Sacramento — A Superior Court ruling has upheld a lawsuit charging the California Department of Parks & Recreation with illegally letting off-road vehicles run without any controls throughout its largest off-road park. The suit, filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Desert Protective Council, seeks to end ORV “open-riding” beyond designated trails in Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) in order to protect the park’s rich but vulnerable archaeological and fragile desert natural resources.
Today’s decision by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Frawley affirmed his tentative ruling of May 9th turning aside efforts by State Parks and the California Off-Road Vehicle Association (which intervened in the case) to dismiss the suit. The suit contends that the Ocotillo Wells open-riding policy violates the Public Resources Code mandate to protect desert resources. In essence, it argues that public recreational activities cannot be allowed to destroy the very assets parks are supposed to safeguard for future generations.
The case will now be set for trial to determine whether the department is abusing its discretion by making no effort to restrict ORV traffic to designated trails, to maintain trails or to protect cultural and archaeological resources within the 85,000-acre park in southeast San Diego County next to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Prior to trial, State Parks will have to turn over a trove of internal records, including land surveys documenting the extent of resource destruction occurring at Ocotillo Wells.
“The court's Decision to allow this case to go forward vindicates the courageous Ocotillo Wells environmental scientists who have, for years, decried the open-riding policy that allows wholesale destruction of habitat and cultural resources,” stated California PEER Director Karen Schambach, noting extensive efforts to avoid litigation but State Parks leadership would not commit to management changes. “We hope that State Parks leadership will now step up do their jobs in order to avoid handing park management over to a court.”
The open-riding policy at Ocotillo Wells means off-road riders can drive wherever they want, regardless of whether there are marked trails or irreplaceable archaeological resources or rare plants in the immediate vicinity. Even in the 20,000 acres of the SVRA owned by U.S. Bureau of Land Management and managed by State Parks under an agreement limiting ORV traffic to designated routes, rangers have never issued a citation for an ORV-rider leaving established trails.
The suit, argued by attorney Michael Lozeau of the firm Lozeau Drury LLP on behalf of the groups, will have implications beyond Ocotillo Wells to all State Vehicular Recreational Areas, the eight-unit system operated by the Department’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division
“By moving our case forward, the court recognizes the legitimacy of our complaint and grants us the opportunity to build our case for a management plan that will sustain sensitive soils and protect our wildlife and cultural heritage at Ocotillo Wells,” said Terry Weiner, Imperial County Coordinator of the Desert Protective Council.