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Officials Impose New Curfew at Algodones Dunes

Efforts to quell unruly holiday gatherings at Competition Hill draw criticism from both environmentalists and off-road enthusiasts.

November 22, 2002|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Now nobody's happy.

After years of hand-wringing and debate over the future of the stately Algodones Dunes, government officials in the southeastern tip of California said Thursday that they will attempt to rein in lawless free-for-alls at perhaps the most popular spot in the dunes for off-road enthusiasts.

The Imperial County Board of Supervisors said it has established a sunset-to-sunrise curfew at a destination known as Competition Hill, south of California 78. The curfew, which is already bringing howls of protest from both the off-road-vehicle community and environmental advocates, goes into effect immediately. Violating the curfew could bring misdemeanor charges and six months in jail.

The overnight restrictions were imposed just before Thanksgiving, which in recent years has brought huge crowds to "Comp Hill" and surrounding dunes in the Algodones system, which stretches nearly 40 miles from the Chocolate Mountains to the Mexican border.

Each year around Thanksgiving, as many as 200,000 off-roaders and spectators have created something of a Woodstock in pickup trucks, particularly around Competition Hill. Authorities say the gathering has become increasingly hazardous, in particular to law enforcement officers who try to impose some order.

By the time the holiday weekend was over last year, three people were dead and more than 200 injured, authorities said. There were scores of crashes, a shooting and an attack on a ranger. According to county records, law enforcement officers were surrounded at one point by "thousands of unruly recreationists threatening physical harm."

Similar gatherings are held around other holidays, and this year's Halloween crowd reached 75,000. That led to concerns that this year's Thanksgiving party could be bigger and more unruly than ever.

"There are assaults and vehicles damaged and all kinds of problems," said Imperial County Sheriff Harold Carter. "And then, when law enforcement tries to step in, the crowd turns on them. It makes it difficult to maintain the peace. It's just not worth the effort. Public safety mandates this."

The trouble is, the politics and emotions surrounding Competition Hill have become almost as complicated as those on Capitol Hill. The Board of Supervisors' decision has outraged off-road enthusiasts, who are embroiled in a bitter dispute with environmentalists about whether their high-tech, high-powered dune buggies and motorcycles damage the rare ecosystem.

Jerry Seaver, president of the American Sand Assn., which promotes off-road recreation, said enthusiasts should have been at the negotiating table all along.

The parties give the normally law-abiding community a bad name, and families end up paying the price, he said. The dunes have become one of the prime exhibits for those who believe government agencies are putting public land off-limits to the public, he said.

"We had no input in this," he said. "Even a curfew is a closure."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have fought for years to protect land inhabited by albino grasshoppers and the Peirson's milk vetch, an endangered plant that features large pods whose seeds rattle in the breeze. Vehicles are killing these and other rare plants and animals that live only on the dunes, environmental organizations argue.

The conservation groups seemingly would be thrilled with the new restrictions. Not so.

In a letter sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday, the Idyllwild-based Center for Biological Diversity said it was a dangerous precedent for a county government to make land-use decisions on federal property.

"Our position is not against them trying to crack down," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist at the center. "Our problem is that a county ordinance has had an immediate effect on federal land. Federal land-management decisions should be made and put into effect by federal agencies."

Environmentalists have essentially ceded Competition Hill to off-road enthusiasts because damage there is so heavy, Patterson said. The ban on nighttime use at Comp Hill, he said, will simply encourage people to spread to new areas, where they will do more damage.

"That place has been completely destroyed," he said. "So let them tear it up. They can't tear it up any more than they already have."

The federal government, meanwhile, remains at something of an impasse while weighing the future of the dunes.

The Bush administration has proposed overturning a Clinton-era legal settlement that bans off-road vehicles on about 50,000 acres of the dunes. The Bureau of Land Management wanted the plan in place by this fall but needs a sister agency to sign off on the proposal.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, according to agency documents, is considering issuing a "jeopardy opinion" saying, effectively, that the bureau's plan to reopen portions of the dunes could doom the milk vetch.

The BLM supports the plan to ban use of Comp Hill from sunup to sundown, said Stephen Razo, a spokesman at the Riverside-based California Desert District Office.

Despite the thorny politics, County Supervisor Wally Leimgruber said that the curfew is the right move -- and that the county has jurisdiction. Leimgruber himself has ridden dune buggies there, and frequently hikes and camps nearby. Last year around Thanksgiving, he waded into the fray -- and helped rescue a man who was being beaten by a mob.

Next week, the county may tinker with the ordinance to make clear that it will be applied only on busy holiday weekends, Leimgruber said.

"There is an element that chooses to come to Imperial County and engage in lawless activity," he said. "We simply will not tolerate it."

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