Sam Ribakoff

(CN) — An environmental group is suing California’s State Department of Parks and Recreation for enacting a new rule that allows people to take their off-roading vehicles into the Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert.

“Does everything in the western part of the Mojave Desert have to be for off road vehicles? I don’t think so. That’s basically the bottom line of it,” said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist and California desert director for the plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court Friday, claims that the department’s new general management plan, and its provision for off-roading vehicles that went into effect early in March, violate the California Environmental Quality Act because the department didn’t sufficiently study the effects of the off-roading policy, it violates the state’s vehicle codes for off-roading vehicles, and state law that mandates the department preserve California’s natural resources for the public.

Anderson said that Bureau of Land Management held land surrounding the park already allows for off-roading enthusiasts to ride motorcycles, ATVs, and side-by-sides to their heart's content, but the Red Rock Canyon State Park was specifically set aside by the state government for preservation and allowing for off-roading vehicles to drive in one of the park’s campgrounds and on two roads in the park will harm visitors' ability to enjoy the park.

“They have areas where they can go and ride anywhere they want,” Anderson said about off-roaders. “We should have the park set aside where people can do quiet recreation. Family camping.”

The plaintiff claims in the suit that off-roading vehicles, which they refer to as non-street legal and off-highway vehicles, also harm the park’s unique flora and fauna, and the department should have more thoroughly studied they're effects on those plants and animals.

Along with unique and at-risk plants with vivid names like Solitary blazing star, Red Rock Canyon monkeyflower, and Death Valley sandmat, the park is also home to populations of desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrels.

The desert tortoise, which is California’s official state reptile, is also a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act and is under review to determine if it should be listed as an endangered species. It’s also listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The plaintiff claims there's evidence that off-road vehicle routes have caused tortoise populations to decline, including by off-road vehicles crushing the tortoises, and indirectly through impacts on their habitat caused by things like toxins from vehicle exhaust.

Mohave ground squirrels are listed under the state’s Endangered Species Act. Anderson added that there’s a significant population of the squirrels that live in and around the park. The lawsuit states that off-roading vehicles “can result in the mortality of individuals, collapsing of burrows, removal of shrubs used for cover, decrease in annual species used as forage, and changes in soil structure.”

“It makes no sense to invite more off-road vehicles into this sensitive area without a commitment to monitor and limit these environmental harms,” Anderson wrote in a statement. “We should prioritize conservation of California’s irreplaceable landscapes, not plan for their destruction.”

The plaintiff also claims that the department did not plan for the cumulative effects that climate change will have on the park.

“Climate change,” the lawsuit states, “will only heighten the effects of habitat loss and other impacts experienced today.”

The California Department of Parks and Recreation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.