Sacramento - A scathing internal evaluation by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found "near riot" conditions during holiday weekends in the California Desert, with "lawless elements" making the desert "unsafe" for the public and understaffed law enforcement officers subjected "to life threatening situations," according to documents released today by the California chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (California PEER). Virtually none of the recommendations contained in the report have been addressed by BLM and California PEER has sent a letter to BLM asking that the agency take emergency action to prevent a complete law enforcement breakdown during the holiday periods beginning this Thanksgiving.
The internal BLM "Law Enforcement Special Evaluation" was completed in February of 2000 but has not been released by the agency. The report notes that conditions have deteriorated during the "last 2 to 3 years," finding:
* inadequate public protection for both visitors and officers. Last Thanksgiving weekend, BLM rangers were pelted with full beer cans and other objects including a bag of fecal matter. In 1999, BLM recorded nearly 2,000 incidents in the Desert District, including explosives, numerous firearms, incendiary devices, assaults and other offenses;
* a woefully understaffed BLM law enforcement presence that is unable to meet routine needs let alone cope with influxes of more than 100,000 visitors on some weekends. BLM is spending less than half of authorized amounts on law enforcement, leaving only 29 of 46 enforcement slots in the California Desert District currently filled; and
* a poorly equipped force lacking crowd control training, riot batons, gas masks and even a reliable radio system. Several vehicles purchased for law enforcement purposes have been diverted for other uses.
"BLM is endangering the public and their own people by their head-in-the-sand response to a problem spinning out of control," stated Karen Schambach California PEER Coordinator. "Back in 1976, Congress urged BLM to create a uniformed ranger force strong enough to protect the fragile resources in the desert but BLM has yet to do so."
The California Desert District (CDD) consists of federal lands stretching from the Mexican border to the Sierra Nevada foothills and contains some of the most sensitive desert habitats for endangered plants and animals in the state. Last week, as part of a settlement to environmental litigation brought by PEER, the Center for Biodiversity, the Sierra Club and other groups, nearly 50,000 of Algodones Dunes within the CDD was closed to off-road vehicle (ORV) traffic.
"BLM management is guilty of gross dereliction of its duty to safeguard the public, its own staff as well as the desert resources entrusted to it," Schambach concluded. "The agency needs to commit funding now to properly manage its ORV areas."