Interior abandoning dunes compromise

By Daniel R. Patterson Karen Schambach and Terry Weiner

Stretching northwest more than 40 miles from the Mexican border to the east side of the Salton Sea is a scenic wonderland known as the Algodones Dunes, a.k.a. Imperial Dunes. America's largest sea of sand is a unique place that harbors horned lizards that look like mini-dinosaurs, ancient ironwood woodlands, 8-foot-tall sunflowers, sand food, scarab beetles, and other endangered wildlife ­ including many species found nowhere else on earth.

But the dunes are endangered by off-road vehicles that are killing our natural heritage and draining land management resources. The Bush administration should be conserving resources, but instead is rolling back environmental protection despite wildlife concerns, violent off-road crowds, and demands on limited staff and budgets.

Two years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, conservationists, and off-roaders agreed to ban ORVs from 49,000 acres of the dunes to protect wildlife. This compromise leaves open nearly 70,000 acres to ORVs ­ more than 106 square miles, an area twice the size of San Francisco ­ creating a 50/50 balance in off-road vs. conservation areas.

This balanced approach has proven to be workable and effective. Vegetation and endangered species have started to recover in the absence of vehicles. Keeping popular riding areas open maintains ORV opportunity while protecting wildlife, air quality, and non-motorized recreation. Even with the new protected areas crowds have skyrocketed to more than 240,000 some weekends, escalating violence that gained notice in the 1990s.

Although the compromise is working, Interior Secretary Gale Norton is ignoring peer-reviewed science, agency limitations and the national interest for conservation by pushing to open conservation areas to ORVs; leaving only a congressionally designated 25,800-acre wilderness protected ­ an area that represents only 15 percent of the dunes ­ not enough to ensure the survival of endangered species or offer a remote experience.

Disturbingly, Norton avoids a solution to the violence and related staffing demands by failing to set a carrying capacity or restrict alcohol use. Conservation groups representing millions of citizens and the Quechan Indian Nation oppose this failure to protect natural and cultural resources.

Crowds must be limited to protect resources and allow a reasonable emergency response. This is a common management tool at other popular spots and is needed at the dunes. Current excessive crowds harm wildlife and air quality, and contribute to the violent mob mentality that pulls law enforcement resources from distant parks, forests and other lands, leaving millions of acres without protection.

According to BLM rangers, conditions are not getting better. Rampant alcohol abuse still fuels violence. Rangers are still being assaulted and near-riot conditions persist. Crowd control and emergency response still take precedent over resource protection, which is virtually non-existent.

BLM spent more than $710,000 on law enforcement at the dunes this past Thanksgiving weekend and is planning to spend more than $4.5 million this season. Increased off-roading fees on holiday weekends would not only reduce unmanageable crowds, but also would help recover true costs and discourage troublemakers.

BLM and local communities are missing an opportunity to diversify visitation to the dunes. Surveys by California State Parks and neutral economists indicate people love low-impact outdoor recreation: 58 percent of Californians say they enjoy hiking; 54 percent enjoy nature study; wilderness camping and hiking increased 42 percent from 1990-1998. There were 24 million visitor-days of backpacking and 64 million visitor-days of hiking in California wilderness in 1998. Non-motorized visitors add $44 per acre per year to adjacent communities. By keeping the 50/50 management in place and inviting sustainable uses, local economies of Imperial County would gain $3.3 million per year from non-motorized visitors.

The dunes are rich in natural, cultural and historic treasures. In 1968, the dunes were designated as a National Natural Landmark. The dunes should be a destination for everyone, not just off-roaders. BLM should lead educational walks in the dunes. Educational opportunities should be created to encourage people to take in the scenery, walk and learn about the wildlife and history in the dunes. For citizens who would like to experience the wildness of the dunes, the BLM should establish primitive campsites distant from ORV use areas. But none of this is proposed.

Though the dunes belong to all Americans, the Bush directive is single-use management to benefit a minority special interest. BLM spends millions of dollars every year promoting and managing these beautiful dunes solely as an ORV area, with little attention to natural values that appeal to most people. The dominating nature of loud and polluting off-roading effectively shuts out all other visitors and their families. By failing to diversify dunes use through conservation, BLM dismisses other visitors' enjoyment and spending in local communities.

Until Norton tackles these troublesome issues head-on, she'll have trouble convincing anyone that the Bush administration is not simply offering political favors to the off-road industry at the expense of natural resources, the public, and her own employees.

Patterson is a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Idyllwild. Schambach is California director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Sacramento. Weiner is conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council in San Diego.