With the dust finally settled after a half-decade of debate, it looks as though the Bureau of Land Management plans to follow its long-charted path and permanently shut off the signature use at Clear Creek Management Area – off-highway vehicles.
The federal agency Friday is set to release a final Environmental Impact Statement – the last document in the process before a final approval – which would open a relatively small portion of the 63,000-acre area just to street-licensed vehicles, said an official in the Hollister BLM office overseeing the Clear Creek matter.
The BLM temporary closed Clear Creek in May 2008 on the heels of an Environmental Protection Agency study warning about dangerous levels of cancer-causing asbestos there, largely in the 31,000-acre “Serpentine” area. BLM officials followed up in 2009 by releasing a draft EIS, and the federal agency at the time recommended an option to allow just non-motorized use.
In the final EIS, which includes some changes to the draft, the public land in southern San Benito and eastern Fresno counties would be open only to street-licensed vehicles and would shut out the enthusiasts who provided the vast majority of the 35,000 or so visits per year before a temporary closure.
If the EIS goes through, it would be a disappointing result for those thousands of OHV riders who had flocked to San Benito County, largely on weekends, and who now must likely rely on higher authorities such as Congress to get Clear Creek reopened.
George Hill, a supervisory resource management specialist in the Hollister BLM office, estimated that Clear Creek would draw around 5,000 visitors annually once opened again.
“It’s been kind of a long, drawn-out process, and I’m sure some folks are not going to be pleased with it,” Hill said.
Ed Tobin, treasurer of the Salinas Ramblers Motorcycle Club, has been one of the most outspoken critics about the BLM’s handling of Clear Creek. He declined to comment on the EIS document until it is released, but did talk about the process. He said his expectations about the BLM choosing to reopen Clear Creek were “nonexistent.”
“This whole process is a joke,” Tobin said. “The fact they’ve gone five years before producing this document is absolutely ridiculous.”
Though he had not read the document, Tobin wondered whether the BLM incorporated two studies – a state health risk assessment and an internal study – which have different conclusions than the EPA.
“They have two studies that contradict the EPA study,” Tobin said.
The federal agency’s conclusions have come under fire since the area’s closure – with outcries from riders, county supervisors, the state’s off-highway motor vehicle recreation commission, and even Congressman Sam Farr. The Carmel congressman authored a bill, which is now inactive, to reopen much of Clear Creek.
Most opponents of the decision have questioned the science involved, often underscoring there is no evidence of a link between Clear Creek and sickness. Others have argued in favor of personal freedoms and the right to take any involved, perceived risks.
There are still steps in the process, meanwhile, toward permanently closing it to off-highway users – next is a 30-day protest period starting Friday – but the BLM expects to have a decision made sometime this fall.
During the 30-day protest period, residents can file a protest or appeal on certain items. From there, the BLM must resolve the protests while working with the Washington, D.C., office. That could “easily” take three months, Hill said. When the protests are resolved, the EIS could be formally adopted.
For those interested in commenting, the EIS and related information will be posted on the BLM website Friday. There are also CDs and a limited number of hard copies available of the document, which is about 1,000 pages.
Outside of the OHV ban, Hill said some of the other changes would include:
• A 32-mile “scenic touring loop” would allow street-licensed access to most “places of interest,” Hill said.
• There’s another 20 miles of routes for street-licensed vehicles and ATVs near Condone Peak, historically a hunting area.
• The BLM would examine additional areas outside the “asbestos zone” on the northeast and northwest sides to add prospective routes.
• Within the asbestos area, residents would be limited to five days per year of motorized use and 12 days for other uses.