensuring the department fully complied with the California Environmental Quality Act.
Although the Department agreed not to issue any special-use permits for large off-road events in the next two years until compliance is achieved, it continues to allow off-roaders to roam the newly acquired parkland without any regulation, destroying habitat and fragile cultural and archeological resources. In February 2007 the conservation groups put the department on notice that they intend to sue for violations of Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act for allowing off-road vehicles to destroy habitat used by the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. Read on for the history and conservation importance of the Desert Cahuilla Prehistoric Area property.
Uncertain Future for the
Desert Cahuilla Prehistoric Area
By Terry Weiner, Courtesy of Desert Report & the Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee
The Desert Cahuilla Prehistoric Area has a wild and unearthly desert beauty and is the ancestral home and hunting grounds of a group of Native Americans called the Desert Cahuilla. Ancient ceremonial sites, sleeping circles, dance circles, rock alignments, geoglyphs, ancient trails, fish traps built during the time when Lake Cahuilla occupied the Salton Basin, and other unique evidence of prehistoric occupation and ceremonial usage are scattered throughout the region.
Beginning in 2003, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) began working with the Native American Land Conservancy, the Anza Borrego Foundation, the Desert Protective Council (DPC) and State Parks to identify priority properties for acquisition in the Desert Cahuilla Prehistoric Area, which includes approximately 15,000 acres of culturally and biologically significant land in Imperial County immediately north of highway S22 and west of Highway 86. Anza Borrego Desert State Park forms the western boundary of this area, the Torres Martinez Reservation is on the north, and to the south lies the 87,000-acre Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (OWSVRA), California’s largest SVRA.
The intent of the partners from the beginning was to eventually purchase and convey the entire 15,000 acres to Anza Borrego Desert State Park for protection of these unique natural and cultural resources. The partners on the project immediately began to seek and raise the $1.35 million dollar acquisition price. Congressman Bob Filner was instrumental in securing $680,000 in federal highway funds for acquisition of some 4,000 acres of these lands for Anza Borrego State Park. The Desert Protective Council pledged $300,000 toward the purchase.
Protecting rare and endangered species
The region is a land of scenic canyons and huge desert washes, bizarre sandstone concretions, colorful painted sandstone hills, Pleistocene fossils, ancient Palo Verde trees, and several rare palm oases. The area provides habitat for several rare and sensitive plant species and contains federally designated habitat for the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.
Late in 2005, it became known that the Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division (OHMVRD) of state parks was interested in acquiring the property for expansion of the Ocotillo Wells SVRA. Their interest in becoming partners in acquiring and managing the area for some level of off road vehicle use was expressed to Ruth Coleman, the Director of California State Parks.
Off road vehicles have trespassed illegally on both public and private lands of the Desert Cahuilla area for many years, including organized annual four-wheel drive events with neither permission nor permits from any landowner or state agency. For decades, this unauthorized motorized use has taken place without oversight or management of any sort. Soils, sandstone formations, plants, and cultural sites have been damaged. Palm oases have been driven over and degraded. State park resource managers have agreed that the lands could recover and to some extent be restored if given a rest from vehicular activity. If these parcels were donated to Anza Borrego State Park to manage, park managers could maintain roadways for travel by highway legal vehicles in appropriate areas, as they do throughout the rest of the park.
Early in 2006, a coalition of a dozen or so conservation groups signed on to a letter to Coleman urging her to approve the purchase and donation of this land to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, rather than to co-management with the Vehicular Recreation Area because of the uniqueness and sensitivity of the cultural resources, the existence of Peninsular Bighorn Sheep designated critical habitat, the presence of a number of sensitive plant species, and because the location of these lands made it a natural addition to Anza Borrego.
Lack of resources to manage additional lands
In a February meeting of interested parties, Coleman explained that an independent source of money for future management of these additional lands must be available up front in order for the acquisition to move forward with the State Public Works Board. California State Parks are suffering from budget deficiencies and backlogs of incomplete maintenance projects. Anza Borrego Desert State Park does not have the funding available for management of this new area. The OHMVRD does have money for management in a trust fund, which comes from a percentage of gasoline taxes on all vehicles in the state and from the registration of off road vehicles.
Time was ticking on the July 8th expiration date of TPL’s option on the land, and the partners decided that the priority was to get this land into state parks hands and use the public land management processes and California environmental law to arrive at appropriate land use decisions for the area.
The Desert Protective Council decided to pull their funding because management of the Desert Cahuilla Area for ORV use was not compatible with the DPC’s mission to preserve the natural and cultural resources of this area for future generations, nor did they believe off road vehicle use in this area was compatible with the stated purpose of the federal funds which had been obtained.
After a number of attempts to obtain funds from other sources, the acquisition was finalized on September 27, 2006, using the federal funds and $670,000 from the Off-Highway Trust Fund. Additionally, the Trust for Public Land will contribute $50,000 to the Native American Land Conservancy to facilitate tribal involvement in the management of cultural resources.
Controversy not over
Having signatures on paper finalizing the acquisition for State Parks has by no means ended the controversy over this area. The OHV Division, with Coleman’s approval, is planning to keep the Desert Cahuilla area open to motorized vehicle use in the interim period before the environmental review process has been followed and a management plan for the area has been completed. This could be for as long as two years.
The next phase of the process requires that the Department of Parks and Recreation initiate an endangered species consultation with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Fish and Game. They have to meet the requirements of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act as well as of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). They also have to meet the requirements of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
ORV track through Native American sleeping cirles
The OHV Division has begun cultural resources surveys in the area, but they have not been completed. It has been customary for State Parks to close a new acquisition area to public entry until resource surveys have been completed and a management plan has been finalized. If interim motorized use continues in this fragile area, what are the risks of further damage to the resources? How will motorized use in the interim be mitigated without a management plan in place? What steps will the state park rangers and resource managers of Ocotillo Wells and Anza Borrego Desert State Park be able to take to protect the valuable archeological, paleontological, historical, and natural resources on the property without having complete inventories and surveys?
Terry Weiner is the Imperial County Projects and Conservation Coordinator for the Desert Protective Council, a resident of San Diego, and a long-time desert activist.