Sacramento — The California Department of Parks & Recreation has let off-road vehicles run amok in its largest off-road park, in violation of state resource protection laws, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Desert Protective Council (DPC). If successful, the suit would end ORV “open-riding” beyond designated trails and require the park to implement strategies to protect the park’s rich archaeological resources and desert environment.
Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), located in southeast San Diego County adjacent to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, allows off-road driving on all 85,000 acres except for a few areas fenced for protection of archaeological sites and rare plant communities. Its open-riding policy means that off-road riders may drive anywhere they want whether a trail exists there or not. Even in the 20,000 acres of the SVRA where State Parks has a decades-old agreement with the BLM to limit riding to designated routes, rangers have never issued a citation for an ORV-rider leaving established trails. To make matters worse, the park unit does little trail maintenance on the hundreds of miles of park and user-made trails carving up the easily damaged desert.
California PEER Director Karen Schambach noted that her organization has repeatedly alerted the new departmental leadership of the problems at the park, including a formal notice of intent to sue, to no avail. “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. 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.” Under California natural resource statutes, the park has an ongoing duty to protect the desert resources regardless of the general planning process.
The suit, filed by attorney Michael Lozeau of the firm Lozeau Drury LLP on behalf of the groups, maintains that the open-riding at Ocotillo Wells violates statutory mandates to protect desert soils, plants, wildlife and archaeological sites. The complaint, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, cites internal documents detailing how the open riding policy is wreaking resource havoc:
- Unrestricted ORV traffic has caused widespread erosion and other damage to desert soils;
- Plant life in Ocotillo Wells is completely unprotected; environmental scientists at the park have been calling for a designated route system for years as they documented the park’s ongoing loss of vegetation;
- Ocotillo Wells is home to more than 1,200 archeological and historic sites, very few of which have restricted access, leaving these important cultural resources to the mercy of off-roaders.
“Compounding the damage, what little trail ‘maintenance’ occurring on Ocotillo Wells trails consists of grading, which actually accelerates soil erosion. This undermines the very purpose of the state statutory requirement for trail maintenance: mitigating soil erosion.” stated Terry Weiner, of the Desert Protective Council.
The Ocotillo Wells lawsuit, in essence, contends that core park management policies are illegal. Historically, California courts have been willing to intervene to curb poor management and excessive resource damages at State Vehicular Recreational Areas, the eight-unit system operated by the Department’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division.