U.S. Gets Extension for Mojave Off-Road Plan

     EUREKA, Calif. (CN) - The government can take another year to revise plans for off-road vehicle use in the Western Mojave, a federal judge ruled, and it need not raise fines or beef up its monitoring protocol.
     In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management created the West Mojave Plan to protect the desert tortoise, the Mohave ground squirrel, and hundreds of other endangered plant and animal species and their habitats in the western portion of the Mojave Desert, according to the BLM's website.
     The plan area stretches across 9.3 million acres of desert from Olancha in Inyo County south to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, and from Antelope Valley in the west to the Mojave National Preserve in the east.
     In September 2009, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston found the BLM had violated federal environmental law by failing to place off-road vehicle routes in areas that would minimize environmental damage.
     She later directed the BLM to revise the Western Mojave plan by March 31 of this year and to create a system for monitoring off-road vehicle use within the area.
     The BLM asked for a year's extension to complete the work, citing the large quantity of data it needed to collect and incorporate into a database.
     Though the Center for Biological Diversity and its co-plaintiffs did not oppose the government's motion for more time, they pointed out that the public comment period could fall within the hottest time of the year. They asked for an additional comment period in October 2014, and the government agreed.
     In a ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Nandor Vardas extended the deadline to May 31, 2015, and rejected environmentalists' call for additional enforcement regulations and monitoring requirements.
     The Alliance for Responsible Recreation and other groups had argued that the BLM should increase its maximum fine for illegal off-road vehicle use to $25,000 from $400, and should publicize the stiffer fine throughout the plan area.
     But the BLM pointed out that fines are controlled by the collateral forfeiture schedules set by federal courts in California.
     It also noted that publishing new notices would be time-consuming and costly, as it had already spent about two months and $35,000 posting the specific notice required by Judge Illston's remedy order. Requiring a new one would force the BLM to repeat much of that work, the agency argued.
     Vardas denied the environmentalists' motion, noting that the BLM has complied with every aspect of the remedy order. He said the plaintiffs' request overreaches the scope of the order, as does their bid for the BLM to include more detailed data in its quarterly reports.
     "BLM's limited law enforcement resources can be best utilized by actually carrying out monitoring, patrols and enforcement activities in the field, rather than generating additional data that may be of little use for on-the-ground enforcement purposes," Vardas wrote.
     The judge also agreed with the BLM that notifying the public about a stiffer maximum fine would likely do little to discourage illegal off-road vehicle use.
     Instead, he urged the parties to work together toward increasing the fines and to consider involving groups such as the Friends of Juniper Flats to help monitor illegal off-road vehicle activity in the area.
     Vardas also suggested seeking grants to help offset the costs of restoring trails and putting up signs and fences.
     He gave the parties until June 30 to file a joint status report on their progress.
     The judge also refused to impose additional requirements on the BLM's monitoring protocol, such as forcing it to report off-road vehicle use on closed routes and to speed up its inspections of certain closed routes.
     Such measures are largely unnecessary, Vardas said.
     He also found no need for the BLM to specify where new routes are being created, because the plaintiffs will be able to get that information from the National Agriculture Imagery Program.
     Vardas ordered the BLM to keep filing quarterly reports and to notify the court and the environmentalists if it will not be able to meet the March 31, 2015 deadline.
     The Wilderness Society, Friends of Juniper Flats, Western San Bernardino Landowners Association, California Native Plant Society and Community ORV Watch were the Alliance for Responsible Recreation's co-plaintiffs.
     The Center for Biological Diversity was joined by the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Desert Survivors.