Lines Drawn in the Sand (1 Viewer)

Jun 6, 2003
Cuyamaca, CA and Las Vegas, NV
Borrego plan rekindles familiar land-use debate
By Mike Lee
February 11, 2005

California is on the verge of designating more than 55,000 acres in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as wilderness, a proposal that once again pits conservationists against off-roaders for control of public land.

The park's future rests with the California State Park and Recreation Commission. The group will meet today in Mission Valley to vote on the first official management plan in the 72-year history of the park, which spans 600,000 acres at the eastern edge of San Diego County.

The largest chunk of proposed wilderness is in the northwest corner of Anza-Borrego, near state Route 74, and the rest is scattered around the park. Wilderness is the state's most restrictive land-use designation. It bars all development and motorized vehicles, allowing only for foot traffic and horse travel.

Tensions are running high because of Anza-Borrego's habitat and status as the largest state park in the contiguous 48 states. The tug-of-war is likely to escalate as California's population swells and more residents seek refuge in the desert's open spaces. Southern California's population is expected to grow by 34 percent to 26.1 million by 2030.

The Anza-Borrego plan, under development for more than a decade, has galvanized two camps of activists: one that aims for more vehicle access to the remote desert and another that wants to protect the land from California's fast-growing fleet of off-highway vehicles which include everything from dune buggies to sport utility vehicles.

In general, conservation groups support the Anza-Borrego blueprint as a well-conceived attempt to balance the demands of nature with visitors' desires. The park is a haven for winter wildflowers and a home for palm groves, cactuses, roadrunners, kit foxes and golden eagles.

<Off-roading vehicles
County | Registered off-highway vehicles

Los Angeles 148,307

San Diego 112,899

Riverside 93,613

San Bernardino 86,760

Orange 77,020

Source: California Department of Motor Vehicles, as of January>

However, off-roaders have issued an Internet alert for today's meeting: "Show your support for a complete rewrite of this terribly flawed plan," said the California Off-Road Vehicle Association.

Similar debates echo through the history of the West, where each patch of sand and rock tends to take on a symbolic significance that outweighs its practical importance. That seems to be the case with Anza-Borrego.

"For the average visitor, nothing would change," park superintendent Mark Jorgensen said.

The stakes are higher for groups that want to recruit members and advance their goals. It doesn't look good when the other side declares victory at a well-known place such as Anza-Borrego.

The shrill tone of the debate is part of a broader social shift toward winner-take-all politics, said Max Neiman, a political science professor at the University of California Riverside and an expert in the politics of development.

"You just sort of duke it out and then see what happens, based on the assumption that if you don't grab as much as you can right now, tomorrow a different, more hostile administration is going to take over," Neiman said.

While the players and places have shifted during the decades, the land-use issue remains more or less the same.

"On the face of it, it sure seems like the same people saying the same things," said veteran activist Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's Desert Committee for California and Nevada.

In 1994, for instance, conservation groups scored a major win with the passage of the California Desert Protection Act. The law beefed up federal land protections at the Mojave National Preserve and the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.

Mark Jorgensen, superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, gave a tour of the park to members of the California State Park and Recreation Commission and other visitors yesterday. The commission will meet today in Mission Valley to vote on the park's first official management plan.

Public-land policy resonates across the West, particularly on the hundreds of millions of acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

"Now it plays out unit by unit, but these are national lands belonging to every American, and there needs to be a more coherent national approach to this problem," said Scott Kovarovics, director of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition, which monitors off-roading nationwide.

While talks involving both sides have been brokered, there is little sense that the dynamics are shifting. The future will look much like the past, with more lawsuits, more fund-raising and more rhetoric, said people close to the situation.

"What I am amused by is the general tendency of the issue to keep percolating over and over again and the inability of us to resolve things," said Neiman, the UC Riverside professor. "It's very hard to find common ground because (the sides) have such fundamental differences in what they consider to be harmful."

For their part, off-road enthusiasts promote themselves as keepers of a family-oriented activity who maintain access to the West's remote scenery. Many off-roaders, they say, aren't just dune-buggy fanatics; they simply enjoy driving their SUVs off the pavement once in a while.

"Anza-Borrego has significant opportunities . . . for people who want to get out there and view the flowers and enjoy the scenic vistas," said John Stewart of Lakeside, director of environmental affairs for the United Four Wheel Drive Associations. "It's not just the stereotypical off-roader with a quad or a dirt bike."

He said a chief goal for off-roaders is to leave the urban crowds each weekend.

State records show that the number of registered off-highway vehicles has grown to more than 800,000 from 235,000 in 1980. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, California desert land open to off-highway vehicles was reduced by 48 percent to 7 million acres, according to a study by the state parks agency.

The decrease is linked to urban development, expansion of the national park system and an upswing in habitat protected by the Endangered Species Act.

For conservationists, expanded wilderness designation in the Anza-Borrego park would offer another chance to protect desert plants and animals before they are squeezed out by Southern California development.

"This is really important," said Bryn Jones, desert program director for the California Wilderness Coalition in Riverside, which pushed a letter-writing campaign to support the agency's proposal. "Overall, it is a plan that will protect the sensitive and unique resources of the park."

The management strategy, which has triggered letters from angry lawyers and state politicians who side with the access contingent, is almost 15 years in the making.

"The plan expresses a strong policy bias in favor of those select few who have the ability to hike long distances in desert conditions," said a letter to the state parks agency from Escondido lawyer David P. Hubbard, who represents several off-road associations.

The blueprint earmarks 4,500 acres for expansion of campgrounds, picnic areas and parking spots, subject to more detailed plans. It also would create 443 acres of cultural preserve to "recognize the important values of Native American sites." That area would be accessible by foot or horse.

The plan also preserves the existing policy of open camping, which gives visitors the option to camp almost anywhere in the park, even in wilderness zones.

Controversy is focused on the expansion of existing wilderness areas by 55,797 acres and the permanent closure of a 3.1-mile section of road in Coyote Canyon. The road, once a popular route through the park, was closed in 1995 to protect a fragile stream bed and habitat for bighorn sheep.

Already, more than 400,000 acres of Anza-Borrego are designated as state wilderness. However, park managers said there are more than 500 miles of paved and unpaved roads through the park, and Anza-Borrego's total roads is five times greater than in Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.

These officials said the wilderness designation would be enforced with new signs and patrols. They emphasize that the plan does not dictate the removal of existing roads, which are not part of the wilderness designation.

"We provide a lot of access and we are glad that we do because it gives a lot of different people different experiences in the desert," said Clay Phillips, park plan manager for the state. "The idea is to set aside in perpetuity an area that really is experientially replete with solitude and the wilderness experience."

(The commission will meet at 9 a.m. today 02-11-05 at the Mission Valley Marriott, 8757 Rio San Diego Drive)

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