The southern Amargosa River

Listen actively

United States public participation laws give us unique privileges and duties: Rule changes require the federal government to provide the opportunity for public comment, but that only matters if we participate. Therefore, when a particularly egregious scientific or environmental rule change pops up for public comment, I’ll post links here when I have a chance. (Field blog posts, however, are a separate deal: Go there if you’re wondering what’s blooming or what insects, reptiles, and amphibians are out and about.)

Please browse the following documents and comment if you feel inspired. Or maybe even if you don’t.

Spring 2022: Read our report and examine the impacts of illegal OHV use near your own home

As any child with a patch of mud, a stick, and unsupervised access to a hose knows, water flows to the point of least resistance. Drawing a line in the sand alters the way water flows; so does carving continuous tracks through delicate desert soil by riding a motorcycle, mountain bike, baby buggy, or ATV—anything with wheels—off roads and trails.

Aside from destroying plants and tearing a continuous hole through the desert’s thin biological skin, a single new motorcycle or mountain bike track funnels water away from the rest of the slope—taking precious water from other plants, which suffer from every drop diverted during the West’s intensifying megadrought, eroding dirt into waterways during rain and flash floods (more likely as plants in areas surrounding the tracks weaken or die), and blowing topsoil into the air when the track is dry. The Southwest doesn’t get much water to begin with; illegal riders divert those few drops and affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, vegetation, pollinators (who need the plants), and other wild animals (who need the water and the plants).The dust generated can affect snowpack and water storage as well as water quality.

Sure, sure, you’re probably saying. Illegal OHV use hurts everybody. Why talk about this now? 

Here’s why: A while back a friend established a website to collect data on illegal OHV use in Inyo County, California,* and last fall several of us used the collected data to write a citizen science report. The report is now available. Please feel free to read it, or if you don’t have time, just skim the one-page summary at the start and scroll through the photos in Appendix IV at the end. 

I’d love to acknowledge and thank all the people who recorded illegal use, collected the reports, analyzed the data, drew maps of damage, and co-wrote the report. But we discussed it and chose to leave our names off the cover. Sometimes the people who run over vegetation, small animals, and biological soil crusts are nice kids or adults who genuinely haven’t put two and two together and come up with asthma, water problems, and dead wildlife yet, but sometimes they’re people who don’t want to know and don’t take the news well when they find out.

*Please note: the site is only for reporting illegal use in Inyo County, California. If you live in a place with an illegal OHV use problem, we heartily recommend doing what we did: 1. Collect dates, locations, and photos that identify where and how often the illegal use happens and how far it goes. (Your volunteers won’t be able to catalog everything; just record what you can and recognize that what you find represents only part of the damage.) 2. Read the research and figure out how it relates to what’s happening in your area (please feel free to use our references section as a starting point). 3.  Write a citizen science report (please feel free to improve what we’ve done). 4. Ask someone (preferably several different someones) to read what you’ve written for clarity and accuracy. 5. Deliver the report to your local and regional land and water managers and political officials. 

Comments due September 4, 2020.Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Regulations for Listing Endangered and Threatened Species and Designating Critical Habitat.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are proposing a new definition of habitat as well as an “alternative” definition of habitat for use in designating “critical habitat” for species. Here’s the problem: Both proposed definitions conflate the general idea of habitat (what an animal can use to survive and reproduce) with the idea of critical habitat (what a threatened or endangered animal must have in order to continue to exist). The “alternative” definition proposes that habitat is “only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, even though a fish may be going extinct because it’s losing breeding pools faster than desert springs can mined for groundwater, pools that were habitat and could be habitat if they were restored are no longer considered “habitat.” The goal of the Endangered Species Act (i.e., designating Endangered Species and identifying “critical habitat”) is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend,” but the new definition of habitat would make that recovery impossible by definition. Both definitions are also mired in the present—no climate change, restoration projects, diseases, invasive predators, toxic settling ponds, or changing coastlines here, and no consideration or refuges for the long-term future. Neither definition considers the problems of habitat fragmentation and connectivity. The Hill has posted an article about the proposed definitions here and the Center for Biological Diversity has a page about the proposal here. Read the definitions here and comment here.

Comments due April 17, 2020. “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency, is a euphemism for excluding scientific studies from consideration in crafting new environmental regulations. Read about the dangers of the proposed rule here (on the venerable Science magazine’s website) and comment here (at Regulations.gov).