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BLM gets grant money for dunes despite concerns of off-road groups

February 17, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

The El Centro office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management got most of the state grant money it requested last month, despite opposition and serious concerns from off-road groups and state officials.

The bureau received $1.08 million of a $1.3 million grant request from the California State Parks Department of Off Highway Motor Vehicles to manage and provide law enforcement at the Imperial Sand Dunes.

The department provides grants to local agencies and works with federal agencies such as the bureau and the U.S. Forest Service to provide off-road recreation in California.

The bureau originally requested the money at an OHMV commission hearing Jan. 10 and 11 but was turned away because commissioners had concerns about how the bureau was handling ongoing violence at the dunes.

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Violence erupted over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend when a man was shot and killed and someone drove over a BLM ranger trying to issue a speeding ticket. That weekend 190,000 dunes visitors were patrolled by about 40 law enforcement officers.

The commission asked the bureau to make changes to its grant application and come back to hearings this month.

A spokesman with the BLM, Stephen Razo, said he is happy the commission is supporting the bureau's needs in the dunes.

Not everyone is happy with the BLM support.

Jim McGarvie, chairman of the San Diego Off Road Coalition, said his group opposed the bureau's grant, but not just for the El Centro field office.

"We opposed grants for the whole California Desert District. We feel the bureau has been using more of our money and shutting down more of our recreational opportunity," McGarvie said, referring to recent closures to protect endangered species.

Other off-road groups recommended only 50 percent funding of the BLM grant, he said.

Some commissioners are concerned the Imperial Sand Dunes will require more and more money.

The problems at the Imperial Sand Dunes are seen at other off-road vehicle recreational areas in the state, commissioner Paul Spitler said in an interview last month.

"What is unique at the Imperial Sand Dunes is the sheer magnitude of the problems," Spitler said.

The department's deputy director, Dave Widell, said banning alcohol at the dunes would solve most of the problems.

Widell said the nature of the dunes area encourages people to drive. It's not a good mix with alcohol.

Widell's not alone. The California Off Road Vehicle Association wrote a letter calling for a ban of alcohol at Competition Hill, the scene of the rowdiest parties at the dunes. Competition Hill's terrain and large bowl-shape make it difficult for officers to patrol.

Pete Conaty, executive director of the California League of Off Road Voters, said his group considers drugs and alcohol "a serious contributor to the problems at the dunes." Although he's quick to point out that the problems come from a new group of partiers coming to the dunes, not from the regular dunes visitors.

For the first time, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement is at the Imperial Sand Dunes over the Presidents Day holiday.

BLM officials would not say if drugs are a problem.

"Narcotics agents go where the drugs are," Conaty said.

Agents know some are using drugs out there, just like they knew they could always find drugs at Grateful Dead concerts, he said.

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

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