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Stark, Bitter Debate Plays Out Over Dunes

Recreation: Environmentalists upset about plans to reopen protected desert to off-roaders take 13-mile trek to call attention to its fragility.


ALGODONES DUNES — The afternoon sun brought long shadows, tall tales and dire warnings.

For two days, a band of environmental activists trudged across what is believed to be the nation's largest sand dune system, hugging the ridges of 300-foot dunes, leaning into a wind so fierce that it felt like a blow-dryer between the eyes.

Their opponents dismiss them as greens, and they lived up to the label last weekend--eating tofu, trading tales of demonstrations and arrests, marveling at any hint of nature, including at one point the droppings of a kangaroo rat.

About 26 miles east of Brawley, the dunes stretch nearly 40 miles from the Chocolate Mountains to the Mexican border, about 150,000 acres in all. They are a natural enigma, distant and dead at first glance, but actually teeming with life--strange life, from albino grasshoppers to horned lizards that flatten out into discs to protect themselves.

The trek, organized by the Tucson- and Idyllwild-based Center for Biological Diversity, was designed to call attention to the fragility of the dunes' plants and animals, and to the government's recent decision to open a broad swath of protected land here to off-road vehicles.

That decision, center officials believe, has made the dunes the most threatened landscape in California.

The 13-mile hike was no small feat, and by the time they cleared the eastern dunes and strode into a mudflat wash amid gnarled morning glories and 1,000-year-old ironwoods, there was a swagger in their step. Despite their dire warnings about the devastation that dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles would bring here, they spoke of commitment and their campaign to preserve this ecological wonder.

Beneath that bravado, though, like the sand itself--which shifts two feet a year toward Mexico--they know they are losing traction.

In the 1970s, after Congress declared millions of acres of remote Western land off-limits to commercial enterprises, wildlife officials were taken aback by a boom in hiking and camping.

The surge in interest forced government agencies to wrestle with the then-puzzling notion that mountains, deserts and forests could be overrun--loved to death by outdoor enthusiasts.

Today, marking the latest chapter in a long tug-of-war over wilderness, another outdoors renaissance is underway. This one is borne not of backpacks and boots, but of machines--snowmobiles, dune buggies and Jet Skis.

And the machines--their drivers emboldened by a friendly response from the current occupant of the White House--are winning:

* Last spring, the Bush administration decided to review bans on personal watercraft at four national parks. Buoyed by that decision, an Orange County group recently sued the federal government to throw out similar proposed bans at 21 seashore and recreation areas--though environmentalists say the watercraft spew the same amount of pollution in seven hours that a car does every 100,000 miles.

* The administration is considering throwing out a plan to phase out snowmobiles at Yellowstone National Park. President Clinton set that plan in motion because of concerns that snowmobiles were harassing elk and bison and turning the air blue with exhaust.

* The federal government has taken steps to weaken protection of roadless areas in national forests, a move that could allow more roads in places like Los Padres National Forest and opening once-protected regions to commercial development.

Those changes have accompanied a dramatic rise in the use of so-called thrill-craft--which was prompted by aging baby boomers' sudden discovery that roaring up a sand dune on a $40,000 souped-up dune buggy was more fun than climbing it.

"For those of us in the 'boom' generation, 20 years ago, hey, backpacking and hiking was a great idea," said Bill Horn, a Washington attorney who represents snowmobilers and a group of anglers and hunters fighting to keep Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve open to swamp buggies and airboats.

"Now you've got a couple of kids and you've been sitting at a desk for 20 years. And you think, 'You know, I don't think I can walk up that mountain.' So you get a motorized vehicle, and then you can plant your broadening derriere on that."

But environmentalists are convinced that the machines are shattering the tranquillity of wild areas across the nation, harassing rare animals and trampling delicate plants that are those animals' homes and food sources.

"These areas we are talking about are public trusts," said Derek Shuman, 46, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineer and a hiking enthusiast who joined the Center for Biological Diversity for last weekend's trek. "If we lose it, we lose it forever. I don't think this administration understands that. The Bush administration seems to be giving a green light to people that place recreation over wilderness."

Nowhere, perhaps, does that debate play out in more stark and bitter terms than at the Algodones Dunes.

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