Public land access back up for discussion

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

A court ruling that sent the Bureau of Land Management back to the drawing board has reopened what agency officials say will be a collaborative process with the public to gather information and eventually help determine route access in the El Paso Mountains and surrounding areas.

While BLM officials said they are eager to incorporate public input, a packed audience at a meeting last week and a tone characterized by audience and moderators alike as “spirited” are testament to the lingering distrust among citizens.

Robert Pawelek, acting field manager for the Ridgecrest BLM office, said that the meeting was the first of several workshops to gather public input in the “travel management planning process” — which defines access to multiuse areas in the region.

Pawelek said that this complicated network of existing routes frequented by the public are not reflected in the West Mojave Management Plan, which was outlined in 2000.

The Collaborative Access Process (CAPA) was established in 2003 to allow the public to assist the BLM in identifying popular routes. The process was put on hold when the WEMO was challenged in court later that year.

In 2011 the courts invalidated the WEMO process and ordered the bureau to restart the process, which is to be completed by April 15, 2014.

Once BLM completes its four planned workshops (the final to be held in Ridgecrest on Nov. 17 at 9 a.m. at Carriage Inn), the agency will plan another series of public scoping meetings, anticipated to begin in the spring.

“We need folks to provide local knowledge and concerns so that we can develop a solid management plan,” said Pawelek.

He said the process has attracted those representing such diverse interests as off-roaders, cyclists, rockhounders, hikers and more. Each of these groups is encouraged to voice their knowledge of the field to be incorporated in the BLM’s plan.

“Let me give you an example. If there is an existing route that is not on the plan, we need folks to tell us why it is important to them. Maybe you’re a quail hunter and you know that quail are always hanging out in a particular area, but you need a specific route to get there,” said Pawelek.

“Conversely, maybe you want to tell us why a route should be closed. Maybe there are routes near a nesting area for raptors.” He said in that case BLM would have to consider limiting access to such an area, at least seasonally, in order to protect an endangered species.

Vice Mayor Jerry Taylor said he attended both as a city official representing his community and as a mountain-biking and off-road motorcycling enthusiast himself.

“My main concern is that I’ve attended previous meetings and given my input, but it still has not made it into the system,” said Taylor. He pointed out that even many of the Rademacher trails behind Cerro Coso — which have been popular since the 1970s — are not on the current plan and thus are vulnerable for closure if they are not documented in the new one.

“I think the process needs to be improved. BLM needs to meet with a core set of people in a better environment.”

One participant noted that having the BLM and the public face each other from opposite sides of the room fosters animosity between the two groups and inhibits the kind of discussion that would facilitate true collaboration.

Members from each group also admitted that an apparent lack of understanding on both sides undermines some of the current discussions.

“The BLM lacks the kind of information you get from being an everyday user, and I think at times the public hears a rumor and runs with it,” said Taylor. “That definitely made for a lively discussion.”

“My observations were that people were really concerned,” said Dan Clark, a former member of the Ridgecrest City Council and a candidate for mayor. “Those mountains that border us see a lot of traffic that people don’t want to see restricted.”

He added, however, that he was confident BLM officials were going to allow people to have their say.

“I think they are sincere in looking for input,” he said. “But there is a trust issue. The desert is the one thing we have here. When you take that away, it affects our quality of life.”

Clark said that he was also concerned about the economic impact of losing access. He pointed out that off-roaders who visit the area are a big economic driver for Ridgecrest. “I don’t want that to be affected.” He also wants to make sure that filming projects are not inhibited.

“A sustainable land-management system in the California desert must be developed by the citizens and nurtured by the public,” one advocate for public access wrote in an e-mail circulated to many of the local attendees.

“The challenge is the same as it was in 1981 — how to strike the right balance between use and conservation of the desert resources without destroying the route network system that has been in place for 30 to 50 years.

“The public, once again, is called upon to work with the BLM in establishing this route network once and for all. It is a commitment not only with the citizens, but also with our local representatives and the BLM to do the job right.”

Story First Published: 2012-10-31