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U.S. Closes 18,000 Acres in Desert to Off-Roaders

April 03, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two very different creatures like the Rand Mountains in the Mojave Desert south of Ridgecrest: dirt bikers and the desert tortoise.

The federal government has tried to keep both happy, designating land in the mountains' western portion as critical tortoise habitat but also allowing vehicles and motorcycles on some dirt roads and trails in the area.

It hasn't worked. The region's tortoise population continues to decline and dirt bikers continue to venture where they are not supposed to.

Last week the Bureau of Land Management cracked down on the off-roaders, closing nearly 18,000 acres in the western Rands to all motorized traffic.

Not far from Los Angeles County and the southern San Joaquin Valley, BLM land in the southwestern Mojave has been popular with off-roaders for decades. But their ability to roar freely through the creosote brush and up rocky slopes has diminished in the last decade as the BLM has come under legal pressure to protect tortoise habitat.

The number of open routes was reduced. Barriers and "no-vehicle" signs were erected in front of trails.

The restrictions have been widely flaunted, according to BLM documents.

A 17-mile fence in the southern portion has been repeatedly cut. Hay bales and snow fencing have been vandalized or ridden around. Within six months of the BLM's replanting closed roads with desert shrubs and ripping up routes to encourage revegetation, nearly 25% of the sites had been damaged by vandalism and illegal riding.

BLM Ranger Bob Tranter, a law enforcement supervisor in the Ridgecrest field office, said it's not that off-road use in the region has skyrocketed. It's that illegal use has become more obvious with the route closings of the last decade.

And the terrain makes it easy to be a scofflaw. "When you have just creosote brush communities, people can just drive around," Tranter said. Moreover, when they do see rangers, the bikers tend to take off. "They don't respect us as they would city police," he said.

Even with last week's closing, which affects 29 miles of routes, 100 miles of roads and trails will remain open to off-roaders in the Rand Mountains area.

The BLM, which has battled off-roaders in many parts of the Southern California desert, had no choice but to close the 18,000 acres under a court agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"This has a lot of illegal use and is a critical habitat," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the biological center.

"Areas that are supposed to be protected for the tortoise have vehicle tracks everywhere and vegetation destroyed. The whole area is becoming a spider web of trails."

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