Southern Natural Resources Consultant Report - December 2019

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

On its current trajectory, the BLM headquarters in Washington, D.C. will be liquidated, decentralized, and relocated by the end of March in 2020.

This move is part of a broader plan announced by the Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in July, that affects the majority of the nearly 250 million acres managed by the Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This plan has sparked controversy in the form of threats and proposed legislation limiting or reducing funding to impede the relocation of BLM’s headquarters.

For clarity, it is important to understand the scope of lands administered by the BLM. These are public lands managed by the federal government that are not otherwise set aside for a specific purpose, such as a National Park, Wildlife Refuge, military reservations, or National Forests. The BLM manages and controls about 12% of the total landmass in the United States, or an area slightly less than the size of Texas. The quality and use of these lands varies widely, ranging from national monuments and conservation areas to recreation lands; from wild, open spaces to forests and mountains; from rangelands to Arctic tundra; from wetlands and river valleys, to desert landscapes, to areas with vast and abundant mineral resources.

Few states are immune for the reach of the BLM with most of the land control in the western states. For example, in Arizona the federal government administers nearly 40% of all lands within the state, in Nevada it is about 62%, in Colorado about 35%, but in Georgia, the BLM administers only about 5.5% of lands.

The relocation is in full swing and a major reorganization within the BLM is happening. Currently, BLM is composed of regions. Many of those region boundaries fall along state borders. For example, California is currently one region with a state office located in Sacramento. The Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Idaho and Washington) comprise another regional office. Those historic regional boundaries are subject to change in the reorganization. For California, the proposed split will align the state with two different regions. Some of California will align with portions of Oregon and Nevada. Southern California is expected to align with Arizona and southern Nevada.

Within California, the BLM Desert District Office, currently located in Moreno Valley will be moving and co-located with the Palm Springs Field Office.

These realignments are proposed and subject to change as the headquarters move progresses. What is happening is that many of the program offices within regional BLM offices are being combined. Over the next year there are expected to be disruptions as the realignment efforts become reality.

State Parks and OHMVR

There are several challenges facing OHV and State Parks. Oceano Dunes is just one. Carnegie, even with the court case win, is still on the target range for legislative action. Each SVRA faces extenuating issues that need action.
More important, the BLM and Forest Service have a great dependence on OHMVR funding to maintain their OHV programs.

The State Parks “transformation” process began under the Brown Administration. The transformation goal was to eliminate duplication within infrastructure and improve visitor service. This on-going effort has not been easy and does pose serious issues as it progresses.

In 1971, the Chappie-Z’berg Act established the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Program that has successfully provided for a self-funded, high-quality OHV recreation program. The OHV community has supported directing funds to law enforcement, education programs emphasizing safe and responsible vehicle operation, conservation efforts, and closure and restoration of OHV areas.

The OHV community supports the concept of managed recreation and believes it is prudent and appropriate to identify areas for off-highway vehicle use such as the State Vehicle Recreation Areas (SVRAs) and designated trail systems on lands managed by Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Recreation, especially recreation off of paved or gravel roads, is the leading growth in visitors to public lands.

In 2008, the OHV community supported doubling their OHV registration fees in order to ensure needed funding to support OHV recreation. The support was based on assurances that OHMVR Trust Funds were being placed in a “trust”; a fund which can only be used for OHV purposes. That legislation, SB-742, passed by an almost unanimous vote in both the Assembly and Senate.

California State Parks and the Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Program are an important part of our focus. While the viability of a State Parks program overall is important as it serves a wide variety of interests, it is just a component of the recreation opportunity desired by state residents and out-of-state visitors.

The OHMVR program is an important (core) part of a state recreation program as it focuses on the partnerships with federal agencies and local governments to provide for a recreation opportunity. Along with the State Vehicle Recreation Areas, the OHMVR Grants program provides for recreation opportunity for state residents and out of state visitors. That is a significant economic driver that helps support rural communities in their struggle to survive.

The OHMVR program receives no support from the State’s General Fund. It is funded solely by user fees deposited in the OHMVR Trust Fund. OHMVR Trust Funds are derived from fuel taxes paid on gasoline used while recreating off-highway, registration fees on off-highway vehicles, and gate fees collected at the SVRAs.

The state OHMVR program is a “pay to play” program, supported by funds derived from the very people who use the resource. This includes both those engaging in OHV recreation, and those using OHV routes maintained by the program to access other types of non-motorized recreation.

As the popularity (and growth) of off-road recreation continues, the OHMVR program becomes more important. The focus of the OHV community is to protect, promote, and provide for OHV recreation opportunities. Our members are directly affected by legislation and management decisions concerning public land use and the health of the State Parks program, especially the OHMVR Division. Motorized and non-motorized recreation opportunities receive a benefit from the program; along with counties throughout the state.

The OHMVR Grants program is a critical component to the effort. Keep in mind, OHMVR grant funding cannot be applied to State Park (including SVRA) lands. It is available for local and federal government entities and a few private partnerships on non-state lands.

For a wealth of information about the history of the OHMVR program, see: http://www.4x4voice.com/Notebook/California-OHMVR/index.html?1 (Dave Pickett (LAO - D-36) and I assembled that collection of OHMVR information.)

The Grants program is vital not only to OHV, but to State Parks. State Parks has existing audit deficiencies concerning their lack of a process to evaluate, award and track grants. Thanks to the effort of Daphne Greene and Phil Jenkins, OHMVR has a grants management program that State Parks is beginning to use to address their audit deficiencies.

Within the SVRAs there is a lack of clear data about funding. Each SVRA does issue “special event permits” and some SVRAs charge an entry fee. Those amounts are not easily identified within the SVRA financial data.

I have a formal Public Records Act (PRA) request to State Parks to determine the number of special event permits issued and the amount of fees received for each special event. The PRA also seeks to determine how much of the fees are received by the SVRAs that charge an entry fee. The PRA addresses only 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Ocotillo Wells SVRA

Ocotillo Wells SVRA has delayed its General Plan yet again. That puts all SVRAs as having general management plans that are outdated (or in progress with delays). One point that keeps coming up is outdated general management plans are referred when emergency actions are undertaken. In short, management within State Parks (including the OHMVR Division) are chaotic and driven by political events rather than interests of the public. The OHMVR Program is a permanent program and no longer subject to renewal fights. It does have a “trust fund” that is coveted by many.

Red Rock Canyon SP

Comments have been submitted for the Red Rock Canyon SP General Plan. As Red Rock Canyon is a “state park” unit, OHV recreation activities within the boundaries are limited to designated routes. Historically, OHV (four-wheel drive street legal) has existed and Nightmare Gulch, Last Chance Canyon and Dove Springs have been favorite routes or destinations. While the final plan has yet to be announced, none of the proposed alternatives included full historic access for motorized recreation.

Oceano Dunes SVRA

The California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks) has taken an important step at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) to improve air quality conditions for nearby communities. On Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, State Parks began fencing off 48 acres around an area commonly referred to as the foredune area (Post 4-1/2 to Post 6) to meet a January 1, 2020 San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) Stipulated Order of Abatement (SOA) deadline. It is important for the public to know that the department will be honoring all current reservations at the SVRA. Additionally, the off-highway vehicle riding area will not be impacted by the closure of the foredune area.

That is the leading paragraph of the press release that announced the “necessary” actions prior to release of the Public Works Plan that “…will document existing conditions and consider projects and management programs to improve access for motorized and non-motorized recreation opportunities, as well as develop policies and programs for Oceano Dunes SVRA and Pismo State Beach…”

In other words, management actions have been taken BEFORE the plan is final. The current public comment period (closing Jan 24, 2020) will revise project concepts for a management plan that will be available for public review and comment during summer of 2020.

The Stew Pot

2019 ends with a signed appropriations bill and no government shutdown. And 2019 ends and 2020 begins with a major political cloud — impeachment. The dysfunction in Congress has an impact on the real world. While Forest Service and BLM will continue with funding, they still face uncertainty, driven by politics, to keep routes and areas open for OHV recreation.

Political events are driving access to public lands issues. At the December Desert Advisory Council meeting, BLM could not assemble a quorum of council members to address critical issues facing the Desert District. It was stated that BLM is mandated by Washington Office to pursue leasing of public lands for renewable energy development as a primary effort.

Additionally, federal agencies are under headquarters direction to reduce the size and complexity of Environmental Impact Statements that hinder land management decisions due to the length of time required to product the required documents. In the short term, this means BLM will focus on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) projects that speed renewable energy leasing and delay management plans that will address route networks for public access to public lands.

In the long-term, environmental review documents may be shorter and less complex.

Meanwhile, the forest management of thinning before catastrophic fires destroy continues. Wildfires are destructive, with long-term adverse impacts. While the “burn before harvest” crowd leverages the courts to limit prudent forest management, the courts are being reformed to be more “conservative.” The infamously liberal Ninth Circuit Court is now composed of a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents.

2020 is an election year. Register to vote and vote.

About the Author

John Stewart

John Stewart

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