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No Happy Trail in Desert Tale

Charges fly between off-roaders and activists over booby traps and cut fences. A federal ruling on use of the path is expected next month.

March 25, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

HESPERIA, Calif. — A range war has broken out between environmentalists and off-road motorcyclists over an illegal 3-mile dirt trail that cuts through prehistoric burial grounds and runs past a cave believed to have been used by Native Americans.

The motorcyclists say they are finding booby-traps on the foot-wide trail -- piano wire stretched taut a few inches above the ground, roofing nails, and pipes camouflaged with brush -- designed to topple motorcyclists who regard the Cottonwood Springs area of Juniper Flats as a scenic riding route.

Environmentalists, led by members of a local residents group, Friends of Juniper Flats, have denied any responsibility for the alleged acts of sabotage. But they, and some former federal land managers, say motorcyclists have cut property fences, "burning trails" on private property, and trashed what they consider the culturally rich site designated as an "area of critical environmental concern" by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The activists also accuse the BLM's Barstow field office of failing to enforce its own rules and regulations as more off-roaders look to the 3 million acres of public land overseen by the office as a place to ride. The area, the environmentalists say, is too big to manage, let alone police, with only 11 BLM rangers.

The dispute over Juniper Flats, about 10 miles east of here, is one of many that the federal agency is wrestling with in the California desert. The popularity of off-road motorcycling, particularly in such rapidly growing communities as Hesperia, has increased along with calls for stricter controls over the motorcyclists' access to public lands.

Like every other popular destination on open land, Juniper Flats has a range of reputations that those rangers struggle to maintain: as a premier hiking area, a bird watcher's paradise, a haven for wildlife, an ancestral home of Serrano Indians, an off-road motorcycle course.

Adding to the tensions, BLM officials concede that until recently even they were not sure whether motorcyclists should be allowed on the trail. Until October, officials said, they were assuring the motorcyclists that they were permitted there.

"There was a lag time in determining what was legal and what wasn't," acknowledged Roxie Trost, acting Barstow field office manager. "We have determined in the past six weeks that it is not open for off-road use.

"But we still have one group telling us there is no resource damage occurring, and another telling us there's been extensive resource damage. The BLM is doing necessary surveys out there to come to a conclusion."

The dispute may be resolved next month, when the agency is expected to issue its West Mojave Plan, 12 years in the making. The plan will designate certain networks of routes appropriate for off-road vehicles and take others out of commission.

In the meantime, "it's a dangerous war out there," said Ed Waldheim, president of the 5,000-member California Off-Road Vehicle Assn.

"Some folks in the off-road vehicle field say that trail has been there forever and that they ought to be able to use it," he said. "Enviros on the far left say we shouldn't exist. Both sides need to hold back their testosterone levels and wait for the West Mojave Plan to come out."

On Monday, all four tires of a BLM truck were damaged by roofing nails apparently strewn in the vicinity of the disputed trail known as J1299, according to BLM recreation branch chief Harold Johnson. The vehicle belonged to Barstow-area rangers dispatched to repair a recently cut barbed-wire fence.

"We found a couple of nail strips out there about six months ago, and somebody else found piano wire stretched across the trail," Johnson said. "Somebody's going to get injured, or possibly killed."

The hilly, rocky terrain is dominated by the large rock shelter known locally as a shaman's cave. Archeologists believe that it had been used by Serrano Indians off and on over 3,000 years as a seasonal village in a transition zone between forest and desert, and as a sacred site for conducting fertility rites and burial ceremonies.

On a recent weekday, fresh motorcycle tracks were etched into the sand a few feet from the rock shelter. The cave is on a bluff overlooking pools of spring water surrounded by fire-charred creosote bushes and a network of dirt roads and trails.

"Off-road motorcycling through that area is having an adverse impact on archeological sites that are tremendously important," said BLM archeologist Sally Cunkelman. "There are only a few other places in the entire 3 million acres covered by the Barstow BLM office that require the same intensive management it does."

Dean Greenwalt, a Friends of Juniper Flats member and local property owner, shook his head in dismay over a nearby fence that had been cut by someone who also left fresh tire tracks in the soil. "Now is the time to stop these impacts," Greenwalt said. "Or else they'll get so bad they can't be reversed."

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