WEMO 101: Why It Matters Now

Editor’s note:
This week, CNPS submitted an important comment letter in response to the Draft SEIS (DSEIS) of the WEMO OHV route network, released on March 16, 2018. You can read the full WEMO comment letter here.  Below, CNPS Southern California Conservation Analyst Nick Jensen provides a comprehensive background on WEMO and current CNPS concerns. 

Mojave Desert southern border
A view of the Mojave’s southern border. Credit: Nick Jensen

Understanding another facet of CNPS desert defense

By Nick Jensen, PhD

The Western Mojave Plan (WEMO) Route Network exemplifies the challenges of conservation in the California desert. On one hand, our deserts are harsh environments that appear to be timeless and tough. Many desert plants live for long periods of time enduring scanty precipitation and extreme temperatures. Desert wildflowers exhibit long periods of dormancy in the soil seed bank only to burst to life and flower following sufficient precipitation. On the other hand, these same habitats are fragile and easily harmed. Biological soil crusts — a complicated network of algae, fungus, and bacteria — can be destroyed by a single footprint and can take decades to recover. Tank tracks from maneuvers in preparation for World War II are still visible in places

The desert can take a long time to heal.

The WEMO planning area covers more than nine million acres of the Western Mojave Desert, stretching from near Owens Lake in Inyo County to south of Joshua Tree National Park in Riverside County. The Bureau of Land Management is tasked with managing more than 3 million acres in the WEMO planning area and must accommodate a wide variety of uses in addition to the protection of biological resources. Over time, more than 16,000 miles of roads, trails, narrow tracks, and vehicle-caused disturbances have been created on BLM lands in WEMO. While some of these routes are well maintained, managed, and patrolled by BLM rangers, a significant portion of them are poorly managed and in conflict with native plant resources. BLM, with its limited resources, is tasked with determining which of these roads/trails should remain open for use and which should be permanently closed.

WEMO – Early 1990s to 2015

CNPS volunteers and staff have played an important role in guiding the designation of off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes in WEMO since the early 1990s. Current CNPS President Steve Hartman was integral in helping to shape BLM’s route designations through his role on the Desert Advisory Committee. Later, Ileene Anderson served as the CNPS lead staff person, submitting comments prior to and following the release of the 2006 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In the 2006 EIS, BLM designated more than 5,000 miles of roads for use by OHVs, and set forth a number of other management recommendations and actions not related to vehicle uses.  The portion of the plan dealing with OHV route designation was challenged in federal court by a coalition of environmental organizations. In 2009, the court sided with the environmental organizations on the grounds that BLM had failed to adequately assess the impacts of the proposed routes and did not minimize impacts to fragile desert ecosystems. BLM was ordered to draft a new route plan, in the form of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).  In 2015, BLM released a DRAFT SEIS (DSEIS) that included more than 10,000 miles of designated routes. Following the initial response from the public, they scrapped this effort and took the plan back to the drawing board.

The Current WEMO Plan-2018

The current Draft DSEIS of the WEMO OHV route network was released on March 16, 2018. The 90-day comment period for the plan will end on June 14. The DSEIS contains four alternatives. The plan BLM is most likely to adopt, aka the Preferred Alternative, contains more than 6,300 miles of routes. Here are some high (low) lights of the DSEIS:

    •   6,300 miles of routes broken into more than 110,000 segments. BLM has stated they would like route-specific comments, which is challenging given the enormity of the number of route segments.
    • 375 miles of routes proposed in Mojave Trails National Monument.
    • 40 miles of routes proposed in Sand to Snow National Monument.
    • Many proposed OHV routes are in Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) and National Conservation Lands (NCLs) established as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).
    • The plan contains only 179 miles of non-motorized trails. As such, it can hardly be considered a balanced recreation plan.
    • The plan does not adequately assess the impacts to biological and cultural resources caused by specific routes.

Our Concerns

  1. Impacts of proposed impacts on rare plants and habitats
  2. Impacts on lands with intact/sensitive habitats/recreational resources such as ACECs, National Monuments, NCLs, Unusual Plant Assemblages, Wilderness Areas, and Lands with Wilderness Characteristics.
  3. The need for balanced recreation in the Western Mojave Desert, not just the gasoline-fueled kind.

How CNPS is Responding:

On June 14, I submitted a WEMO comment letter on behalf of CNPS. As part of this effort, we partitioned the 3-million-acre WEMO plan area into a grid of 1 km square cells. Using GIS, we created a heat map of the grid cells that have the highest concentration of botanical resources by including:

    • Rare plants (CNPS Ranked)
    • Rare vegetation types (California Department of Fish and Wildlife Rankings S1-S3)
    • Unusual plant assemblages
    • Stands of Joshua tree
    • Other botanical resources

Then, we identified the proposed routes that occur in grid cells with the highest botanical resource values and have produced route-specific comments and recommendations for BLM.

The hope is that our comments will provide the decision-makers at BLM with the information they need to adopt a balanced recreation plan that ensures the continued conservation of biodiversity and functioning desert ecosystems.

We are participated in a limited number of field expeditions to evaluate first-hand the potential impacts of proposed routes. In mid-May, I collaborated with The California Wilderness Coalition and a team of botanists to survey for rare plants in an ACEC on BLM land called Middle Knob where many routes have been proposed for motorized vehicle travel. During these surveys, we were able to document impacts to globally-rare Kern buckwheat (Eriogonum kennedyi var. pinicola) (CRPR 1B) by illegal OHV use along on of the proposed routes. These findings have been incorporated into our route-specific comments.

To learn more about CNPS WEMO efforts or explore how you can help, please contact Nick Jensen at njensen@cnps.org.

Nick Jensen, CNPS Southern California Conservation Analyst

Nick Jensen is a conservation analyst for the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) in Southern California and a fellow of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation. Jensen recently earned his PhD in botany at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG)/Claremont Graduate University. As a graduate student he produced the first Flora of Tejon Ranch (* in preparation) and studied evolutionary patterns in perennial jewelflowers.  For more information please contact him at Nick Jensen at njensen@cnps.org.

Learn more about the CNPS Conservation Program and please consider making a donation to support California’s native plants and places today!


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