Feds fight chaos in a desert playground

ORVs are banned from more than half of California's Algodones Dunes

  • Map of Algodones Dunes

    Diane Sylvain

The Algodones Dunes in the Southern California desert are stark and remote, standing up to 300 feet tall and rolling for 40 miles in southeastern California, not too far from the Arizona border. Their eerie aura has attracted countless filmmakers, and the nearly rainless landscape is a favorite of desert ecologists.

"The Algodones Dunes seem to stretch across the entire horizon," wrote Tucson botanist Janice Emily Bowers in her 1998 book Dune Country, "peak after peak of sunburnt sand ... an endless chain of pyramids shimmering against the electric-blue sky."

But each year, an estimated 800,000 people - as many as 80,000 on a single holiday weekend - bring their dune buggies to the dunes, making this Bureau of Land Management area the most popular ORV playground in the nation.

The crowds have sparked a prolonged controversy over their effects on plant life and human safety. As long ago as 1968, the Bureau of Land Management had proposed creating an untrammeled natural area in the middle of the dunes. On Oct. 20 of this year, a legal settlement between the BLM and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity closed 48,000 acres of the dunes to ORVs. The closure will last until the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finish a joint study of the vehicles' effect on the threatened Peirson's milkvetch, a silvery perennial plant with small purple flowers.

Since 32,240 acres of the dunes were already protected as wilderness, the agreement means that more than half of the 150,000-acre dunes are off-limits to off-roaders. The move has outraged ORV users and leaders, and a stripped-down BLM ranger crew may have trouble reining in the frustrated crowds.

"Closing raw sand"

Business and government leaders in Imperial County, Calif., warn that the closure could harm the local economy, which has long depended on cars and trucks pulling ORVs into gas stations and restaurant parking lots.

And though the dunes are the milkvetch's only known habitat in the United States, some ORV-user groups contend that limiting visitors isn't necessary. Dennis Cole, a Tucson-based general contractor who visits the dunes 12 times a year, says he and other regular users go out of their way to avoid the milkvetch.

"We all know that the plant is kind of rare. Nobody monkeys with it. Now, they've closed the dunes to the point it doesn't make any sense. They're closing raw sand."

Others point to a new BLM study that shows milkvetch numbers in the dunes in 1998 roughly matching those of 1977. "There has been a half-century of off-roading on that stretch of sand, and there is no evidence I can see that the species is endangered," says Vincent Brunasso, a founder of the American Sand Association. This Southern California-based group formed six months ago to try to keep the dunes open, and it now has 20,000 members.

Daniel Patterson, an activist and ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, contends that the 1998 milkvetch numbers were abnormally high due to that winter's El Nino-boosted rainfall levels. The group's expert witness, Fred Sproul, has seen a "remarkable decline" in the milkvetch and all other plants during 20 years of visits there, Patterson says.

Jim Dice, a California Department of Fish and Game plant ecologist, believes that vegetation in the southern part of the dunes has dropped significantly over the past 23 years. "The closure is a really good step forward for conservation, not just of the milkvetch, but for other rare plants," says Dice, who says he speaks only for himself on the issue.

In the settlement, the BLM agreed with the Fish and Wildlife Service's earlier finding that ORVs were the primary threat to the milkvetch's existence. In areas of heavy use and camping, says Debora Sebesta, a BLM botanist, "virtually all vegetation is destroyed."

Managing mayhem

The closure adds another burden to an already-overworked BLM ranger staff. Since 1990, budget cuts have sliced the BLM ranger force in the entire California Desert area from 52 to 29, though the agency is now trying to boost the staff back to 41. The BLM's El Centro office, which typically patrols the dunes area, has only four rangers, down from a recent peak of 12.

Just after the new restrictions were announced, the government watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, known as PEER, released an internal BLM report on rangers' working conditions.

The report found that "near-riot" conditions existed at the dunes during Thanksgiving weekend 1999. The apparent spark: a BLM ranger's arrest of an ORVer for drunken driving. Several people in the crowd tossed beer cans at rangers, and some yelled "Kill the cops!" The following Presidents' Day weekend, four more people threw beer cans at officers, and another hurled a bag of feces.

A "certain lawless element," not associated with traditional ORVers, has appeared in the dunes during the previous two to three years, says the report. The public-land areas within the dunes have become unsafe for family recreation due to drug and alcohol activity, and accidents are on the rise. On Halloween weekend this year, after the closure was announced, three people were killed in vehicle collisions or rollovers.

This Thanksgiving weekend proved quieter than Thanksgiving 1999. The BLM counted 80,000 people, down from 100,000 a year ago. There were 70 rangers and other enforcement officers, substantially more than last year's force, and there were few or no ORVers throwing beer cans at rangers or setting fires. Eighty people reported medical problems, down from 500 two years ago.

But the number of arrests rose from three dozen to 77, 54 of those for DUI. Citations rose 580 to 1,501, with 303 of those for open containers, and an unknown number of violations for closures. One person died in a jeep-rollover accident.

And a new problem arose. The agency passed out more than 70,000 brochures informing people of the closed areas, and posted signs in 60 percent of the closed areas, says Roxie Trost, a BLM outdoor recreation planner. But environmentalists who monitored ORV activity over the weekend contend that the BLM posted signs in less than half of the closed areas; they say that many closure violations went unpunished.

"How do you manage mayhem?" PEER's Karen Schaumbach asks. "They have more people this year and the rangers feel a little better about it, but it is still not enough ... They didn't have time to do resource work. It was all crowd control. They're really allowing a wholesale destruction of natural resources out there."

Over time, the BLM will be citing more violators, and the agency will prepare a new dunes management plan in the coming months, says Greg Thomsen, manager of BLM's El Centro field office. The plan could involve limiting visitor numbers through individual gates, or limiting access to certain key points. As for Thanksgiving, he says, "we had 70 linear miles of signs to install across the dunes, and all things considered, I think we accomplished a lot."

The sand association's Brunasso says that once BLM finishes posting the closed areas and gives people time to learn the system, "you'll have pretty near 100 percent compliance. In all realism, they should be looking at next year for compliance.

"The basic thing is due to lack of education. You've got venting and an emotional process for these people to go through," he says. "If environmentalists think they will get compliance at the drop of a hat in one season, I don't know what planet they've been on.

Tony Davis, a frequent contributor to High Country News, reports for the Arizona Daily Star.

You can contact ...

  • Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson, 520/623-5252;
  • PEER, 2001 S St. NW, Suite 570, Washington DC 20009 (202/265-7337), [email protected];
  • BLM, El Centro, Calif., 760/337-4400;
  • The American Sand Association, 714/229-0286, www.glamisonline.org.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Tony Davis

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