Lawsuit threatens off-road open riding in desert - Brian W. Jones

Lawsuit threatens off-road open riding in desert

Two environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to shut down open riding at Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), firing up the off-roading community for a fight. “We have been...

ombarding the whole off-road community,” said Wayne Miller of Ramona.

The lawsuit claims that the open riding at Ocotillo Wells violates state mandates to protect desert soils, plants, wildlife, and archaeological sites.

Desiree Bates of Escondido has launched a Facebook page, Off-road groups and publications are encouraging people to send letters to elected officials to urge the California Department of Parks and Recreation, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, to defend its management of off-road use at Ocotillo Wells.

Assemblyman Brian Jones, who has many constituents recreating at Ocotillo Wells, sent a letter to the state parks department encouraging the continuation of open riding.

“It’s one of the few open-riding areas left in the state,” said Miller.

The owner of Miller’s Off-Road Products said many Ramona families, as well as families throughout the county, recreate at Ocotillo Wells and respect the environment.

“The whole area is a real family-oriented area,” he said.

Named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Protecting Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER) and the Desert Protective Council (DPC). Filed May 21 in Sacramento, the suit seeks to order the state parks department and Division of Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation, along with its deputy director, Christopher Conlin, “to immediately cease and desist” the open off-road vehicle driving and restrict vehicle use to specifically-designated trails.

PEER says Ocotillo Wells is home to more than 1,200 archeological and historic sites with few having restricted access, and plant life is completely unprotected.

“We don’t have people destroy the archaeological sites,” said Jan Chaney, president of Friends of Ocotillo Wells.

“There are a lot of areas that are already fenced off and you can ride around. People respect the desert,” said Bates, who has enjoyed off-roading with her family at Ocotillo Wells for 35 years.

“None of us out there are trying to destroy any of the history. We want to see it preserved,” said Miller.

Friends of Ocotillo Wells  educates off-roaders on the history of the 85,000-acre park that once housed oil wells and was used as training grounds during World War II, said Chaney.

The nonprofit group also trains youths to ride quads, and raises money to help pay for the interpretive program and for any park maintenance the state cannot fund.

According to Miller, the Tiera Del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club’s annual Desert Safari event raises money to help fund clubs that provide trail maintenance.

Heading into its 52nd year, the Desert Safari draws about 10,000 people, said Miller, adding that eliminating open riding will put the event in jeopardy.

Tiera Del Sol is consulting with an attorney about the lawsuit and said the state parks department has 30 days from the filing date to respond.

PEER sent a letter to the director of state parks and recreation in early March, threatening to sue if open riding was not halted by March 29. California PEER Director Karen Schambach said her organization has repeatedly alerted the parks department of widespread illegal degradation, but the department defers any changes until a new General Plan is completed.

“That General Plan update, promised since 2007, never seems to get done,” she said. “We will not sit back and wait until the park is totally bereft of plants, wildlife and cultural resources.”

Ocotillo Wells District Superintendent Garratt Aitchison, who came to that post three months ago, said they are moving forward with the General Plan and it will address all environmental concerns.

As off-road groups wait to hear what action the state parks department will take, they are setting up information meetings and seeking ways to raise funds. On Saturday, June 8, S&S Off Road Magazine held a meeting in Imperial to give a  brief summary about the lawsuit and how to fight it.