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Bureaucratic mix-up leaves Walter's Camp in a pinch

June 03, 2002|By MATT YOUNG, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — It's an unlikely place for one of Washington's bureaucratic mix-ups.

In the desert terrain along the Colorado River, on the eastern border of Imperial County, Walter's Camp is a small recreational campground owned by Frank Dokter.

‘‘I like to call it the last frontier,'' the 58-year-old Dokter said. ‘‘Everything else has been developed on the Colorado River.''

But when the Interior Department created the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in 1964, it accidentally included 140 acres in Palo Verde where Walter's Camp operates.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, didn't recognize the mistake immediately, and neither did the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has been issuing permits to Dokter for decades to function on public land.

‘‘The former refuge manager even placed a fence around the refuge boundary about 13 years ago, physically excluding Walter's Camp from the refuge,'' Dokter told the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans earlier this month.

Now that the mistake has been uncovered, the BLM doesn't have the authority to issue the permits he needs to operate there.

‘‘I would be out of business,'' Dokter said, unless the refuge land is withdrawn. ‘‘I'm not old by any means but … it's pretty hard at 58 to walk into another profession.''

Debbie DeBock, who works at the Yuma Field Office of the BLM, said although the bureau realized in the late 1990s that it technically isn't able to give Dokter permits, it does it anyway with the permission of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She said Dokter's current permit will end by April 2003.

In March, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, introduced a bill that would eliminate the 140 acres of refuge land where Walter's Camp is run. That way, the BLM could legally give Dokter a permit.

The bureau and the Fish and Wildlife Service agree that Walter's Camp was included by mistake, Dokter said, but say the problem needs correction by Congress.

According to Denise Meridith, Arizona state director for the bureau, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the 140 acres ‘‘are not necessary nor desirable as part of the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge.'' There would still be ‘‘adequate protection for the nearest significant wildlife habitat feature, which is a restored wetland called Three Fingers Lake.'' Both agencies ‘‘agree that if enacted, the draft bill would correct a long-standing mistake.''

Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, said the legislation is ‘‘very noncontroversial, and no one should have problems with it.''

‘‘We're not hurting anybody here,'' Dokter said. ‘‘We're not encroaching on any wildlife.''

Visitors participate in activities at Walter's including fishing, hiking and bird-watching.

Dokter said Walter's also provides emergency help in a place where emergency services are not readily available.

‘‘Older people get lost in the desert or on the river get broke down,'' Dokter said. ‘‘It happens quite often.''

Dokter said he also owns a water truck and helps local authorities when there are fires.

He said if the legislation isn't passed, the issue ‘‘could go to court,'' but he concedes it's hard to sue the government. ‘‘You just spend a lot of money and spin your wheels.''

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