BLM ISSUE SUMMARY: Surprise Canyon interim closure; EIS; Inholder access

DATE: 11/22/05

PURPOSE: To provide a status update on the Surprise Canyon Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in the Panamint Mountains, Inyo County. The area has become controversial due to a lawsuit-related closure, demands for access from new inholders, and a long-term determination on motorized access into the canyon involving BLM and National Park Service (NPS).

CURRENT STATUS: A draft environmental impact statement (EIS) is jointly being developed by BLM and NPS, along with other cooperators, for public review. Meanwhile, the canyon remains closed to vehicle use as required by a court-approved settlement and BLM and NPS have received numerous requests for exemptions from new Panamint City inholders.

The community at Panamint City was developed in Surprise Canyon during the short-lived 1870's mining boom. A route was constructed through the canyon to support the mining settlement. Today, there is no active mining, but the rugged canyon floor and remnants of the old route attract off-highway vehicle (OHV) use within the canyon’s riparian habitat.

Surprise Canyon contains a five-mile perennial stream, with the lower part of the canyon on BLM public land and the upper watershed within Death Valley National Park (DVNP). Surprise Canyon is within the West Panamint Mountains Wildlife Habitat Management Area and is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in the California Desert Plan. The ACEC plan includes a Sikes Act agreement with the CA Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) for cooperative management. The ACEC is also within the Surprise Canyon Wilderness Area; however, the old mining route is outside the wilderness area (i.e., a cherry stem). No other motorized access exists to the remaining private inholdings and the historical Panamint City, now within DVNP. On the public lands administered by BLM, monitoring of impacts from OHV use on aquatic life, riparian habitat and wildlife was conducted in October 2000, and it was determined riparian habitat did not meet minimum standards for proper function due to accelerated erosion, loss of riparian vegetation and channeling.
A lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity against the BLM was settled in 2000 with a stipulation that the BLM issue an interim administrative closure to motorized vehicle use. An environmental assessment was completed in May 2001 and the route was closed, a barrier constructed and informational/regulatory signs installed at the closure point. The interim closure was appealed by OHV group to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. Their request for stay was denied and the appeal was subsequently dismissed.

Under the settlement agreement, BLM was also required to amend the California Desert Plan to reach a long-term solution to the public access and riparian impact issues. The BLM and NPS have jointly initiated the preparation of an EIS to evaluate a full range of alternatives for the Surprise Canyon area. Scoping meetings were held, and over 2,000 written comments received. Preparation of a draft is underway. Most of the aquatic issues are on the BLM lands, while most cultural concerns are on NPS lands. The suitability of Surprise Canyon stream for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System is also being analyzed at the recommendation of the BLM Desert District Advisory Committee, which also called for a Technical Review Team to provide oversight for the EIS. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, Inyo County, the California Department of Fish and Game, and Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board have all agreed to be cooperators.
The settlement provided for exemptions to the Surprise Canyon closure for inholders of private property in the vicinity of Panamint City, within the DVNP. The NPS was not a party to the lawsuit or subject to the settlement, however, NPS implemented its own closure of Surprise Canyon within the DVNP to motorized vehicles in April 2002 over concerns of potential impact to natural and cultural resources. To date, the BLM and NPS have received more than 30 letters from new inholders requesting exemptions and keys to the locked gate to gain access to two parcels of private land. Based on initial reviews, about half the access requested would be across BLM administered public lands and about half across land within the DVNP administered by NPS.

The access requests are from two groups, both associated with OHV four-wheel vehicle clubs: 1) a group of 28 couples or individuals who purchased equal but unspecified portions of a two-acre parcel in March 2003, originally patented as the Independence Mill Site in 1880; 2) a group of about 40 couples or individuals identified as a partnership who acquired a quit-claim deed in October 2003 to the Little Chief Mill Site, originally patented in 1876. The BLM and NPS responded to initial requests through a joint letter asking for information on the nature of their ownership, their access needs, etc. to determine the best approach for processing their request. Only a few responses were received, and in general said they wanted access similar to what was allowed prior to the Surprise Canyon interim closure. The exemption requests are still being reviewed while the long-term access issue is being evaluated through the National Environmental Policy Act process.


The BLM and NPS are co-leads and have initiated the preparation of an EIS to evaluate a full range of options for management of Surprise Canyon. The public will be provided opportunities to comment on the draft when it is published.

The primary management objective for Surprise Canyon is the protection and enhancement of significant resources on public land while providing for other resource uses to the extent they are compatible and in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

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