March 22, 2008

Off-road enthusiasts air concerns to Rep. Hunter

“The real endangered species in California is the family who wants to get out and have some elbow room in the great outdoors.” - Rep. Duncan Hunter

By Mike Lee

EL CAJON – Maintaining access to public lands in the face of several competing forces topped the list of concerns that off-road vehicle enthusiasts paraded in front of Rep. Duncan Hunter at a “town hall” meeting Saturday.

The Alpine Republican invited off-roaders to share their concerns with him and Mike Pool, the California director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The agency manages many popular off-road areas in the California desert and elsewhere.

The group of about 150 didn't hold back, taking the meeting at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon well past the two-hour block for which it was scheduled.

“As our sport continues to grow, our race routes are shrinking,” said Paul Kirby, president of the Roadrunner Off Road Racing Club in the Imperial Valley. “We are just crowded into too small of an area.”

Kirby and others from across Southern California outlined what they see as the major threats to their use of the backcountry: The expansion of military training activities, environmental restrictions and alternative energy projects.

“There is almost a feeding frenzy for the desert lands in California,” said David Hubbard, a Carlsbad lawyer who represents off-road interests.

One of the most immediate issues is the possibility that the Marine Corps will annex Johnson Valley, a popular off-roading area at the edge of the Twentynine Palms base.

Several off-roaders said Saturday that they hope Hunter can help broker a compromise that will allow families to continue riding there by the thousands.

“If we lose Johnson Valley, we have lost a mecca for rock-crawlers,” said Bob Green of Santee.

Hunter, who has a long history of support for the military and for off-roaders, offered no promises, but said he'd talk with Marine Corps officials in coming weeks to see if any alternative arrangements could meet training demands without canceling civilian recreation at the site.

“Right now, I don't have any good answers for Johnson Valley,” Hunter said. “This is something I need to work on.”

Another prominent theme of Saturday's meeting was frustration with environmental rules and conservation groups that try to limit off-road recreation. In particular, off-roaders are worried about proposals to create more wilderness areas in California and other Western states to the exclusion of motorized vehicles.

Hunter has long shared such concerns. “The real endangered species in California is the working family who wants to get out and have some elbow room out in the great outdoors,” he said to cheers.

On that front, however, it's not clear how much relief off-roaders will get, given significant support for some wilderness designations and the strict demands of the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We have to factor in species conservation,” said Pool, noting that one of his main goals is to prevent the listing of additional species.

The Bureau of Land Management also finds itself in the middle of a tussle over alternative energy resources. Federal and state initiatives to boost solar, wind and geothermal power production have generated enormous interest in the bureau's desert lands.

Off-roaders told Hunter they are sympathetic to the need for clean energy sources, but they don't want recreation lands covered in solar panels or geothermal pipes.

“When something is taken away from us, we should get something back,” said Megan Grossglass, spokeswoman for the Bakersfield-based Off-Road Business Association. “Designate for us some new trails . . . so it's not just lose, lose, lose all the time.”