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State Panel Puts Brakes on Plan to Allow Off-Roaders in Anza-Borrego : Environment: Proposal to reopen 500 acres of desert to unlicensed ORVs is unanimously rejected in a feud that refuses to die.


In the mornings--about the time the freeway noise escalates into an angry whine--there is nothing to hear in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park except the wind across the sandstone. And maybe, if you listen closely, the song of a canyon wren coming from a thousand feet away.

What you will not hear--any time of the day or night--is the sound of off-road motor vehicles.

The California Parks and Recreation Commission on Thursday held another public hearing on whether to reopen the park's 500 miles of trails to unlicensed ORVs. The commission voted down the proposal unanimously.

Both sides--the environmentalists and the off-roaders--cited a long list of concerns, from ecological and archeological preservation to recreational rights, in this seemingly unending battle.

But for many Southern Californians frustrated with the head-long slide toward urban sprawl, the issue boils down to quietness--and whether this vast desert park in the hardscrabble southeast corner of San Diego County will continue to be a place of tranquility or be turned over to dune buggies, dirt bikes and other recreational vehicles.

Depending on your point of view, a twittering bird or a roaring engine is a lovely sound. And rarely have these two sounds clashed so heatedly and often as in Anza-Borrego, with almost 1 million acres the largest state park in the continental United States.

Thursday's vote affected more than Anza-Borrego because allowing ORVs into the park could have served as a precedent for opening all of California's parks to a type of motorized fun that is opposed by environmentalists.

At the heart of the matter is Policy No. 8, which in 1987 closed state parks to "non-street legal motor vehicles" after decades of ORV use and mounting allegations that ORV renegades were committing mechanized mayhem and destroying the fragile desert environment in Anza-Borrego.

A bill in the state Legislature failed last year to reverse the decree, and the state parks commission has reconsidered the measure to reopen Anza-Borrego many times under pressure from the California Off-Road Vehicle Assn.

Pressure also is coming from the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission, a subdivision of the state commission, which oversees the state's seven special vehicle recreation areas, including 34,000-acre Ocotillo Wells Off-Road Vehicle Park, next to Anza-Borrego.

Hundreds of miles of Anza-Borrego's dirt roads remain open to four-wheel drive vehicles licensed to operate on streets, but vehicles barred from the highways have been limited to nearby Ocotillo Wells.

That is not enough for the Southland's 300,000 off-road enthusiasts. They, too, want to experience the natural beauty of Anza-Borrego, which was designated a park in the 1930s.

The ORV association proposal called for allowing riders back onto 75 miles of the park's dirt roads if they obtained use permit, stayed in groups of four to 20 riders and followed other restrictions. Violators would have been fined $250 and faced expulsion. Also, the ORV association would have provided $200,000 to pay for the additional manpower and administrative costs needed to enforce the rules during the one-year trial period.

But the matter of trust--or rather lack of it--came up again. Campers and park rangers do not trust ORVs to stick to the designated trails and say the proposed rules are unenforceable.

The off-roaders, however, say their reputation has been unfairly blackened by a few free-wheeling renegades who get their thrills by going where they are not supposed to go.

Taking flak from both sides is state parks director Henry Agonia, blasted by the environmentalists for reintroducing the proposal and by the ORV association for not pushing it harder.

Agonia said he reintroduces the issue for a simple reason: "Are land-use issues ever put to bed in California?" He answers his own question without hesitation: "No, of course not. They need to be constantly revisited and reevaluated to see if they are worthy."

The issue has no middle ground--you are on one side or the other--and the battle has been nasty at times, with verbal barbs and intimidation, but none of that was evident Thursday.

For more than two hours, there were the traditional arguments. Both sides espoused the wonders of getting back to nature, albeit via two very different modes of transportation--hiking boots or astride a motorized machine.

But, for all the past public bickering and divisiveness within the state parks system itself, the atmosphere was strangely subdued. There was an undercurrent of indignation and self-righteousness from both sides, but no one called each other enviro-fascists or Robo gear-heads.

About as tense as it got during public testimony was a lot of eye-rolling, scoffing, head-shaking and talk about "emotionalism" and "misinformation."

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