Taking back control in the dunes

January 14, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer
  • People and vehicles crowd Vendor Alley near Glamis. KEVIN MARTY FILE PHOTO

Sand dunes enthusiasts are not happy with the bad rap they've received in the national media recently.

The Imperial Sand Dunes and the people who ride there have been the focus of media attention recently because of a violent Thanksgiving weekend where a man died in an exchange of gunfire. Fewer than 40 officers were charged with the task of controlling more than 190,000 dunes visitors during the four-day weekend.

Yet little attention has been paid to the law enforcement support and safety programs sponsored by many off-road groups.

"It's frustrating to see all the negative press," Project Sand president Jennifer Whyte said. Project Sand, based in Orange, is an effort of off-highway vehicle users to benefit, maintain, protect and promote the environment.

Whyte said what's happening at the Imperial Sand Dunes is similar to the mayhem that occurred every year during spring break in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs has a lot of retirees but during spring break large numbers of young people would go out there to party and cause problems, Whyte said.


At the dunes, there used to be a lot of families and it was peaceful. The only problems were occasional accidents, she said. Now a lot of young people who are not regular off-roaders come to the dunes to party and act like there are no laws.

She thinks once law enforcement cracks down, as it did in Palm Springs, the Imperial Sand Dunes will be peaceful again.

Multiple off-road vehicle groups have been working among themselves and with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Imperial Sand Dunes, to show support for law enforcement and safety at the dunes.

The American Sand Association, along with other off-road groups working to keep access to sand dune recreation, endorses the "checkered flag program" and the "Safety Bug."

The association's president, Jerry Seaver, of Phoenix, said the checkered flag program was started after a near-riot at the Imperial Sand Dunes during the Thanksgiving weekend two years ago.

During that incident, people wanted to help officers but didn't know how. And the officers didn't know the bad guys from the good guys, Seaver said.

Seaver's club endorses and promotes the checkered flag program but it was started by Jerry Schaffer of the Arizona Burrow's Buggy Club in Phoenix.

The flags, flown on the top of off-road vehicle whips, are a show of support for law enforcement, Schaffer said.

Schaffer, who has been duning for 20 years, said the checkered flag shows one is responsible, someone who respects the law, cleans up after oneself, and would help someone whose vehicle breaks down.

"If we see a ranger going into a group of rowdy campers, we pull up behind the ranger and just sit in our ride with the checkered flag on the whip. This is a way a telling a ranger we're on his side," Schaffer said. "If a ranger feels comfortable in the situation, he'll wave us off, but if he doesn't, he'll nod and we'll stay."

Schaffer started the program by buying the material and sewing the flags himself. He said he probably could have bought a car with the money he's invested in the program over the past two years.

He estimates there are close to 30,000 checkered flags flying now. He's recently had help sewing the flags from 70-something Jeanie Ronco, whose grandchildren own Tatum Motor Sports of Phoenix.

"The checkered flag program has turned out to be a pretty good deal. I've heard the snowmobilers have picked up on it," Schaffer said.

Jim McGarvie, chairman of the San Diego Off-Road Coalition, said rangers and management at the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County also support the program.

"There are two small off-highway vehicle areas in Cleveland that are starting to see some law enforcement issues similar to the Imperial Sand Dunes," McGarvie said.

Another program endorsed by the ASA, SDORC, Project Sand and other off-road groups is the Safety Bug.

Project Sand worked with the ASA to come up with the Safety Bug idea, Project Sand's Whyte said. The bug is the mascot of a duner's survival kit, a black and white checkered bag distributed by different off-road groups and the BLM to visitors as they arrive at the sand dunes.

The bags contain information on closed areas, rules and regulations, safety, and encouragement to be responsible. The bag even contains a green trash bag so campers have no excuse not to clean up after themselves.

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