Joshua Tree Landfill Victory


Joshua Tree National Park's Eagle Mountains conjure up images of remote desert peaks, a boundless blue sky and the namesake bird of prey that soars above pristine canyons.  But for many of us, Eagle Mountain brings to mind the ongoing battle over the proposed Eagle Mountain Landfill, to be located on lands belonging to Kaiser Eagle Mountain, Inc.  and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which also happens to be surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park wilderness.

The dump would be the nation’s largest; bringing in up to 20,000 tons of trash daily, 6 days a week, 16 hours a day for more than a century.  Refuse would be shipped from various communities in Southern California via rail and to a lesser extent by trucks.  The project has been promoted by Kaiser Eagle Mountain, Inc. and the Los Angeles County Department of Sanitation as a solution for the Los Angeles area's burgeoning trash problem.

"Development of this massive landfill could devastate significant portions of the park’s wilderness with noise and light pollution of the night sky, impair desert vistas and destroy the solitude of the wilderness setting for park visitors.  It would also undermine efforts to help recovery of the threatened desert tortoise by inflating the population of predators and scavengers such as ravens that prey on the iconic species,"  says Mike Cipra, Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

In 2005 Judge Robert Timlin ruled against Kaiser Eagle Mountain, Inc. and the BLM in a suit filed by the National Parks Conservation Association and Larry and Donna Charpied to protect Joshua Tree National Park from the devastating effects of a landfill. Kaiser Eagle Mountain, Inc. and the BLM appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled in favor of the National Parks Conservation Association on several key points.

First, the recent decision [PDF]  states that the BLM undervalued the land it would trade with Kaiser Eagle Mountain, Inc. to make the landfill possible.   At issue was the appraisal that was conducted for the land swap, which concluded that the "highest and best use" of the BLM land was "holding for speculative investment."  The term signified that there were no specific development plans for the property when it was common knowledge that the land would be used for the Eagle Mountain Landfill.

The court also found that the BLM’s Environmental Impact Statement did not adequately address the issue of atmospheric nitrogen enrichment resulting from landfill operations.   Nitrogen deposition from landfill operations would alter the nutrient cycles of the fragile desert ecosystem, harming plants and wildlife that call the desert home.

Finally, the court found that the BLM's Environmental Impact Purpose and Need Statement, a section that outlines project objectives, was so narrowly defined by Kaiser Eagle Mountain Inc.'s business interests that the BLM failed to consider alternatives like the possibility of developing a landfill on other Kaiser properties, assessing the impact of increased waste diversion on the need for additional landfills, and considering other offsite landfill locations that would not impair park land or threaten desert wildlife.

The ruling should cause a sigh of relief for local desert businesses that rely on tourism dollars from Joshua Tree National Park. According to the NPS Money Generation Model from Michigan State University, visitors to Joshua Tree spent more than 37 million dollars in 2008, benefiting our local desert economy.  The construction of the Eagle Mountain Landfill threatens Joshua Tree National Park's resources: resources that are directly linked to economic opportunities here in the California desert.

Although the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals put the brakes on the Eagle Mountain Landfill for now, proponents of the dump are already talking about ways to proceed with this misguided project.  They argue that the mitigation funds from the landfill would stimulate the economy and fund a variety of environmental programs including the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. However, despoiling the pristine lands of one of our nation's treasured national parks in order to provide mitigation funds for other environmental initiatives is simply poor policy, no matter how great the need. Mitigation funds don’t make a project desirable or necessary; rather, projects have to be evaluated in terms of how they will affect the environment and the public interest.

The nation’s largest landfill does not belong next to one of our national treasures.  Building a dump at Eagle Mountain is like putting a sewage treatment plant next to the Sistine Chapel. It's simply a poor location for this type of project and would irreparably harm the pristine wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park.  The time has never been better for the Department of the Interior to put an end to the Eagle Mountain Landfill once and for all, to protect Joshua Tree National Park for our children and grandchildren.

Seth Shteir is senior program coordinator at the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, California.

Photograph of proposed landfill area by Howard Gross

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