By Janet Zimmerman
SAN FRANCISCO – Ending a 14-year closure, about 40,000 acres of the popular Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area will be opened to off-road vehicles this fall after a federal court judge overruled environmentalists’ objections.
The land had been placed off limits to protect the Peirson’s milk vetch, a perennial herb listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The 250-square-mile recreation site on the eastern portion of Imperial County is one of the most popular off-roading areas in Southern California, drawing an estimated 1.2 million visitors a year. It is locally known as Glamis for the small town there — the name popularized on T-shirts, decals and bumper stickers.
Off-road enthusiasts celebrated the decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District Court of California in San Francisco. Her ruling last week upholds a 2013 management plan adopted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that includes lifting most of the milk-vetch closure.
“It’s an excellent riding area,” said Jim Bramham, a board member of the American Sand Association, on Monday. “It’s been historically some of the best open dunes for people who like to do long, lineal rides and explore the desert.”
Bramham’s group was one of 10 that helped fight the lawsuit challenging the BLM’s plan. The American Sand Association’s website urges riders to stay out of closed areas until the BLM removes red off-limits stakes.
The largest area that will reopen is in the center of the dunes, with a small portion south of Interstate 8 and another in the northern section near Highway 78, Bramham said.
The dunes are the largest such formation in North America, covering almost 200,000 acres in southeast Imperial County, near the U.S.-Mexico border. The area also is known as the Algodones Dunes.
Officials with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the lawsuit, said they are considering whether to appeal the decision.
In her ruling, Illston found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is overdue in issuing a recovery plan for the Peirson’s milk vetch, and ordered one done by 2019.
The court order maintains closure of 9,261 acres of critical habitat deemed necessary for plant’s survival, as well as 26,000 acres of the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness that is permanently closed to vehicles.
The remainder, more than 127,000 acres, will be open to sand rails, motorcycles, four-wheelers and other off-highway vehicles.
Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, worries about enforcement of the closures.
“The critical habitat follows the geography of the dunes. It looks like a big comb. I don’t know how they’ll be able to enforce keeping trespassing from happening in these areas that look like fingers going out from the backbone of the comb,” she said.
Terry Weiner, conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council in San Diego, said she has seen evidence of traffic in a closure area she regularly visits off Interstate 8 near the Buttercup Campground.
“People weren’t respecting that closure. They were riding through there,” said Weiner, who noticed many of the red stakes buried in sand or ridden over when she was there last month.
“That is the only place that the Peirson’s milk vetch lives on the entire planet,” she said. “The seeds can stay alive in sand for up to 20 years, but that requires the sand not being constantly turned up by tires, which dries them out.”
The Bureau of Land Management will work with off-roading groups to educate the public and develop new maps and signs to direct riders away from closures.