Stark, Bitter Debate Plays Out Over Dunes


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Stark, Bitter Debate Plays Out Over Dunes

Recreation: Environmentalists upset about plans to reopen protected desert to off-roaders take 13-mile trek to call attention to its fragility.


ALGODONES DUNES -- The afternoon sun brought long shadows, tall tales and dire warnings.

For two days, a band of environmental activists trudged across what is believed to be the nation's largest sand dune system, hugging the ridges of 300-foot dunes, leaning into a wind so fierce that it felt like a blow-dryer between the eyes.

Their opponents dismiss them as greens, and they lived up to the label last weekend--eating tofu, trading tales of demonstrations and arrests, marveling at any hint of nature, including at one point the droppings of a kangaroo rat. About 26 miles east of Brawley, the dunes stretch nearly 40 miles from the Chocolate Mountains to the Mexican border, about 150,000 acres in all. They are a natural enigma, distant and dead at first glance, but actually teeming with life--strange life, from albino grasshoppers to horned lizards that flatten out into discs to protect themselves.

The trek, organized by the Tucson- and Idyllwild-based Center for Biological Diversity, was designed to call attention to the fragility of the dunes' plants and animals, and to the government's recent decision to open a broad swath of protected land here to off-road vehicles.

That decision, center officials believe, has made the dunes the most threatened landscape in California.

The 13-mile hike was no small feat, and by the time they cleared the eastern dunes and strode into a mudflat wash amid gnarled morning glories and 1,000-year-old ironwoods, there was a swagger in their step. Despite their dire warnings about the devastation that dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles would bring here, they spoke of commitment and their campaign to preserve this ecological wonder.

Beneath that bravado, though, like the sand itself--which shifts two feet a year toward Mexico--they know they are losing traction.

In the 1970s, after Congress declared millions of acres of remote Western land off-limits to commercial enterprises, wildlife officials were taken aback by a boom in hiking and camping.

The surge in interest forced government agencies to wrestle with the then-puzzling notion that mountains, deserts and forests could be overrun--loved to death by outdoor enthusiasts.

Today, marking the latest chapter in a long tug-of-war over wilderness, another outdoors renaissance is underway. This one is borne not of backpacks and boots, but of machines--snowmobiles, dune buggies and Jet Skis.

And the machines--their drivers emboldened by a friendly response from the current occupant of the White House--are winning:

* Last spring, the Bush administration decided to review bans on personal watercraft at four national parks. Buoyed by that decision, an Orange County group recently sued the federal government to throw out similar proposed bans at 21 seashore and recreation areas--though environmentalists say the watercraft spew the same amount of pollution in seven hours that a car does every 100,000 miles.

* The administration is considering throwing out a plan to phase out snowmobiles at Yellowstone National Park. President Clinton set that plan in motion because of concerns that snowmobiles were harassing elk and bison and turning the air blue with exhaust.

* The federal government has taken steps to weaken protection of roadless areas in national forests, a move that could allow more roads in places like Los Padres National Forest and opening once-protected regions to commercial development.

Those changes have accompanied a dramatic rise in the use of so-called thrill-craft--which was prompted by aging baby boomers' sudden discovery that roaring up a sand dune on a $40,000 souped-up dune buggy was more fun than climbing it.

"For those of us in the 'boom' generation, 20 years ago, hey, backpacking and hiking was a great idea," said Bill Horn, a Washington attorney who represents snowmobilers and a group of anglers and hunters fighting to keep Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve open to swamp buggies and airboats.

"Now you've got a couple of kids and you've been sitting at a desk for 20 years. And you think, 'You know, I don't think I can walk up that mountain.' So you get a motorized vehicle, and then you can plant your broadening derriere on that."

But environmentalists are convinced that the machines are shattering the tranquillity of wild areas across the nation, harassing rare animals and trampling delicate plants that are those animals' homes and food sources.

"These areas we are talking about are public trusts," said Derek Shuman, 46, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineer and a hiking enthusiast who joined the Center for Biological Diversity for last weekend's trek. "If we lose it, we lose it forever. I don't think this administration understands that. The Bush administration seems to be giving a green light to people that place recreation over wilderness."

Nowhere, perhaps, does that debate play out in more stark and bitter terms than at the Algodones Dunes.

Hiking across the dunes is a struggle; every step an adventure. There are two kinds of sand here--hard and soft. Carrying a full pack and struggling against 40-mph wind gusts, you find yourself praying for the former. To hedge your bets, you learn quickly to spread your weight out a bit by walking like a duck--flat-footed, not heel-toe.

The wind spins billowing plumes of sand 50 feet off the lips of some dunes, and sends dust devils spiraling off others. Many dunes are sculpted into sheer cliffs, but it's perfectly safe to step blindly off the edge and then, essentially, hike vertically into giant, shadowy valleys.

"It's unlike anything I've ever seen," said Andrew M. Harvey, a Los Angeles-based photographer and one of the hikers.

It's also become a consummate playground for off-roaders, whose numbers have soared in recent years. Last Thanksgiving weekend, 200,000 off-road riders swarmed the dunes. By the time it was over, three people were dead and 200 were injured. There had been scores of crashes, a shooting, a stabbing and an attack on a ranger.

Last month, federal officials announced plans to overturn a Clinton-era legal settlement banning off-road vehicles on about 50,000 acres of the Algodones Dunes, also known as Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.

The settlement restrictions were considered temporary until the U.S. Bureau of Land Management enacted a permanent plan to manage the site. This new proposal is part of that plan, and conservationists say it will render the legal settlement moot.

Although the plan won't be final until later this year, after a series of public hearings, federal officials expect to reopen about 16,000 acres of dunes without limitations and 33,000 acres with limits on the numbers of off-road vehicles allowed each day.

Those acres would be opened in addition to the roughly 50,000 acres that are open today to off-road vehicles. The northern third of the dunes, north of California 78 and protected through an act of Congress more than 15 years ago, will not be affected by the proposal and will remain off-limits to off-road vehicles.

Off-road enthusiasts say the arguments for keeping the 50,000-acre chunk protected by the November 2000 settlement closed for good fall flat.

For example, the lawsuit that prompted the November 2000 closure was based largely on a perceived threat to Peirson's milk vetch, an endangered plant whose seed pods rattle in the breeze. The plant grows only in the Imperial Valley desert. It is one item on a three-page, single-spaced list of "endemic species" the Center for Biological Diversity has compiled.

Off-roaders, however, call the plant far from unique to the dunes, saying it has been spotted in Mexico and New Mexico. Moreover, they say they work hard to protect the plant because a high-speed encounter with a bush can devastate expensive wheels and other equipment.

"It's not like we say, 'Oh, my God, I don't want to hit a plant, because I want to save the planet.' But you're going to mess up your vehicle," said William Tranzow, 34, a Los Angeles-area law enforcement officer who frequently rides off-road vehicles in the dunes. "So we don't want to run them over."

The Center for Biological Diversity led last weekend's trek largely to demonstrate that the dunes are a hikers' paradise. But the reality is that, especially during warmer months, the dunes are a relatively forbidding place to all but the most dedicated hikers. Few expect it to become a day-hikers' paradise.

"I've been going out there since 1984, and I've never seen a hiker, other than someone who is walking because their ATV broke down," Tranzow said. "This is not a hiking issue."

Horn believes it boils down to a difference in taste.

Traditional, old-school environmentalists simply don't like to hear the roar of a dune buggy in the distance while they camp, nor the bellowing of a swamp buggy while they fish. And that, Horn said, is not a legal basis to limit the use of public property.

"What we are arguing about here are fundamentally aesthetic issues," Horn said. "But in the broader context, trying to close major pieces of public land on the basis of aesthetic taste is not going to get you a lot of political traction. So they converted it into a research and environmental issue."

Put another way, Tranzow said: "Nobody cares about the Peirson's milk vetch. And nobody runs over the Peirson's milk vetch because nobody wants to pop their tires. Peirson's milk vetch is not curing cancer. It's just another loophole that environmentalists are using to close down public land."

Back in the desert, the Center for Biological Diversity's Patterson stood among towering dunes, shaking his head in dismay.

It wasn't just the trash he found during his two-day hike--a flip-flop and a beer can sandblasted into a dull gray. The group walked through areas where off-road vehicles are banned but found, among other things, tire tracks and a hard plastic chunk of a long-forgotten motorcycle radiator.

At one point, his group stopped at the boundary between protected dunes and unprotected dunes. The contrast was staggering. The protected dunes were dotted with a variety of vegetation, all homes for dozens of rare animals. The flat-tailed horned lizard, for example, survives and finds moisture by scurrying from plant to plant.

The unprotected dunes were bare--"burnt ground," Patterson said.

On a metal tube left behind by World War II-era military exercises--also in an area where vehicles are not allowed--Patterson found a sticker advertising the American Sand Assn., one of the top lobbying arms representing the interests of off-roaders.

"I'll be taking this," Patterson said with a wry smile, ripping off the sticker and stuffing it in his pocket. "These supposed law-and-order types drove out and put this here."

Patterson stressed that the environmental movement has no plans to try to close the dunes to off-roaders altogether.

"It's a big place," he said. "There is room for off-roaders. And there is room for conservation. But we don't need to sacrifice the whole place for one industry. We didn't work this hard to stand around and watch the whole thing get scrapped for politics."

<font color=yellow>Paige<font color=yellow>


Well-Known Member
OK, I am going to say it! Liars! BIG FAT LIARS!(sorry pat). How the hell are we suppose to believe the propoganda of these people when all they do is lie? lets see.. the stark contrast between the closed area and the open area...tons of plants versus nothing...burned.... just last week they were complaining because it has been such a dry year that there has been so little plant growth that it is unfair to do a plant count. there are too many plants in the open area and not enough in the closed area due to the lack of rain. now it is virtually dense jungle versus nuclear detonation zone? what gives? And my how the desert recovers so quicky! why, just last year these areas were open to offroad vehicles...amazing how the plants have re-established themselves! this is the type of crap we have to acll them on. no one looks dummer than when you can use their own words against them. daniel (doom) patterson and the cbd are nothing more than proaganda toting carpet baggers trying to commit fraud by using the media to sell the snake oil. if 1/3 of glamis being closed isn't enough for them to hike on, then they are the greedy bastards, not us. if a comparison of hikers to ohv users is made, lets see the percentages of users versus the area allowed to recreate in.


If your gonna go, go BIG


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I couldn't agree more. I wonder how many reporters they had on this little expedition? They had one that reported to the NY times and one for the LA Times - I wonder who else was out there? They have also turned they fight from saving the PMV, to protecting the rangers, to now they want to hike in the dunes - what next?

<font color=yellow>Paige<font color=yellow>


Well-Known Member
Let me get this straight, they want 100,000 acres for 10 people to come and hike while leaving 50,000 acres for the 200,000 off-roaders. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I wonder if they read this crap before they publish it.