ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS FILE LEGAL ACTION SEEKING TO BAN OFF-ROAD OPEN RIDING AT OCOTILLO WELLS

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By Sholeh Sisson

June 5, 2013 (Ocotillo Wells) -- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Desert Protective Council (DPC) filed a legal action May 21, 2013 to stop open riding in the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA). If successful this action would end ORV "open riding" beyond designated trails and require the state park to implement strategies to protect the park's habitats and archaeological resources.

The park, located in east San Diego county, allows off-road driving on all 85,000 acres except for a few fenced and protected areas.

Plaintiffs contend that substantial damage is occurring in the park, which is home to over 1,200 archaeological and historic sites.

“Compounding the damage, what little trail `maintenance’ occurring on Ocotillo Wells trails consists of grading, which actually accelerates soil erosion,” said Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council. “This undermines the very purpose of the state statutory requirement for trail maintenance: mitigating soil erosion.”

In some areas of the park, off-road vehicles are required to stay on designated trails; but a staffer at Anza Borrego Desert State park say that isn't happening.

Joe Hopkins, who currently works for Anza Borrego Desert State Park adjacent to Ocotillo Wells, argues that the state's open-riding policy means that off-road riders may drive anywhere, leading to substantial damage to desert habitats. 

"You don't just turn these hills over to the public and say 'Feel free to climb that; if there's 17 trails on that hill and you are not happy with them, make your 18th trail.' But that's what this administration has done," Hopkins said.

He filed a whistleblower complaint with the California Department of Justice and California State Parks in 2011, but never received a response.

This is not the first time that complaints have been filed against damage to desert habitats and protected plants. PEER Director Karen Schambach noted that the organization has repeatedly alerted the new State Parks leadership of the problems at the park, including a formal notice of intent to sue, but just like Hopkins PEER never received a response. 

"Internal audits going back to the mid-90s found widespread illegal degradation but the Department has just shrugged, deferring any changes until a new General Plan is completed,” Schambach said, CBS Channel 8 reported. “That General Plan update, promised since 2007, never seems to get done. We will not sit back and wait until the park is totally bereft of plants, wildlife and cultural resources."

Although the environmentalists seek to limit off-roading only to trails in the park,  off-road enthusiasts are not going down without a fight. The San Diego Off Road Coalition (SDORC) and Tierra Del Sol 4 Wheel Drive Club, off-roading groups here in San Diego County, are organizing opposition to this legal action in hopes of keeping open riding for many families who enjoy it. 

Tierra Del Sol's website states, "Tierra Del Sol 4 Wheel Drive Club is currently consulting with our attorney on the best way to respond to this … Not only has it been the location of our Desert Safari [an annual off-road competition] but many of us have raised our families there. This park was set aside specifically for open OHV recreation."

The San Diego Off Road Coalition's president, Denis Nottingham, told East County magazine that the State Park Service has 30 days to respond to the write of mandate.  “If they don't, then the plaintiffs win by default.”

Nottingham added that a coalition of off road-groups is urging off-road enthusiasts to write their state Senator and Assemblymember to urge that the State Parks Department meet the deadline.  “Once they do that and it moves into court process, then...anyone who has anything to do with off-roading can as a group come in as a third party."

Nottingham explained that there had been a meeting with SDORC members and their attorney

Those who off road as a hobby say that many protected areas are already fenced off making it inaccessible, and if habitats are violated the state park will give the individual or group a ticket, and the fact that the parks were designated for off-roading is infuriating many who partake in the activity. 

If you would like to contact your state representatives in favor or against the open riding policy in a Ocotillo Wells click this link: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/   

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