Environmentalists: Limit needed on sand dune crowds
Although fewer problems were reported during this year's long New Year's weekend at the Imperial Sand Dunes than in 2003, environmentalists say there were some inexcusable violations of closed habitat areas. They say a limit needs to be placed on the number of off-road enthusiasts that gather at the dunes at any given time.
"Until the BLM gets serious about managing these crowds at a size that they can actually deal with, there's going to be problems," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Stephen Razo, director of external affairs for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District, said overcrowding was not an issue during this New Year's weekend. In situations when overcrowding is a problem, however, BLM management is equipped to take appropriate measures to correct it, he said.
"There are management procedures if the crowds get too large - if we reach what we think is capacity," he said. "If you have (125,000) people, and we can say it was a quiet weekend, and the people who are out there recreating are having a quality experience and they keep coming back, then I guess it's up to the individual to determine if it's too crowded or not."
Razo said despite the quiet New Year's weekend, the temporary dune closures will remain in effect indefinitely as the BLM awaits the biological opinions of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
A biological opinion is an assessment of the potential impacts that a federal agency's management activities will have on protected species. In this case, the fish and wildlife service will determine whether or not the BLM's recreation management plan, which was drafted several months ago, will allow the BLM to safely monitor the Peirson's milk vetch, a plant on the Endangered Species list. Fish and wildlife also will determine if off-road recreation is endangering the milk vetch, Razo said.
The BLM cannot implement its management plan, which would reopen areas of the dunes that are temporarily closed, until it receives these opinions from fish and wildlife, Razo said.
The dunes have been embroiled in controversy ever since the BLM agreed to temporarily ban vehicles from 49,130 acres of the Imperial dunes in November 2000 to protect the milk vetch and settle a lawsuit with the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups.
Off-roaders say the milk vetch is emblematic of what is wrong with the Endangered Species Act. They contend that the law locks up huge areas of public land with what they call bad science.
Environmentalists counter that the protection accorded the plant is keeping life in the nation's largest and most popular set of dunes from being ground beneath the wheels of dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles.
The BLM says protecting plants sometimes takes a back seat to keeping the peace when huge crowds flock to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, 160 miles east of San Diego and a few miles west of the Arizona state line. The mix of crowds, drinking, drugs and fast driving has been a recipe for chaos on past holidays.
Authorities say they have cracked down on the wild mobs that once pelted rangers with cans and bottles and put a stop to strong-arm robberies in broad daylight. But the effort means no officer can be spared to keep people away from endangered plants.
''We're kind of short-handed on officers when there are so many people out there,'' said Bob Zimmer, the BLM's chief ranger in the dunes. ''We still have a lot of drunk(en) driving, drugs and assaults.''
Matt Riehl can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6851. The Associated Press contributed to this report.