Off-road Routes in Mojave Desert Found Illegal

Bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert.

Our focus at The Wilderness Society is preserving spectacular lands like the California Desert and our national forests, but the critical decisions that determine their future sometimes take place inside the rarified realm of a federal courtroom.

Just recently, The Wilderness Society and our coalition partners celebrated a major federal court victory that sided with us in determining that the Bureau of Land Management erred when it added 5,000 miles of off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes in the Western Mojave Desert.

The Sept. 28 federal district court ruling will play a pivotal role in ensuring the California desert is not marred by illegal OHV routes that can damage the fragile ecosystem and its wildlife corridors.

If this good news wasn’t enough, just one day after the OHV ruling, another federal court sided with us in a separate ruling that could ultimately help The Wilderness Society preserve several Southern California forests that provide some of the last refuges for imperiled species like the California condor and bighorn sheep.

Mojave’s Off-Highway Roads Found Illegal

In the Mojave off-road decision, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled in favor of environmental organizations, including The Wilderness Society, in a case challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to expand routes for off-highway vehicles (including ATVs and dirt bikes) in the California desert.

The judge determined that the BLM ignored its own regulations when it added the 5,000 miles of OHV routes to the Western Mojave in 2006. The court also found that the BLM failed to follow route restrictions established in the agency’s own conservation plan, resulting in the establishment of hundreds of illegal OHV routes during the past three decades.

Desert tortoise. Courtesy USFWS.Our attorneys were armed with two federal laws to protect the desert: the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). Both Acts require that environmental impacts to wildlife, soils, watersheds, vegetation and cultural resources must be carefully considered and minimized before the BLM can approve OHV routes.

The Wilderness Society is one of the lead coalition partners working to establish permanent protection of the remaining wild lands in the California Desert that are home to endangered species like bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise, as well as protection for historic trails and pioneer history. As part of establishing these protections, we will continue our efforts to make sure the BLM abides by federal law.

The Good News for Preserving California’s Forests

One day after the Mojave off-road ruling, another federal judge ruled in our favor in determining that the U.S. Forest Service violated federal law in failing to recommend substantial wilderness protection for roadless lands in the Angeles, Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests.

Los Padres National Forest, California.On Sept. 29, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel agreed with environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society, that the U.S. Forest Service failed to fully assess the cumulative damage caused by piecemeal road building and other development within the four national forests. As a result of the poor assessment, the agency had recommended that only a paltry amount of the remaining roadless lands be protected as wilderness.

What’s at stake? These are forests close to urban Southern California that are some of the last remaining refuges for imperiled species like the California condor and bighorn sheep. In addition, these forests still possess over one million acres of roadless areas, many of which merit protection as federal wilderness.

The Forest Service, the court ruled, violated federal environmental law by not considering the “big picture” impacts of more development in roadless areas — while also recommending very few areas for wilderness protection.

The Wilderness Society will now urge the Forest Service to reconsider those decisions and to work with Congress to provide the permanent wilderness protection that the region’s outstanding wild lands so clearly deserve. And, if it is necessary, TWS will return to the courtroom to ensure that agency decisions are made consistent with federal environmental laws.

Bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert.
Desert tortoise. Courtesy USFWS.
Los Padres National Forest, California.