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California and the West

Dunes Dispute

Conservation: The recent banning of off-road vehicles in part of a federal recreation area east of Brawley angers riders. Officials hope to protect an endangered plant.


GLAMIS, Calif. — Skimming over the sand dunes at 70 mph, Grant George explains to a white-knuckled passenger the allure that brings tens of thousands of "dune dawgs" to this remote spot in Imperial County on sunny winter weekends.

"It's freedom--freedom to drive as fast you want, to ride a roller coaster with no tracks, in a setting that's absolutely beautiful," shouts George over the roar of the 450-horsepower engine that powers his custom-made, four-seat dune vehicle.

To George, dune running is a sport, a passion, a family tradition and, as owner of Funco Motorsports in Rialto, a livelihood.

But now a line has been drawn in the sand--a line that marks sharply contrasting attitudes about the future of the largest dune formation in California. To some, these rolling dunes are a venue for fun and thrills; to others, a fragile and imperiled ecosystem.

To settle a federal lawsuit brought by environmentalists, the Bureau of Land Management last month banned off-road vehicles in 49,000 acres of the 150,000-acre Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area east of Brawley.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and others sued the federal government for allegedly failing to protect the Peirson's milk-vetch, an endangered plant that grows only in the Imperial Valley desert.

To avoid a trial, the government agreed to add to the acreage that is already off limits to motor vehicles.

Not surprisingly, the new no-drive zone has been the main topic in Glamis during the Thanksgiving weekend as an estimated 80,000 people flocked here for the annual gathering of the off-roader tribe.

The dunes are alive with motorcycles, four-wheel-drive trucks, all-terrain vehicles and even a modified boat called a duna-boat. Thousands of campers and recreational vehicles have created mini-towns in the desert, complete with engine repair shops and open-air eateries, including one offering biscuits, gravy and scrambled eggs for $3.

While there was nearly universal anger at the new restrictions, there were two camps among the off-roaders about how to react to the new off-limits signs posted by the Bureau of Land Management.

George and other members of the newly revitalized American Sand Assn. pleaded with their co-enthusiasts to stay away from the newly restricted areas.

The philosophy of the La Verne-based association is that tangling with the environmentalists and their attorneys makes as much sense as trying to grab a scorpion or a diamondback. Defying the new restrictions, association members warned, might ultimately lead to a total closing of the dunes.

"This isn't about one plant," said Mark Harms, owner of Sand Tires Unlimited in Temecula. "This is just the first step. It's a setup job: They start with these restrictions and then they go back later and ask for total closure because it's not working."

The association posted its own sentries and hired a plane to tow a banner: "Join ASA. Keep Your Dunes Open. Respect Closed Areas."

There was, however, another school of thought among the duners about the new restrictions, as signified by black T-shirts with white lettering: "(Bleep) The Plant. We Came To Glamis To Ride."

Daniel Patterson, a desert biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who headed a group monitoring the restricted areas, said he and other monitors were menaced by off-roaders who surrounded them with their vehicles, gunned their engines and cursed at them.

Harassment aside, Patterson said the monitors spotted hundreds of off-roaders riding into the restricted areas, including the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, which has been off limits for years by an act of Congress. To Patterson's chagrin, law enforcement was too busy with other control matters to issue citations.

"Too many off-roaders have an anti-environment viewpoint and complete contempt for this agreement," Patterson said.

He added that his group will decide later whether to take further legal action. The restrictions are meant to be temporary until an overall environmental plan is developed, leading off-roaders to suspect that the final plan will include complete closure.

"This area is suffering, and we're going to do more than just bear witness; we're going to act," Patterson said.

After last year's Thanksgiving weekend crowd grew surly, the Bureau of Land Management beefed up its ranks this year with personnel from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Customs Service, the Border Patrol and the Imperial County Sheriff's Department.

For many duners, trips to Glamis are a family tradition, dating back generations. A few years ago, however, Glamis gained notoriety as a place where anything goes, possibly because of some videos that gained wide circulation among the hard-drinking dare-devil set.

As an investigation by the Department of the Interior of last year's near-riot concluded:

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