Are Off-Roaders Destroying Anza-Borrego?

And should they be banned?

OHV tracks.  “Would you want OHVs in Yosemite, going up to Nevada Falls?"
  • OHV tracks. “Would you want OHVs in Yosemite, going up to Nevada Falls?"
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Mark Jorgensen holds up a photo showing a series of figure-eights and doughnuts carved on a ridge by motorcycles. “When a ranger sees something like this, it’s like a policeman finding a woman who’s just been raped,” he says. He shows picture after picture of destruction caused by off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which began in the 1960s. One photo, taken 20 years ago, shows deep ruts carved through the top of a ridge by motorcycles. Another photo shows the same spot after two decades of closure to OHVs — some of the plants had recovered, but the ruts had only gotten deeper.

Mark Jorgensen:  "They’ve proven over the last decade that they are not responsible, that they’ll break the law, that they won’t stay on the roads."

Mark Jorgensen: "They’ve proven over the last decade that they are not responsible, that they’ll break the law, that they won’t stay on the roads."

An aerial shot shows tracks going well off the trail and around a fence to get into an area closed for rehabilitation. “Before the 1960s, OHVs weren’t a problem.” Jorgensen says. “Nobody knew how fast OHV use would mushroom, and it took until last year for the parks to catch up."

Jorgensen is chief naturalist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, but he’s no wild-eyed environmentalist. He describes himself as a hunter, fisherman, and river-runner. He was a member of the National Rifle Association until the group came out against the restriction on sales of Teflon bullets and assault rifles. “I told them I couldn’t belong anymore for the same reason I don’t belong to the Sierra Club — you have to be able to make compromises.” A big man with a full beard, he speaks bluntly about his views of off-highway vehicles and their impact on the desert.

From his office on the western edge of Borrego Springs, Jorgensen can look out across Borrego Valley to the Santa Rosa Mountains and Rabbit Peak, a popular destination for desert hikers. Farther south is Font’s Point and the Borrego Badlands, which were once one of the most popular areas in San Diego County for off-roaders. And out of sight still farther south, just east of the state park boundary, is Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, a 14,000-acre playground set aside for off-roaders.

Mark Thieda says that the farthest you would want to walk in the desert is "about a mile."

Mark Thieda says that the farthest you would want to walk in the desert is "about a mile."

Even on this summer morning, when the temperature is approaching 100 degrees, a few RVs pass on the road outside the building. In winter the road is crowded with RVs and campers on their way to the campground or the visitor’s center and with carloads of hikers and backpackers heading up into Hellhole or Borrego Palm canyons or to the summit of Indianhead Mountain. But seldom, looking from the window of his office, does Jorgensen see off-roaders with their typical truck- or trailer-loads of dirt bikes and all-terrain cycles.

For the third time in as many years, Jorgensen is preparing photographs and gathering data to support his view that OHVs shouldn't be allowed in Anza-Borrego. In 1987 his findings helped persuade the California State Park Commission to ban all but street-legal vehicles on the park's primitive road system. Last spring the state senate's natural resources committee narrowly defeated a bill that would have allowed OHVs to use the park on a permit system.

Now, despite a 1988 parks department survey in which 97 percent of park visitors agreed with the ban, California Parks and Recreation Department director Henry Agonia wants to introduce his own version of the permit system into Anza-Borrego. Only seldom-traveled routes in the park would be opened under this system, leaving heavily used areas like Lower Willows to hikers, horsemen, and conventional vehicles. The Off-Highway Vehicle Commission of the Parks Department will hold public hearings on the plan in San Diego in late September, and the findings will be passed along to the full state park commission for a decision at its meeting in October. Jorgensen says he believes the hearing will produce the same old arguments from both sides as in previous years, with probably the same results. He is encouraged in this view by the dramatic downward trend in both citations and accidents in Anza-Borrego since 1987.

Before the ban, he says, “there had been so much environmental degradation that we weren't able to do our job. We could enforce some of the rules but not all of them.” He lists “tremendous impacts" to plants, animal habitat, and geological features. "We’ve found tracks going through very valuable paleontological sites. Those riders didn’t see that mammoth tusk or that camel skull they just ran over. They also destroy other qualities of the area — the solitude and the quiet, the potential to have a quality experience."

A quality experience is what draws Mark Thieda to the park. Thieda is an ORV enthusiast and is organizing a chapter of the Southern California Off-Road Riding Club in San Diego. A building contractor by trade, he hardly fits the stereotype of the off-roader as a long-haired, beer-guzzling, suicidal maniac who would rather ride over a cactus than save it.

The best and safest way to see Anza-Borrego, Thieda believes, is on the back of an all-terrain cycle (ATC). "They’re designed and built to be the best off-road vehicles. Where a Jeep could get stuck, these vehicles are built for off-roading." The driver of a 4x4 truck "toodles around out there, and he can see about 10 miles of the desert in a day, and I can see 30. I can see more, cover more. A hiker can see about a mile. I can just travel easier, safer, faster, plus I have a 360-degree view, compared to someone in a car.”

Thieda, like other off-roaders, claims he’s been unfairly prohibited from using the park. The primary purpose of the park, in his view, is to allow access to its scenic areas. Thieda and thousands of other off-roaders are represented by the California Off-Road Vehicle Association (CORVA). The group supported last spring's senate bill and has put pressure on director Agonia to go ahead with his planned permit system.

Bob Ham, a lobbyist for CORVA and the Off-Road Vehicle Legislative Coalition, admits that vehicles like the ATC can damage desert terrain if used improperly but questions the wisdom of banning them from the park completely. Instead, he says, a permit system would offer a realistic means of allowing access to the park for the law-abiding off-roader while controlling flagrant abusers.

Anza-Borrego.  "It’s beautiful. That’s why it’s a state park. It’s very scenic compared to flat desert."

Anza-Borrego. "It’s beautiful. That’s why it’s a state park. It’s very scenic compared to flat desert."

Ham and other off-road proponents feel that OHVs are blamed for damage caused by 4x4 pickups and other street-legal vehicles. And he contends that the high number of citations written to off-roaders is due more to the riders' lack of knowledge of park regulations than willful lawbreaking. Before 1987, Ham says, off-roaders in Anza-Borrego had less contact with park officials — and therefore less knowledge of regulations— than drivers of street-legal vehicles, who entered the park’s primitive road system directly from main highways and often stopped at park headquarters before their trips. OHV riders were likely to enter the park by crossing the boundary from neighboring Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), which. Ham says, was inadequately marked.

"We’ve always been telling them that there needs to be a better signing system. There used to be signs that just said, ‘You are responsible for knowing park regulations.' " People in the SVRA often wouldn’t realize when they had crossed into the state park or would think the SVRA was the same as the park. According to Ham, what’s needed is a better system to keep the riders informed. "What we’re trying to do with the permit system is emulate that process’’ by which street-legal vehicles had contact with rangers and regulations.

Closing the park to just one type of vehicle makes no sense, Ham says. "The question is how you use a vehicle, not the type of vehicle you use. All-terrain cycles do less damage to the land than four-wheel-drive trucks. The pounds per square foot on the ground with an ATC are negligible compared to four-wheel-drive trucks. If you want to see damage, watch a guy in a two-wheel-drive station wagon go onto a sandy road and get stuck."

At Ocotillo Wells, just east of Anza-Borrego, the sun beats down on barren sand dunes — a savage and holy light, indeed. A line of bikers putts along a trail near the highway, dad in front, mom bringing up the rear. A kid in a Mustang spins his wheels in the gravel as he heads into town for a bag of ice, a six-pack of beer, or another five gallons of gas. The flat area near the road is dotted with RVs and vans and empty trailers. Some of the campers have erected shade covers using blue nylon tarps. Next to one of the camps, a guy on a three-wheeler — sans helmet — spins slow circles around a bush. Another kid, about 12 years old, guns the engine on his motorcycle, kicking the back end out with a spray of gravel.

The 14,000 acres occupied by the State Vehicular Recreation Area at Ocotillo Wells were once part of the state park but were set aside in 1977 for OHV use. The area is desolate — mostly creosote, not much ocotillo, a few cholla. The sand and gravel ridges are cross-hatched with Jeep and motorcycle tracks. Off-roaders can ride anywhere they want in the SVRA, but they stick pretty much to the beaten trails. Between these trails, the vegetation is sparse but seems as healthy as it ever does out here. Not much to damage, and not much worth saving, many off-roaders will tell you.

“There’s no way that man, unless he comes out here with heavy equipment, can do as much damage as nature," says Al Williams, owner of the Burro Bend Cate, where off-roaders at Ocotillo Wells pick up staples, like ice and gasoline. The café is festooned with signs admonishing customers not to stand in front of the air conditioner.

"They’ve never been able to show the damage," he continues. "Floods and wind do more damage than off-roaders. I used to promote races here and down at Plaster City. The only place you could find flowers out there was in the ruts (left by racers). And yet they say we’re tearing up the desert.”

Few people at the SVRA walk any great distance in the desert — usually kids too young to ride ATCs or campers who don’t have the luxury of a motorhome when nature calls. Most would probably agree with Mark Thieda that the farthest you would want to walk in the desert is "about a mile." Naturalist and writer Barry Lopez has said that the desert doesn't give up its secrets easily. If that’s true, how does one come to know it on the back of a vehicle traveling 30 miles an hour? And attitudes toward the desert, both informed and uninformed, will shape the future of the desert as surely as wind and flood.

"There are a couple of types of users," Bob Ham says: "people who use their vehicles as they should in a state park and who ride to enjoy the desert, and people who race and do hill-climbing." Ham agrees with park rangers that racing and hill-climbing shouldn’t be allowed in the park. "We feel the people who want to climb hills and race won’t be attracted by a permit system. The furor we’re hearing [over the ban on OHVs] is from those who used to go to Anza-Borrego and who used their vehicles correctly."

Mark Thieda is one of those people. In his bike trailer, his eyes shine with pride as he shows off the twin ATCs he and his wife take to the desert. The trailer is a spiffy dual-purpose unit, designed to haul ATCs and convert into living quarters at night, with a kitchen and shower. The four-wheeled cycles sit end to end, anchored to the floor by thick webbing cables. He points out the features that make them ideal for off-roading, the suspension system, the knobby tires.

Thieda says off-roading has saved him from the life of a couch potato. “It’s practically my whole life," he says. "It’s what I think about all day at work." When he’s not out in the desert, he and his wife engage in such un-offroaderly activities as going to the theater.

The Thiedas are among the thousands who came to off-roading with the advent of the three- and four-wheel all-terrain cycle in the 1970s. ATCs seemed to have one big advantage over standard motorcycles: they didn’t fall over as much. (Although those who bought them found it takes a certain amount of finesse and skill to keep them upright around a turn.) Thanks to shrewd marketing by Honda and Suzuki, off-roading has become a family sport. Many of this new breed of rider would rather use their ATCs to explore and enjoy the desert than to race and climb hills.

Before the ban, the Thiedas would take their ATCs into Anza-Borrego for a weekend of exploration. “I like both types of riding,” says Thieda. "I like to go fast, and I like to enjoy the deserts. I enjoy everything about the desert, its climate, the things that you see."

He’s never ridden off the established roads in the park, he says. "There’s 500 miles of dirt roads in the park. Whenever I ride, I always ride with a destination. I don’t exceed the speed limit. When I camp, I don't chop down bushes for firewood; I bring my own. I clean my camp so you can’t tell I’ve camped there after I leave. I've camped in areas where the campsite next to me is so messy, I’ll go over and clean it up."

Over in his garage, a dual-purpose trail bike sits next to a radial-arm saw and a stack of fat ATC tires. Because it’s technically a street-legal vehicle, Thieda can take it into Anza-Borrego anytime he chooses. He bought the bike because he wanted to keep riding in the park, and this was the one way he could do it legally. To the untrained eye, the 600cc motorcycle looks as if it could do as much damage to a piece of ground as the ATCs. He says, “The only thing that makes the bike street-legal is the fact that it has a headlight, tail light, turn signals, and a battery to keep the tail light on if it breaks down."

When told about the types and amount of damage the rangers have described, Thieda is surprised. He's done a lot of riding in the park and says, "I personally have not seen any abuses of the park. The most I’ve seen is. I’ll get to an area, and I’ll see trash, but I’m not sure who left it. I did see people driving too fast. I never saw anybody disobeying [other] rules, I never saw anybody knocking down fences, I never saw anybody riding in closed areas. So I didn’t see the offenses they’re talking about. Obviously they exist, but they must be in such small numbers. It was never visible from any of the existing routes of travel in the park."

Thieda will admit that off-roaders have less environmental awareness than other park users. "It’s a bad mark on off-roaders, but I think a lot of them are Engine Eddies, and they don’t care about the environment. Those guys are my enemies too. They’re the ones who got the park closed in the first place." He says this type of rider won’t be attracted to the park if a permit system is in effect. “They’re the same kind of guy who has too loud of a muffler, no spark arrester, who doesn’t buy a green sticker [the registration sticker all OHVs are required to display). They’re the same ones who break park rules. That's where a permit system would come in — they’d have to go to the ranger station, and the ranger could check their green sticker and the condition of their vehicle. The permit system is going to keep those people away from the park."

And if the permit system didn’t screen out the "bad element" and damage to Anza-Borrego increased? "Then I’d say okay, close it. But I don’t think that would happen."

Mark Jorgensen doesn’t think many off-roaders are as conscientious or concerned as Thieda. "They’ve proven over the last decade that they are not responsible, that they’ll break the law, that they won’t stay on the roads," he says. He points out that ATCs are designed to be taken cross-country and says the temptation is too great for many riders to resist. “It’s a sport of individualists, of you versus your machine, and that precludes a group conscience. If they were off on foot, they would have to think about themselves and their place in the universe and be introspective, but they don’t want to do that. They just want to ride fast.’’

Individual riders like Mark Thieda may care about the environment, but Jorgensen feels off-roaders should be policing themselves as a group. While there is a volunteer dune patrol at Imperial Sand Dunes (of which Mark Thieda is a member), not enough of this type of self-policing goes on in the OHV community, according to Jorgensen. He doubts that even more peer-pressure efforts would help.

He tells of a recent incident in a canyon near Ocotillo Wells SVRA. Part of the canyon is open to vehicles, but the upper end is closed to protect a family of prairie falcons. "A green-sticker dune buggy decides to drive in past the closure sign and fiddle around. There’s a camper back in there, and they have a verbal duel. The camper takes down the guy’s green-sticker number, but he doesn’t want to file a complaint because the off-roader was so abusive. I don’t think bad apples like that can be contained by peer pressure. The group can’t police itself, even if it wanted to — the rogues are too independent.’’

Even more damaging to a view of off-roaders as nascent environmentalists is a visitor-use survey taken among OHV enthusiasts by rangers last spring at Ocotillo Wells. Thirty-three percent of the riders surveyed believe OHVs have no impact on the desert. When asked where OHVs should be used, 48 percent agreed with the statement, "OHVs should be operated on any public or private land not posted or fenced”; 22 percent agreed that "OHVs should be allowed to be used wherever users want to use them." While most visitors to Anza-Borrego cited passive reasons like “quiet and solitude” and "scenery and beauty" for coming to the state park, most SVRA users said they come to the desert "to ride." Only 15 percent of them listed enjoyment of the desert itself as a motive.

About half of the one million OHVs owned in California aren’t registered. “It’s like half the hunters in the state refusing to get hunting permits and then complaining that there’s no place to hunt,” Jorgensen says. (OHV registration fees, or “green-sticker" money, pay for acquisition of lands to be put into SVRAs.) If half of off-roaders break a basic law like registering their vehicles, Jorgensen suggests how can they be expected to obey a “road closed” sign?

Bob Ham questions the objectivity of the rangers' reports and surveys and says that most members of CORVA wouldn’t agree with the more “Neanderthal" attitudes expressed in the SVRA user survey. He also questions the amount of damage that actually happened in the park itself, maintaining that many of the scars now visible in Anza-Borrego were made before the land was part of the park. “Fifteen years ago, park acreage was about 400,000 acres," he says. "Now it’s up to 600,000. Bald Hill [a popular OHV area] was in private hands up until four or five years ago. Then the park acquired it, and they act as if it should have been treated as park land all along.”

Jorgensen replies that most damaged acreage described in the park's report on OHV use “has been part of the park for many decades. Most of the areas acquired since 1973 are inaccessible because they’re de facto wildernesses.” The Bald Hill area was indeed a heavily used OHV area on private property before it became part of Anza-Borrego, Jorgensen says. Then rangers started a rejuvenation program that was hampered by repeated illegal entries by off-roaders. “These were people who maliciously disobeyed the posted signs in that area, not people who just blundered into it,” he says.

Another ranger brings in a Polaroid photograph he’s just taken of ATC tracks running past a “road closed” sign in the park. The tracks were made the night before, and the ranger hoped to find the perpetrator still inside the park. Jorgensen holds up the snapshot and another photo of a park sign that has been twisted and run over. "You gotta wonder, do the users care about getting back in here? No. They’re doing it to spite us, but they’re really spiting the land. I see hatred. I see spite. I see frustration."

To the east of Ocotillo Wells, along a broad stretch of plain, the RVs and trailers begin to thin out. Numerous washes cut through the plain on their way to join San Felipe Creek and the Salton Sea, and a low ridge runs parallel to Highway 78 on the north. Beyond the Salton Sea are the Imperial Sand Dunes, where thousands of off-roaders gather on winter weekends. And beyond that, to the east and north, lie millions of acres of open desert. It’s a good spot for people who like to ride fast.

The SVRA will soon be tripled in size to include this area, which is currently held by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The 25,000 acres the BLM is going to turn over to Ocotillo Wells are a drop in the bucket compared to the total of 12 million acres of desert the BLM holds in Southern California. Two million of those acres are set aside as wilderness study areas. OHVs are allowed on trails in most of the remaining 10 million acres, and 500,000 acres are completely open for cross-country riding. In addition, an unknown number of private holdings in the desert are de facto OHV areas. With these figures in mind, rangers and conservationists wonder why off-roaders are so desperate to reopen the 600,000 acres in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Mark Thieda offers a simple explanation of Anza-Borrego’s importance to off-roaders like himself. "It’s beautiful. That’s why it’s a state park. It’s very scenic compared to flat desert. There’s natural streams, springs. It’s one of the best areas in the desert." Thieda feels it’s unfair to force park visitors to buy dual-purpose motorcycles or even more expensive four-wheel-drive trucks and jeeps.

Jorgensen says he’s tired of hearing the "we can’t afford an expensive 4x4" argument. "You go down to Ocotillo Wells and look at what most of those people bring to the desert. You’ll see an RV pulling a trailer with an ATC for each member of the family." If they really wanted to see the desert for its scenery, he implies, it would be less expensive to pile the family into one 4x4, which could cover any of the primitive roads in Anza-Borrego as easily as an OHV. "If they wanted to get in so bad, they would find a way to do it.”

The California Public Resources Code states that “the purpose of state parks shall be to preserve outstanding natural, scenic, and cultural values." At the same time, the parks should be made "available for public enjoyment and education in a manner consistent with the preservation of natural, scenic, cultural and ecological values for present and future generations." Somewhere between those two statements is a balance of conservation and appropriate access. But there’s enough gray area left over for each side to maneuver comfortably.

There’s a common feeling among off-roaders that the rangers want to keep people out of the park. Down at the Burro Bend Café, Al Williams says, "The rangers just don’t want to go in there and patrol at all. They don't want anybody in there, then they don’t have to worry about anybody breaking the law."

Conservationists and rangers point to the California Public Resources Code and talk about the appropriate uses for a state park. "You're still getting back to the philosophy of what is a state park," Jorgensen says. “Would you want OHVs in Yosemite, going up to Nevada Falls? We don’t allow them in museums, in churches. Why allow them in a place as sacred as a park?”

Meanwhile, neither side seems to have learned from the other. Despite their rhetoric, off-roaders still seem to have no idea what the desert might be good for, except as a place to ride. And environmentalists seem to have the same stereotypical view of off-roaders that might have been more appropriate 20 years ago. The idea of walking more than a couple of miles in the desert is as alien a concept to off-roaders as the idea that ATCs can be used responsibly is to most environmentalists. Each side continues to see the other as the enemy, topping each other’s lists of "biggest hazards to the desert." Mark Jorgensen says, "In a lot of ways, I think we’re too far apart to listen to each other anymore."

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