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The Playground Becomes the Battleground

April 22, 1990|JENIFER WARREN and BILL STALL | Jenifer Warren is the Riverside-San Bernardino Bureau Chief for The Times. Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

OUT IN THE middle of nowhere, due east of Brawley in the bosom of the Imperial Sand Dunes, it is plain to see. This is what the battle is all about.

A two-lane ribbon of asphalt known as California 78 slices through the towering dunes, forming a line of unmistakable demarcation. North of the roadway is seamless sand, stretching in undulating, dun-colored swells. Closed to vehicles, the terrain is graced with clumps of green and gold dune grass, creosote bush and an occasional silver-leafed sunflower. The only marks are the boot prints of desert wanderers and the faint tracks of a coyote or kangaroo rat. A silence broken gently by the wind cloaks this empty place, a stillness perfect for reflection.

The picture changes markedly just south of the highway. Here, all manner of vehicles are welcome, and the land is mostly barren. With the dunes' fertile mantle of soil churned loose by the fat, knobby tires of off-road vehicles, the only plant survivors are lonesome tufts of bursage and Mormon tea, which cling to hummocks carved by spinning wheels. There is not a pocket mouse in sight, but human life abounds. Helmeted riders astride two-, three- and four-wheeled machines zigzag across the dunes in a dizzying dance, kicking up thick wakes of sand as they go.

The north side is protected as wilderness and treasured by hikers, photographers and others eager to explore it on foot. The south is a playground, treasured by thousands of weekend dune jockeys seeking a tonic for the stresses of the urban world. The contrast forms the grist for an unusually nasty and colorful war--the struggle for control of the California desert.

With most of the West's mountains and coasts and river valleys claimed and carved up, Southern Californians have come to covet the nearby desert's vast landscape of extremes. Imported water and air conditioning have made the desert habitable in comfort, even luxury. Reliable vehicles have made its most forbidding corners safe to explore.

Since 1984, preservationists and off-road vehicle users have faced off in Congress, where U. S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) have introduced--and reintroduced--the California Desert Protection Act. The bill would answer environmentalists' worries about threats to desert plants and wildlife by tightening restrictions on the use of about 12 million acres of public lands that are neither controlled by the U. S. military nor protected in existing parks and preserves. Off-roaders, however, view the proposed restrictions as an infringement on their right to explore and enjoy this last Western frontier.

The outcome of past wilderness battles in Congress suggests a logical pattern for compromise. So the preservationists want to set aside 4 million acres as wilderness? The user groups argue for 2 million? Strike a bargain and settle on 3 million. This fight, however, is so entrenched and so infused with anger that no such resolution is on the horizon. It is a struggle framed in terms that seem, at times, as stark as the landscape.

EVEN 15 YEARS ago, few people went to the desert for recreation, and when they did, recalls Gerry Hillier, district director for the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, "it was basically one dune buggy, and it was Mom and Dad and the kids." The arid lands clearly have a new allure. On Presidents' Day weekend this year, 14,000 people swarmed the Imperial Sand Dunes, ignoring a cold February drizzle for the chance to, as one exhilarated vacationer described it, "get out and get crazy in the dirt."

For these off-roaders, the spectacular mounds of sand that rise from the Yuha Desert in far southeast California are a beloved destination. Reaching peaks of 300 feet, the dunes are the largest such sand mass in the state, stretching in a 5-mile-wide band from the Chocolate Mountains for 40 miles south to the Mexican border.

The dunes' southern portion is designated a "free play" zone by its caretaker, the Bureau of Land Management, making it open to anything and everything with wheels. There is no speed limit, and near collisions are common as riders, often hidden from view by ridges in the ever-changing dunes, hurtle along. Although state law requires that the machines be equipped with mufflers, the piercing, chain-saw-like whine of the engines is, in some areas, almost deafening.

Flanking the dunes are campgrounds packed with recreational vehicles. Radios blare as those awaiting their turn on the all-terrain cycles sprawl in lawn chairs, nursing beers or sampling treats off the hibachi. This is a family affair, with some campsites encircled by fleets of cycles of all sizes.

Dave McWilliams introduced his son, Mike, to the sport at age 2. McWilliams, a truck driver from Hesperia for whom riding all-terrain vehicles is "a great stress reliever," says his family spends "every weekend we can" at the dunes. It is "healthy recreation," he says, a wholesome activity for children and adults.

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