San Diego Union Tribune

July 12, 2004

Use of dunes visitors fees to study flower widely criticized


WASHINGTON In the past nine months, every visitor to the popular Imperial Sand Dunes east of El Centro paid 70 cents for a park project they have probably never heard of.

It wasn't for new restrooms, improved campgrounds, more park rangers or better trash service.

It was to study a purple flower.

Visitors fees paid for a $900,000 report on the endangered Pierson's milk vetch, in part because California officials angry that President Bush wants to allow off-roading on more of the dunes are refusing to spend state money on the park.

In California, Colorado, Florida and elsewhere, the Bush administration is trying to open more federal lands to motorized recreation. In the Golden State, this has alienated state officials and jeopardized state money, requiring users to pay sometimes handsomely for items their taxes used to cover.

The odd result is that neither off-road enthusiasts nor conservationists are happy.

"This is a total misuse of fees," said Roy Denner, president of the Off-Road Business Association, which represents 350 companies in the off-roading industry. "They're being used for studies that could ultimately close down more of our recreational" areas.

Conservationists contend that fees create the misperception that the money should be used only for park improvements that will benefit off-road enthusiasts. They say the more lands that are opened up, the more taxpayer or fee money will be needed for park improvements, accessories, maintenance and repairs for the damage done by motorized vehicles.

"One of the problems with (fees) is it leads some groups to feel they have special ownership over national public lands," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity who is concerned about a Bush administration plan that would allow off-roading on 50,000 acres of dunes previously closed to protect the Pierson's milk vetch and other wildlife. "There are a lot of people who want to spend time on these dunes."

The dunes visitors fees a weekly fee of $25 per vehicle or $90 for a season pass are part of a test program Congress started in 1996. Since then, the fees have proved to be a cash cow for agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the dunes. This year, Congress is debating whether the government should charge the entrance fees permanently.

The 160,000-acre dunes, also known as the Algodones Sand Dunes, are a relatively easy drive from San Diego, Los Angeles and Riverside counties. They are the most popular off-road recreation area in the Southwest, attracting 1.3 million visitors last season and netting the U.S. Bureau of Land Management nearly $4 million in visitors fees.

Last year, the bureau conducted an environmental study of the milk vetch, a spindly, purple-blossomed member of the pea family that has been given "threatened" status under the federal Endangered Species Act, and paid for most of the study with visitors fees.

The bureau intends to spend a similar amount of money on milk-vetch studies in the next three years. A spokesman for the bureau said he did not know if visitors fees would pay for those studies.

"We recognize the concern among the off-highway enthusiasts who want to see their fees go to things they feel are important to them," said Greg Thompsen, acting field manager for the bureau's El Centro office. "But we felt this was something we needed to do."

Thompsen said the bureau used a small amount of federal money on the study, but he could not say how much. He said the bureau relied primarily on visitors fees in part because the state no longer sends money for the dunes.

At one time, California's Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission was sending up to $1 million a year to the bureau for dunes projects. Early last year, the commission withdrew funding, accusing the agency of poor management of the dunes.

"I think it goes to . . . environmental concerns about the area, and there is some concern about . . . opening up" more land to off-roading, said Daphne Greene, the commission's deputy director.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, was not happy that the bureau is relying on visitors to pay for things the state used to fund. Hunter has a plan in Congress to prevent the government from spending visitors fees on "biological monitoring."

"This is not what Congress envisioned . . . when we established" the fee program, said Hunter, whose plan was included last month in a House-passed spending bill.

The bureau's proposed management plan for the dunes would scrap an agreement involving the bureau, off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists that set aside 50,000 acres to protect the milk vetch, the desert tortoise and other fragile wildlife. The plan, released in May 2003, would reopen this land to off-road vehicles, with limits on the numbers of vehicles in the area at a time.

The plan won't be final unless the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules that it won't harm the milk vetch. Environmentalists believe the Fish and Wildlife Service is reluctant to come to that conclusion.

Bush also is trying to open federal lands and waters to snowmobiles and personal watercraft. The administration has reversed a Clinton-era plan to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The National Park Service is considering lifting a ban on personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis, near the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi and Florida.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service unveiled a proposal that would limit off-road vehicles to designated roads and trails in federal forests and grasslands in an effort to provide consistent restrictions.