Save the tortoise!

Fort Irwin Expansion Update, 9/21/2000

In my previous follow-up, I reported that the Army had submitted draft legislation for a southwestern expansion of Fort Irwin to OMB without Department of Interior support. Subsequently, OMB rejected the legislation and passed it onto Congressman Jerry Lewis. This bureaucratic breach of process various has caused various sections of the Administration including the president's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to become involved. prompted by concerns that an attempt may be made to insert the legislation into the Defense Authorization bill currently in conference committee, the following letter was sent to Senator Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress by conservation and tortoise interest groups urging them to oppose proposed legislation regarding the expansion of Fort Irwin into desert tortoise critical habitat.

September 20, 2000

Senator Dianne Feinstein
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington DC 20510

Dear Senator Feinstein:

We are very disturbed to learn that the proposed National Defense Authorization Act of 2001 presently contains a provision (section 2887) expressing a "Sense of the Congress" that the controversial expansion of Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert should be allowed to proceed. As you know, the propose expansion in any of its forms is extremely controversial and has been strongly opposed by environmentalists, scientists, and off road vehicle users, among many others. We most strongly urge that you oppose this provision and work with the authors of the legislation to remove it. We urge instead that you continue to use your good offices, working with all parties, to work out a solution to this issue that does not harm either the endangered species in or the legitimate rights and interests of the many different human users of the proposed expansion areas.

It has already been well documented that the southwestern expansion into the paradise Range/Superior Valley region as proposed by the Army in April 1999 would have a major, overwhelming, impact on some of the best remaining desert tortoise critical habitat in the West Mojave Recovery Unit, and the home of its healthiest population of tortoises. Additionally, it would effectively sever the only possible connecting corridor between the West Mojave tortoises and those in the other recovery units that lie to the east.

The Fort Irwin Desert Tortoise panel that was convened earlier this year (and that included two Army scientists) agreed that the tortoise is now in a perilous state in the West Mojave and that the proposed southwestern expansion would place the West Mojave Recovery Unit in jeopardy. The panel's Report outlined a very costly program to partially offset the impact of expanding Fort Irwin, but some of the panel members refused to endorse it, believing that even this would not alleviate the present imperiled situation of the tortoise. While we appreciate the efforts of the Fort Irwin Desert Tortoise panel, we must concur with the opinions of those scientists who refused to endorse the recommendation. As they point out, not only is the proposal extremely costly (and therefore unlikely to receive the necessary appropriations if the expansion is allowed to go forward first), but the report fails to justify how the proposed mitigations would remove the jeopardy to the tortoise and other species in the region.

The proposed expansion area is also important habitat for the endangered Lane Mountain milk vetch, Astragalus jaegerianus. Approximately 30 plants persist near Lane Mountain in the Paradise Range - the only locality outside of the existing Fort Irwin boundaries where this plant is known to survive. The proposed southwestern expansion of Fort Irwin would place the continued survival of the milk-vetch at its type locality at Lane Mountain at risk, and will deny the public any opportunity to ever see this species in its native habitat in the wild.

We also share the concerns, expressed by others, that the integrity of the ongoing planning process between the Bureau of Land Management and other stakeholders in working toward a mutually-agreed West Mojave Habitat plan would be severely compromised if Congress at this point were to impose a "solution" without allowing all affected parties to participate in its formulation. Such an action would profoundly impact all desert users.

We believe there are alternatives which meet the needs of the Army for accomplishing its training and readiness missions without compromising further either the endangered species at risk or the legitimate needs of other public lands users, as would otherwise occur if the proposed expansion were authorized in any way at this time. The General Accounting Office should prepare a complete and thorough review of the need for the project, the land use requirement studies, and the alternative land configurations that could meet that need. The Departments of Interior and Defense should be encouraged to continue to work for a mutually agreeable solution.

Again, we urge you to oppose inclusion of this provision (or any similar language) in the Defense Authorization bill, and instead continue your good work with all parties to effect a mutually agreeable and compatible solution to this controversial matter.

Sincerely,

Elden Hughes, California Desert Protection League

Clifford D. Dillon, California Turtle and Tortoise Club

Daniel Patterson, Center for Biological Diversity

Harriet Allen, Desert Protective Council

Marc Graff, Desert Tortoise Council

Michael J. Connor, Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee

Brock Evans, Endangered Species Coalition

Susan Nash, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society

Peter Kyriakos, Sierra Club, San Gorgonio Chapter

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