Land battle heats up dunes

When they look out across the largest sand dunes in North America, Jeneiene and Daniel Patterson see paradise. The 45-by-15-mile sprawl of granulated humps is a botanical Eden. Ironwood, smoke trees, and desert buckwheat provide a happy, if hot, habitat for flitting songbirds, darting lizards, stalking puma, and lumbering tortoises.

"This is a biological wonderland," says Mr. Patterson, a desert ecologist with theTucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity. "It's one of the last, great bastions of habitat for endangered species in the world."

But Bob Matthews and Mark Hopkins look at these same dunes and see a different paradise – stadium-sized sand bowls skeined with trails perfect for off-road racing and motorcycle jumping, and flat areas for family camping. "This is a one-of-a-kind experience," says Mr. Matthews, an off-road vehicle enthusiast for 30 years. "It's one of the last, great places to find a roller coaster that you have control of."

Perennially at odds over the best and proper use of public land, the two views are clashing anew over the 140,000-acre Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. In a move being watched by off-roaders and conservationists nationwide for clues to where the Bush administration is headed on land-use issues, federal officials want to reopen thousands of acres of dunes that had been closed just two years ago.

Under a temporary agreement between off-road clubs, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and conservation groups, a 49,000-acre area was closed off in the summer of 2000 over concern about damage to endangered plants and animals.

Environmental groups say reopening the closed section would reverse years of progress in habitat restoration. While welcoming more land to play on, all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) clubs are wary that the new policy could create curfews and vehicle limits.

"We're trying to provide balance between conservationists and recreation groups," says Roxy Trost, a spokesperson for the BLM, which regulates the area.

The dunes have become the battleground between several factions on both sides of the argument in recent years because of the growing swarms of ATVers who converge here on major holiday weekends – up to 250,000 by some estimates.Besides increased concern over habitat destruction, there are health and safety problems blamed on lack of adequate law enforcement when the crowds arrive.

On major holiday weekends, this place resembles a scene from the "Mad Max" road warrior movies. Thousands of helmeted, blackbooted riders wearing plastic body armor gun their two- three- and four-wheeled machines up, down, and around hundreds of trails. There are no traffic rules – just loose, right-of-way protocols known as "dune etiquette." Spurred by violence – such as stabbings and shootings – the BLM has asked eight federal and state agencies to help restore order.

"There have been serious, ongoing law enforcement issues since 1996 because no one has ever established the proper carrying capacity of this land," says Karen Schambach, California director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has been working with federal rangers to publicizes some of the law enforcement issues.

To that end, the BLM has proposed reopening areas that were closed off to ATVs in 2000.

To show visitors what's at stake if the land is reopened, Patterson takes them on a tour of the southern end of the dunes. He walks over hard plateaus of wind-rippled sand, and sinks calf-deep in near-vertical drifts. Part of the area closed off in 2000, it now includes a football-field-wide swath of green vegetation directly behind the red stakes that define the protected area. Within it grow several patches of delicate, mushroom-like plants as well as healthy patches of an endangered plant called Peirson's milkvetch.

"This green belt has appeared in little over a year since the agreement," says Patterson. "If they allow bikers in here, these plants will not survive."

Patterson and other conservationists say the presence of thousands of off-road vehicles ruins the wilderness experience for hikers who want to pursue a natural habitat free from the sounds and fumes of racing buggies. They say ATV tires tear up the sand where delicate seeds and spores take root, and they churn up the cooler sub-surfaces where endangered lizards reside. When key plants don't take root, the desert creatures that rely on them for shelter and food – like the endangered Colorado desert fringe-toed lizard – lose their habitat, they say.

"We are worried both about endangered species and the endangered experience for nature lovers and bird watchers," says Patterson.

Matthews and Hopkins tell another side of the story. ATVers on these dunes since preschool, they say the subculture of "duners" is vastly misunderstood. "Ninety percent of duners come out here and treat the desert like a home away from home," says Matthews. He and others say ATVers stick to virgin sand – where there are no plants – and go out of their way to avoid hitting lizards and other wildlife.

"Our tires are so expensive that there is no way we want to drive over a root or twig that will puncture it and strand us on the dunes," says Hopkins, president of the Orange County ATV Association.

The two sides are locked in battle over which of four BLM management options will govern the dunes. Officials are considering measures that could include curfews, quiet hours, limited ATV access, and requiring biological education certificates for drivers.

"I feel like they are always trying to limit us, control us," says Hopkins. He says he's never seen a hiker here more than 100 feet from a road. "When they have 250,000 hikers and bird watchers show up on a big weekend ... then they can ask us about closing more dunes," he says.

Right now, the dunes are divided roughly equally between acreage open to ATVs and not (about 70,000 acres each). Of the four new plans the BLM will choose from by fall, it appears that at least 20,000 acres will be re-opened for off-roaders. Because of this, Patterson says the issue is likely headed to court. "The BLM likes to pretend it is caught in the middle of this issue, but if they wanted to be fair, they would keep the current, 50/50 plan in place."

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