Two Court Rulings Favor Citizens Seeking to Preserve Deserts

Over the past week, two major court rulings were handed down that vindicate Americans demanding that the government take a wiser approach to land use in California's deserts.

Off-Road Vehicles 
In the first ruling on 29 January, Honorable Susan Illston of the United States District Court ordered the Department of the Interior to take steps that limit the impacts of off-road vehicle (ORV) recreation on public lands in the West Mojave.  The judge ordered the Department to study and designate new off-road vehicle routes by March 2014, clearly mark routes that are legal for off-road use, monitor the land for signs of illegal ORV use, and provide sufficient enforcement capacity.   ORV use--if not probably checked--causes severe degradation of desert habitat through collisions with endangered species such as the desert tortoise, and the compaction of desert soil that prevents plants and wildflowers from thriving, impacting the entire food chain.

The Bureau of Land Management--part of the Department of the Interior--has been faulted for drafting a West Mojave plan in 2006 that would permit 5,098 miles of ORV routes.  The Court initially ruled in September 2009 that the route designations violated the California Desert Conservation Act, which does not permit new ORV routes beyond those that were in existence in 1980, when the Act was passed.  Since 1980, ORV routes continued to be carved into the desert illegally.   The judges ruling in January is the follow-up to the 2009 decision, and lays out specific actions that the Bureau of Land Management must take to be in compliance with the law.

Transmission Corridors
In the second ruling on 1 February, the Ninth District Court ruled 2-1 that the Department of Energy failed to conduct a necessary environmental review of its proposal to designate national transmission line corridors throughout America's southwestern deserts.  The Court also pointed out that the Department of Energy failed to adequately consult with the States affected by the plan, and unnecessarily withheld information on a grid "congestion"study that informed the Department's transmission plans.

The plan, called the National Interested Electrical Transmission Corridors (NIETC), would have designated millions of acres throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts where energy companies could build new transmission lines.  The NIETC also grants the government the ability to exercise eminent domain over private property in order to build transmission lines that benefit energy companies and utilities.  The Department of Energy argued that it did not need to conduct an environmental review because the impacts of its plan were not significant, and no construction would take place until a specific project was proposed.  However, the Court pointed out that the designated transmission corridors would force energy companies to develop in chosen areas, so the establishment of a corridor itself should be expected to result in development.  The Court found that the scale of such development almost certainly would have impacts necessitating environmental review.

The lawsuit was brought against the Department of Energy by a number of organizations and supported by many individual intervenors, including The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the California Wilderness Coalition.  Intervenors included the Desert Protective Council, San Bernardino Valley Audobon, and the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy.

A screenshot of a BLM map depicting transmission corridors, proposed solar and wind projects, military lands, ORV areas, and some conserved lands.  Many competing uses of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts have led to a besieged ecosystem.

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