March 29, 2002

California Dunes May Be Reopened to Off-Road Vehicles

New York Times

Federal officials are proposing reopening land that had been off limits to riders of dune buggies and other off-road vehicles in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, which in recent years has been the site of virtually unfettered chaos on holiday weekends.

A proposal drawn up by the Bureau of Land Management seeks to reopen 49,310 acres of dunes that were closed to off-road vehicles under a settlement reached in November 2000 between the bureau, a coalition of off-road clubs and three groups of environmentalists, who were concerned about the damage being done to endangered plants and animals.

''The administration seems to be abandoning a negotiated settlement that would provide a balanced approach to the use of the dunes,'' Daniel R. Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Idyllwild, Calif., said today.

Mr. Patterson and other environmentalists believed that their settlement with the government precluded a retraction that would allow unlimited use by the off-roaders, who come in the thousands to race in towering dunes near the five areas that are currently protected.

''We're pretty much blown away by the fact that we have an arrangement between conservationists, off-roaders and the B.L.M., and approved by a federal court, and now the Bush administration is seeking to dismiss that deal,'' Mr. Patterson said.

The bureau's proposal says the area provides a ''world-class recreation opportunity,'' and adds that with increased policing and monitoring the effects of the off-roaders and other users can be mitigated. One area, for instance, would be limited to no more than 525 vehicles at any time for the first year of the plan, with future numbers adjusted according to the effects on the landscape.

The plan, which has a 90-day comment period, calls for establishing curfews ''in areas of historic lawlessness'' and ''limiting alcohol use to established camp areas.''

But law enforcement officials have had difficulty policing the dunes, especially on weekends, when as many as 200,000 people come to the area, about 150 miles east of San Diego. Last Thanksgiving, there was a homicide, two stabbings, two fatal accidents and innumerable brawls.

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management, which has final say over use of the area, did not return calls seeking comment.

The environmentalists are trying to save endangered species like the Peirson's milkvetch plant, which is unique to the Algodones Dunes, and the desert tortoise.

''If they're not going to keep the areas closed where the plants and other endangered species are, then the plan fails to protect the American people's precious resources,'' said Terry Weiner, a botanist and coordinator for the Desert Protective Council, which seeks protection for Southwestern deserts. ''You cannot appreciate the dunes if you're raging across them at 40 miles an hour with smoke in your face and deafening noise.''

The November 2000 agreement was reached between the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Bureau of Land Management and five off-road groups, including the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which says it has 600,000 members.

Dan Meyer, general counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- which says it has 10,000 federal, state and municipal workers as members -- said his primary concern was the bureau's own law enforcement officers, who are charged with maintaining order against often overwhelming odds.

''The rangers come to us because they're concerned about all that off-road vehicle traffic and, basically, how they're supposed to be traffic cops for thousands of off-road vehicles,'' Mr. Meyer said. ''There's a real sense of lawlessness out there. It's something out of 'Mad Max.' ''

Harold Soens, a member of the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, which has sued the Bureau of Land Management over the earlier closures, said of the proposed change, ''I think it's a good deal.''

He added, ''At the moment, you're putting more people in a confined area, and they'll eventually ruin the landscape.''

The Algodones Dunes, which lie in a 40-mile swath north of the Mexican border, have been a source of controversy for years. The 32,240-acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, to the north of the area currently under revision, has been permanently closed to off-roaders.

The Bureau of Land Management document lists 80 animal and bird species and more than 60 plants found in the area.