Washington, DC — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management foresees “a continued rise in the number and severity of incidents involving crimes against persons” fueled by firearms, drugs and alcohol at mass off-road gatherings during holiday weekends, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As reckless off-road vehicle use rises, land management agencies are losing their ability to safeguard visitors or prevent injuries, let alone protect the landscapes from being scarred, burned and trashed.
A 2007 BLM analysis of the preparedness of its Little Sahara Recreational Area, obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act, finds that the “high number of personal injury accidents, lost persons, littering, burning of flammable materials on the mountain and various safety violations” caused by irresponsible off-roading were fanning visitor fears and producing “a nearly all-reactive law enforcement operation with little opportunity to deter or reduce unlawful behavior.”
This official forecast, however, did little to prepare the agency for the 2007 Easter weekend when a gathering of an estimated one thousand off-road vehicle enthusiasts at Little Sahara degenerated into “near riot conditions,” according to the BLM incident report. Over that weekend, 37 injuries, including a state Highway Patrol officer, and some 300 arrests and citations were tallied. More than 50 officers from state, federal and local agencies called to the scene tried unsuccessfully to cope with numerous sexual assaults and other attacks attributed to marauding bands of off-roaders.
“Conditions on certain BLM lands today more closely resemble a demolition derby than a public recreational area,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has assembled a coalition of retired rangers and land managers from federal and state agencies, called Rangers for Responsible Recreation, to devise a new approach to address mounting law enforcement, safety and environmental costs of irresponsible off-roading. “Each year, off-roading problems are getting worse but our land management agencies still lack a coherent game plan.”
Despite the desperate need for a law enforcement presence at Little Sahara, a BLM Field manager, assigned as incident commander, ordered one ranger to stay at the visitor center to oversee fee collection:
“Should there be an accident or law enforcement emergency, you will not respond. By leaving the VC [visitor center], there would be no law enforcement present, which I believe would leave BLM employees sitting targets for other potential occurrences.”
PEER is asking the Inspector General for the Interior Department, BLM’s parent agency, to review the agency response at Little Sahara to this Easter’s events as well as the agency’s overall preparedness to cope with growing off-road induced problems.
“It is a sad situation when federal land managers feel torn between protecting the safety of their own employees versus the well-being of the visiting public,” Ruch added. “Families should not have to be afraid to spend their holidays on our public lands.”