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Imperial County Seeks State Funds to Patrol Dunes

Desert: Officials will ask for $283,000 to help control off-road riders and growing crowds seeking open spaces.

January 11, 2002|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Confronted with a growing problem of raucous conduct by thousands of off-road vehicle riders on desert sand dunes, Imperial County authorities will ask a state commission today to give them $283,000 this year for law enforcement.

The plea for aid from the state's Off Highway Vehicle Commission, meeting in Ontario, follows a vote this week by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to extend a state of emergency in the dunes between the Imperial Valley and the Colorado River.

Ann K. Capela, the county's chief executive officer, charged Thursday that the federal Bureau of Land Management, which controls the dunes, has closed so many desert areas to off-road vehicles in recent years that crowds upward of 100,000 are overwhelming the open Imperial County dunes.

Capela suggested that it may be necessary to close those dunes as well unless much more money is appropriated for law enforcement there. She said Imperial County funds for that purpose have been exhausted over the Thanksgiving and New Year's holidays alone.

Over Thanksgiving, an estimated 190,000 people showed up from California and Arizona urban areas. There was a stabbing, a fatal shooting, an attack on a ranger, and dozens of clashes that left two dead and more than 200 injured.

Over New Year's, with a major law enforcement effort by the Imperial County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Bureau of Land Management, it was quieter, but the costs mounted into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Capela's comments Thursday about closures drew rebuttals from the supervisor who represents the area, a leading environmentalist and a member of the state commission. They said that a combination of more law enforcement and limits on the number of people allowed on major holidays would control the situation.

Paul Spitler, the state commission member, said it is "pure supposition, not supported by the facts," to say other closures have sent hordes of people to the Imperial County dunes.

"People are attracted to the dunes because they think they can go there and have a lawless experience," the commissioner said. "This has less to do with off-road recreation and more to do with party-going, drinking and lawlessness."

The answer, he said, is to set up a no-vacancy system and increase law enforcement. He noted that the El Centro office of the Bureau of Land Management is proposing $1.3 million in additional funding for its management of the area.

Daniel R. Patterson, desert ecologist with the Idyllwild-based Center for Biological Diversity, said a recent agreement among the Bureau of Land Management, off-road and environmental groups closed 49,000 acres in the area, but kept 68,000 acres open.

Altogether, Patterson said, there remain 500,000 acres of California desert open to off-road vehicle enthusiasts, and "we are not moving for any additional closures," he said.

"But we've said, set limits," he added. "The BLM needs to know when to set out the 'No Vacancy' sign."

Wally Leimgruber, Imperial County supervisor from the area, agreed that the area should be kept open for off-road riders. "But we need assistance to give us additional law enforcement on about six holiday weekends a year," he said.

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