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Our Opinion: Opening the dunes

March 29, 2002

We generally support the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the drafting of its area management plan for the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. The plan calls for reopening at least half of the sand dunes areas closed last fall to vehicles as part of a settlement with environmental groups.

A total of 49,300 acres was closed to vehicles to protect the purple-flowered Peirson's milk vetch, an endangered species. We understand the concern by environmental groups, but the milk vetch has survived years of dunes' use and will likely survive many more years of off-roading. In fact, the plant seems to do as well in unprotected areas as protected areas, according to studies

There are some critical issues that must be addressed when considering dunes use. First, the dunes on many weekends, particularly Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, are filled with a population larger than Imperial County. Trying to squeeze that kind of crowd into a smaller area is a recipe for disaster, as seen during the last Thanksgiving holiday.

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That is not to say that the closure was to blame for the violence that long weekend. People using drugs and alcohol and bringing weapons and bad attitudes to the dunes were to blame for the violence. Still, closing off such a large area of the dunes could have led to some of the agitation. The dunes become a safer place for all if there is more public land available to off-roaders.

There is one part of the draft management plan we question. The plan calls for closing Competition Hill at night. Competition Hill is a gathering area for off-roaders where they race. Unfortunately, the area also has become a hotbed of drunkenness and drug use and other criminal activity and it can be a dangerous area for those in law enforcement.

Still, if we close it at night, there will be agitation and those who enjoyed Competition Hill will simply find another area, perhaps a more dangerous area, to compete against each other. We wonder if there might be a better way to handle Competition Hill to assure its safe use.

Law enforcement authorities have doubled their patrols of the dunes recently and the effects have been immediate. That in itself may help control the problems that have plagued Competition Hill and we commend those in law enforcement for their efforts.

The closing of Competition Hill needs to be explored carefully as does the entire draft management plan. We urge the public to come forward and comment on the plan before it is finalized. Keep your eyes out for dates of upcoming public hearings and attend if it is an issue about which you are concerned.

We support a plan that has been well thought out and will ensure the dunes are a safe place for families to enjoy outdoors recreation. Overall and with a few exceptions, the plan presented does that.

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