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Center for Biological Diversity

Algodones Dunes

Algodones Dunes

Golden State Biodiversity Initiative



Federal Court Maintains Off-Road Vehicle Ban at Algodones Dunes for Immediate Future

Anti-environmental Politicians Label Industry Rally a “Congressional Hearing”

Wildlife Agency Proposes 52,780 of Algodones Dunes for Critical Habitat Protection

Bush Plan to Roll Back Dunes Conservation Faces Broad Challenge

Law Enforcement
Special Evaluation

Algodones Dunes "unsafe for family recreation activity due to the use of drugs and Alcohol, and the problems of lawlessness."

ORVs Kicked off
49,310 Acres of Rare
Sand Dune Ecosystem

In the first of many rounds in resolution of a massive lawsuit over the management of the 11 million acre California Desert Conservation Area, the Bureau of Land Management agreed on 11-2-00 to temporarily ban off-road vehicles from 49,310 acres of the Algodones Dunes. Up to now, 85% of this rare 160,000 acre ecosystem has been trashed by the yearly pilgrimage of one million motorcycles, dune buggies, jeeps, and monster trucks. Especially imperiled is the Peirson’s milk-vetch, a beautiful but federally threatened plant. The ban will remain in place until a permanent plan is developed to protect the milk-vetch.

algodones dune sunflower
Algodones Dune Sunflower


The 25 million acre California Desert Conservation Area, 11 million acres are public lands managed by the BLM, was established Congress in 1976. A plan to protects its fragile wildlife was developed in 1980, but has never been implemented or approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Consequently, ecosystems such as the Algodones Dunes continue to be degraded, and species such as Peirson’s milk-vetch continue to decline toward extinction.

Bush plan targets dunes for environmental roll-back, balanced management at risk

Gracefully stretching over 40 miles northward from the US-Mexico border in Eastern Imperial County, California is the United State’s largest dune system - the Algodones. The name is taken from Spanish and English manipulations of the name of the Quechan (Yuman) Indian tribe that historically dwelt, and still does in limited numbers, on both sides of the Colorado River in the area of the nearby dunes and delta.

The Algodones are an active dune system that harbors many rare, threatened, and endemic species such as the Peirson’s Milkvetch, Sand Food, Algodones Dunes Sunflower, Flat-tailed Horned Lizard, Andrews Dune Scarab Beetle, Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard and at least 9 endemic beetles.

flat-tailed lizard
Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard, byBradford Hollingsworth

The Algodones are among the oldest dunes in California, likely dating back to the latter Pleistocene epoch, 10-20,000 years ago. Some geologists think the dunes were created from blowing sands of the ancient Lake Cahuilla, the predecessor of the Salton Sea. Others believe the sand blew in from beaches and alluvial deposits to the west.

Due to the extreme dryness and temperature swings, and their constantly shifting sands, the Algodones represent a very unique habitat type in the Sonoran desert of southeastern California. During rains, the eastern side of the dunes act as a natural dam to block waters flowing toward the Salton Sea from the Chocolate Mountains. This results in many unique desert pools and supports a diverse microphyll woodland community with large Ironwood and Palo Verde trees dominate and providing diverse habitat structure and cover.

Trouble in Paradise
Unfortunately, the ancient dunes are threatened by uncontrolled and intense off-road vehicle use. Algodones is ground zero for motorized recreation, annually drawing up to one million dune buggies, motorcycles, jeeps, ATVs and monster trucks. They regularly run over plants and animals and tear up the dune ecosystem.

Wildlife are not the only ones assaulted during massive ORV gatherings at the dunes. The infamous and growing Algodones melees are giving off-road enthusiasts throughout California a bad name. BLM rangers have been threatened and had dune buggies attempting to run them over. They have had beer bottles and bags of fecal matter thrown at them by crowds chanting “kill the cops.” Management of the dunes has become so dangerous that a recent Department of Interior “Law Enforcement Special Evaluation” concluded that Algodones is "unsafe for family recreation activity due to the use of drugs and alcohol, and the problems of lawlessness that occur with such use." It recommended that BLM rangers be issued riot helmets, batons, and gas masks for their own safety. (More, click here)

Historically, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allowed off road vehicles to dominate 85% of the 160,000 dune ecosystem, the largest in the U.S. Only the 25,800 acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness was off limits. This area is far too small and isolated to protect wildlife and endangered plants. To give this and other desert ecosystems a fighting chance, the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Sierra Club sued the BLM on 3-16-00, challenging the impacts of livestock grazing, off road vehicles, mining and other activities on 11 million acres of public lands within the California Desert Conservation Area. Settling the first round of the suit, the BLM agreed to temporarily ban off road vehicles from an additional 49,310 acres of the Algodones Dunes on 11-2-00. While the off road lobby cries foul, it still has 70,000 acres on which to play. The off-road industry challenged this ban in court, and lost badly as the Center intervened. The ban was to remain in effect until a permanent solution was developed to save the Peirson’s milkvetch from extinction at the hands of rubber tires and flying sand. But instead of a permanent solution, the Bush administration off-road plan ignores experts and the current balanced management and opens all conservation areas; the Center is fighting this. The State of California was so opposed to the one-sided Bush dunes plan that it withheld $1.1 million in dunes funding to BLM. Local Indian Tribes are also opposed to the Bush plan.

peirson's milk-vetch
Peirson's Milk-vetch

Desert Evolution
Peirson’s Milkvetch (Astragulus magdelenae var. peirsonii) is a silvery, short-lived perennial plant. A member of the bean and pea family, it can grow to 2.5 feet tall and is notable among milkvetches for its greatly reduced leaves. It produces attractive, small purple flowers, generally in March or April, on stalks with 10 to 17 flowers per stalk. Peirson’s milkvetch also has the largest seeds of any milkvetch, an important adaptation to it’s dunes habitat. Large seeds provide a greater reservoir of stored food and enable a seedling to grow a greater distance before emergence and/or depletion of their stored energy. In the U.S., the plant is known only on the Algodones Dunes. It is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. On August 5, 2003, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed 53,000 acres of the dunes as critical habitat for the survival and recovery of the Peirson’s milkvetch.

Sand Food

Sand Food (Pholisma sonorac) is a most unusual plant. The sand food is a flowering plant that is parasitic on the roots of the few perennial plants found on the Algodones dunes, mainly the Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum deserticola). Sand food was an important food source for the indigenous peoples of the lower Colorado River region. It is reported to taste similar to a sweet potato.

More Information

Threatened and Endangered Species in the California Desert Conservation Area