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BLM, agencies sending record force into dunes

December 21, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL and DARREN SIMON, Staff Writers

The county is still waiting to hear if Gov. Gray Davis will declare a state of emergency at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, a move that would clear the way to pay for additional equipment and officers to patrol the dunes.

Regardless of whether Davis takes that step, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management official said this morning there will be a record number of officers from federal, state and local agencies in the dunes over the New Year's weekend.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend the sand dunes area was the scene of an attack on a ranger, a shootout, stabbings and other lawlessness.

There were fewer than 40 officers on scene to serve 190,000 visitors.

The county passed a resolution Tuesday declaring a local state of emergency and asking the governor to do the same. As of this morning, the governor was still considering the request, county Supervisor Wally Leimgruber said.

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The county Sheriff's Office and the BLM have worked since the end of November to develop a plan to counter the increasing crime that occurs in the dunes.

Acting Chief Ranger Bob Haggerty said this morning there will be a record number of officers on scene. He declined to give a specific number, citing safety concerns.

County Sheriff Harold Carter said there will be a much more significant force in the dunes over the holiday weekend and authorities are working toward assuring there is a large force in the dunes for all future holiday weekends.

For the first time ever, a sheriff's chief deputy will be in the dunes throughout the holiday weekend, Carter said.

BLM and the county are adopting a zero-tolerance policy at the dunes, Haggerty said.

"We no longer are going to cite people and let them go. They are going to be arrested," Haggerty said.

The county and BLM originally wanted 300 officers for the New Year's holiday. BLM expects 60,000 to 120,000 dunes visitors for New Year's, Haggerty said.

Carter said he would like to have 200 officers in the dunes but time and money have been obstacles. It would cost well over $1 million to pay for 200 officers just for the four-day weekend, he said.

Haggerty said the law enforcement contingent for the New Year's weekend will be bolstered by volunteers from federal, state and local agencies who have seen a problem exists in Imperial County.

Haggerty said of the new plan to serve the dunes, including the help from agencies outside the Valley, "We have been waiting to do this for years, but this is the first time we have had this global aspect."

In addition to personnel, a mobile communications center will be set up and the National Parks Service provided 200 additional walkie-talkies, he said.

The beefed-up communication system follows a complaint filed by BLM employees Dec. 6 with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging unsafe working conditions.

The OSHA complaint states "law enforcement rangers are not provided adequate radio systems to enable them to obtain information and assistance."

The complaint also states BLM's radio system does not have a stable dispatch system, receives interference from Mexico and has not been upgraded since the 1970s.

The communication system and additional walkie-talkies are not related to the OSHA complaint, Haggerty said. It's something BLM decided was necessary awhile ago, he said.

The mobile communication system will be provided by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, he said.

"Our communication system and the county sheriff's system is local and neither can handle the traffic," Haggerty said.

He said the fire center will send the communications trailer for all big holidays in the future.

Carter and Haggerty said the plans taking shape are not just to serve the coming holiday weekend.

They said more funding is going to have to be sought to make sure all holiday weekends can be covered.

"We all realize there is a problem," Haggerty said. "We are putting a force out there and we are worrying about funding issues as they come."

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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