- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

GLAMIS, Calif. - A small, broomlike plant found in the dunes of Californias Imperial Valley has turned this vast, desolate landscape into one of the nations unlikeliest environmental battlegrounds.

@Text.normal:The fight pits those trying to protect the fragile habitat of the Piersons milk vetch against crowds of off-roaders headed to the Algodones Dunes for holiday partying in the desert.

The plant, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act, is keeping dune riders out of an area 3 times the size of Manhattan.

Off-roaders say the milk vetch is emblematic of whats wrong with the Endangered Species Act. They contend it locks up huge areas of public land with what they call bad science.

Environmentalists counter that the protection accorded the milk vetch is keeping life in the nations biggest and most popular set of dunes from being ground beneath the wheels of dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles.

The Bureau of Land Management says protecting plants sometimes takes a back seat to keeping the peace when crowds flock to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, 160 miles east of San Diego.

“Were kind of short-handed on officers when there are so many people out there,” said Bob Zimmer, the BLMs chief ranger in the dunes.

Paul Spitler, chairman of the California Off-Highway Vehicle Commission, called one wild Thanksgiving in 2001 “straight out of a ‘Mad Max movie.”

Last week, Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, led a visitor to a narrow strip thats home to a few Piersons milk vetch.

He pointed to fresh vehicle tracks in the sand. “Theres been a blatant disregard for habitat protection in parts of the dunes,” he said.

While 68,000 acres remain open to vehicles, dune riders chafe at the closures and insist theyre being kept out for no good reason. They paid for a study that found the vehicles havent harmed the plants.

No one is sure how many Piersons milk vetch there are. The BLM estimates it will spend $850,000 this year to send employees out into the desert to count milk vetch.

Off-roaders have successfully petitioned for a federal review of the science that led to the Piersons milk vetch being listed as a threatened species five years ago. An answer is expected in May.

“Im not in favor of decimating endangered species, but I think a lot of this stuff has been a bunch of hooey,” Jim Broxholme said from a stand where he sells snacks and supplies to off-roaders.

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