Death Valley National Park Threatened by Damaging Off-Road Vehicle Use

Off-road enthusiasts seek to open protected parkland


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (303) 623-9466

A broad coalition of conservation groups represented by Earthjustice is fighting to prevent extreme off-road use of a fragile stream in Death Valley National Park.

The groups filed intervention papers November 9 in a federal court case that would open Surprise Canyon to off-road vehicles — an action that would damage the canyon’s unique character, including waterfalls, towering cottonwoods and lush willows.

The original suit was filed last month by off-road interests who claim that the canyon’s sheer walls and creek bed are a “constructed highway” to which off-roaders have a right-of-way under a repealed, Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477.

“This is a law that was passed a year after Lincoln was assassinated and repealed 30 years ago, and its dead hand is still haunting the protection of our national parks,” said Ted Zukoski, a Denver staff attorney with Earthjustice. “What they are attempting to do is to undermine protection of this miracle — a river running through the desert.”

Although Utah “has really been the epicenter of this debate,” Zukoski added, ” the California desert is becoming another area where those seeking to undermine protection of wildlife habitat and wildlands are using this ancient law.”

Over the last 30 years, some Western states, counties and off-road vehicle groups have alleged that hiking trails, wash bottoms, streambeds and little-used two-tracks meet the standard for a “constructed highway” under the law.

Congress and federal land managers have recognized Surprise Canyon’s incredible values for decades. In the 1980’s the Bureau of Land Management designated the lower portion of the canyon as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern.” In 1994, Congress added the upper portion of the canyon to Death Valley National Park and designated the area surrounding the canyon as wilderness. In a compromise, Congress left a narrow strip of land through the canyon out of wilderness in order to permit vehicle access to century-old mining claims at the top of the canyon although a major flood had washed out the old dirt road in 1984. No mining has taken place in Surprise Canyon since then.

 In the 1990s, highly modified 4-wheel drive vehicles began to scale the canyon. To do this, the drivers cut down plants and trees, filled in portions of the stream bed with rocks and used winches to pull vehicles up near-vertical waterfalls. A number of vehicles overturned when trying to negotiate the waterfalls and other steep terrain, dumping oil and other pollutants into the stream.

“The BLM should have never allowed this kind of extreme off-road vehicle use in Surprise Canyon to occur,” said Geary Hund of The Wilderness Society. “It pollutes the stream, damages habitat, scares off wildlife and degrades the wilderness.”

In 2000, conservation groups sued the Bureau of Land Management for failing to evaluate the impact of off-road

“Death Valley is a national park-not a playground for off-road vehicles,” said Howard Gross, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The public shouldn’t be forced to see Surprise Canyon’s tremendous natural values destroyed by a handful of off-road vehicle users, especially when there are so many off-roading opportunities available elsewhere in the Mojave desert.”

In 2000, conservation groups sued the Bureau of Land Management for failing to evaluate the impact of off-road vehicle use and other management policies on endangered wildlife. As a result of a 2001 settlement, the BLM closed the route through Surprise Canyon, pending such analysis. The National Park Service closed the upper portion of the Canyon to vehicles in 2002.

Since then, Surprise Canyon has experienced a remarkable recovery. Cottonwoods and willows trees are flourishing and rare species such as desert bighorn sheep are thriving. Endangered birds such as the Inyo California towhee have returned to the canyon after decades of absence.

“Preserving this rare desert stream and the web of life it supports is critical to the recovery of the Inyo California Towhee and the conservation of other imperiled species such as the Panamint Alligator Lizard,” said Chris Kassar, a wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Allowing off-roaders back into Surprise Canyon will set back recovery by decades by increasing soil erosion and polluting the waters of the creek.”

Because Surprise Canyon is narrow and constrained though much of its length, it is not possible to resume off-road vehicle use without causing substantial adverse impacts to the creek, water resources and other natural resources and to the area’s wilderness character.

“Surprise Canyon is on a path to natural restoration. It was torn up and damaged. Now, it’s thriving with plants and wildlife,” said Tom Budlong of the Sierra Club. “When you visit the canyon you feel like you are again in national park and wilderness, not at an extreme off-roading site. We need to keep it that way.”

Conservation groups joining in the motion are the National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, California Wilderness Coalition and The Wilderness Society.  

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