Cover Story by Marie Gravelle Riders in the sand
by Marie Gravelle
Two young spanish-speaking tourists got out of their car on the north spit of Humboldt Bay, pulled on their backpacks and turned down a wide dirt path. They were met by a huge metal gate with warning signs blocking their way.
"A la playa?" they asked. To the beach?
"No, you can't go in there," came the polite, but firm reply from a member of a North Coast dune buggy club. Standing near his pick-up, the off-roader pointed to several signs.
"This is not a public access. It's private property. You have to go somewhere else," he repeated.
After a lot of arm waving and confusion, the tourists left in search of something called "public access."
They had hoped to hike through a coastal dune forest, past the Mad River slough and onto the open sand. They could have seen giant, windswept dunes rolling across land owned in part by the Bureau of Land Management. Or they could have photographed the rare Menzie's wallflower growing on the parcel just to the north owned by The Nature Conservancy. They might even have looked across a fence onto the carefully managed, world famous Lanphere-Christensen Dunes Preserve.
Last year they could have done all these things.
But ownership of a critical parcel of land changed hands about a year ago and access to adjacent public lands has been virtually cut off.
The new owners of this important land link are members of the Humboldt Buggy and ATV Association. Not only have they cut off access to the beach, they're breaking at least one law - and possibly more.
Club members, several of whom were ticketed last month for riding ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) outside a designated area, are continuing to ride on their new parcel in violation of an ordinance passed last year by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.
And just last month county officials flew over the parcel to photograph what once looked like a trail, but now looks like a road (see photo, page opposite). Cutting through dune vegetation, the path was allegedly widened to accommodate dune buggies and other off-road vehicles.
County planners and neighbors are wondering about permits, the ones that weren't filed. No private property owner can build a road - or even place a gate - in the coastal zone without permits from the county. Property owners also have to have permits from the California Coastal Commission.
But the issues of dune riding and road building are not what's causing an angry public response. It's the issue of public access.
"We used to take our family there," said Liz Murguia, spokeswoman for state Sen. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. "It makes me crazed. I can't believe they're able to do this."
How this parcel came to be owned by the dune buggy club is very much part of the controversy. As one club member explained it, "I guess when the big dogs fight, us little puppies can just hang around and get the scraps."
In this case, the "scraps" is a prime 160-acre piece of real estate, complete with a trail system that led to two public parcels of land. The public lands are 112 acres of beach and dunes owned by the BLM and another 113 acres of beach-front property owned by The Nature Conservancy. Part of the Lanphere-Christensen Dunes Preserve, the Nature Conservancy parcel was purchased with public money through the state Coastal Conservancy.
The "big dogs" are various public agencies, including the county, the Coastal Conservancy and BLM; private organizations, such as the non-profit Nature Conservancy; and the timber giant, Louisiana-Pacific Corp.
L-P is the former owner of the 160-acre buggy club parcel. The company stunned public and private agencies last year by selling the parcel to the dune buggy club after such vehicles were banned by county ordinance.
Prior to the sale, L-P had worked cooperatively with the Nature Conservancy and the Coastal Conservancy to provide kiosks, maintain trails, build a parking lot, construct a "public beach access" sign on the highway and even install a privy - all on L-P land. BLM was also involved in the effort and joined in on a Cooperative Management Agreement (see page 18) that allowed the federal agency and others to improve the property by removing non-native lupine bushes, fencing off fore dune areas and providing protected space for several threatened plant species.
The jointly owned area, called the Mad River Slough and Dunes, was spotlighted in a national book as one of the 100 or so prime wildlife viewing spots in California.
"You don't see forested dune like that anywhere else," said Mark Wheetley, projects manager for the Coastal Conservancy. "It provided a unique coastal experience."
During the time the trails were open, county leaders were working on a Beach and Dune Management Plan. Partially funded by the Coastal Conservancy and the state Off-Highway Vehicle Commission, the plan was intended to protect the dunes by solving environmental and safety problems related to increasing vehicle use.
"Vehicles don't belong on public beaches where people are picnicking," agreed Dave Rocha, outspoken member of the private buggy club. While there hasn't been a pedestrian/vehicle accident on local beaches, the sheer number of vehicles is a growing threat to other beach users.
As the county plan progressed, it became evident to Rocha and others that an overwhelming anti-ATV sentiment existed. The county plan was finally approved in June 1994 after five years of studies and hearings. When the Board of Supervisors voted, only Supervisor Anna Sparks, who now works for L-P in its Ukiah office, voted against the plan. (Sparks declined to comment for this report.)
"The sentiment was 9-to-1 against ATVs on the beach," said Supervisor Julie Fulkerson, whose district covers the beach area.
The plan, which covers 3,460 acres of coastal dunes and wetlands, running 26 miles along the coast from the mouth of the Mad River south to Table Bluff on the South Spit, left buggy riders fuming.
ATVs were officially banned from the entire North Spit except for portions of a 300-acre dunes park at the tip of the north spit on BLM land and a 40-acre parcel near the current buggy club's land (see page 19).
It was at this time that Supervisor Sparks, a supporter of the buggy club, stepped in to help. She approached L-P with an offer from the club to buy the parcel, and that offer was accepted.
"(Sparks) brought the ORV group to us when they realized the property was for sale," said Bill Windes, a spokesman for L-P.
At the same time, the county-approved plan banning ATVs was en route to the California Coastal Commission for approval. It was at a CCC meeting in San Francisco that buggy club members surprised the audience by announcing the purchase.
Why did L-P sell to the off-roaders? It's true the company had been allowing ATV use on its dune property for years, yet letters show company officials were considering selling the property to The Nature Conservancy in light of the pending ATV ban.
"L-P was full of mixed messages," one county official said. "The right hand didn't know what the left was doing."
The Journal asked Blade Fry, an L-P controller who was subsequently fired, why he accepted the buggy club's offer on the parcel.
"Bill Windes brought this lead to me," said Frye, who now works for another timber company in Washington state.
But L-P officials may have had other reasons for agreeing to the sale. Observers inside and outside the company said neither L-P chief Harry Merlo nor General Manager Bob Simpson were happy with indiscriminant all-terrain vehicle traffic on L-P lands. By selling that particular parcel - which is prized by buggy riders for its giant, steep dunes - L-P could then cut down on ATV traffic on its other lands, including those near its Samoa offices.
L-P officials also had hoped to swap the parcel with public agencies as mitigation in a plan to build a dock on Humboldt Bay, but that plan was scraped.
Simpson declined to discuss the controversial sale, although at the time of the buggy club offer, he informed The Nature Conservancy and accepted a back-up offer from the group. But when the buggy club came through with a down payment, Simpson told others he was committed to the deal.
Rocha was ready. He gathered a $50,000 deposit and his group agreed to pay another $175,000 in the next five years with L-P financing the sale. To raise the money, the club now charges members a $1,000 initiation fee and several hundred dollars a year in dues. With a membership totaling "100 families," Rocha said a majority of the members live out of this area.
When the sale was announced publicly, club members were widely quoted as saying they were aware of the ATV ban and they just planned to "picnic" on the property. Today, they simply say the land is "private property."
"Why don't they just leave us alone?" Rocha asks.
But the public isn't likely to leave him alone. Sen. Thompson's office is being flooded with calls from those who worked to pass the county plan and its off-road restrictions. Non-club ATV riders are complaining, too. They wonder why the plan applies to them and not to the private club members.
While Rocha said he "hates" the uproar, he's not backing down.
"Don't give me your ordinance (prohibiting ATV use)," Rocha said in a recent interview. "It's not that we're going against the government, but the hearings (leading to the final county plan) were poorly run. It was a disgusting situation."
It's now a stand-off between county leaders and the buggy club. The Humboldt Coastal Coalition held a news conference several months ago announcing that beach patrols were needed, and asking the local sheriff for help.
Sheriff Dennis Lewis, citing budget constraints and a loss of OHV commission funds due to the beach closure ordinance, said he can only "intermittently" patrol the beaches. And as for patrolling the private property, a sheriff's deputy said he doesn't have the permission of the property owners themselves.
"I have no instructions to go on their property," Sheriff's Deputy Tim McCollister said. He was out over the Memorial Day weekend, usually a time when ATVs con-centrate on beaches. McCollister cited 16 people (at $50 to $250 a piece) including four buggy club members, for riding illegally in closed areas.
The buggy club members were caught while riding on the wet sand, racing from a 40-acre parcel where riding is allowed, to their new 160-acre parcel, where riding has been banned.
"One of the club members told me that some of them are going to choose to run the gauntlet," McCollister said. And chances are, most will not be spotted by intermittent patrolers like McCollister, who added he is "real unpopular" on the beach.
The fear of fines may have been the reason why club members allegedly widened a trail into a road through their own property from the parking lot to the dunes.
County officials say they are in an "enforcement mode" now and plan to investigate the road. The Coastal Commission may get involved and fines are a possibility. Coastal Conservancy members are also concerned, since that agency funded the management plan preparation, trails, kiosks and other improvements.
Local agency officials, attorneys and administrators seem to be shaking their heads, unsure how to get the buggy club to comply with the new county law.
As dune activist Frances Ferguson said, "The riders have essentially created a barrier around themselves so their illegal activities cannot be observed.
"And they've cut off traditional public access to do that."
In the meantime, the trail closure cannot be blamed entirely on buggy club members. The trail was closed the day after the transfer of property because the Cooperative Management Agreement was not part of the sale.
Without a CMA, there is no insurance. Without insurance to cover foot traffic on the trails, the buggy club refused to allow even walkers.
Andrea Pickart, who manages the Lanphere property, which lies adjacent to the buggy club, was the one who actually terminated the cooperative management agreement that existed between BLM, L-P and her group.
"The real issue here is not who terminated (the agreement)," Pickart said. "If the ATV club's activities were consistent with our values, if they refrained from riding on an area that has been identified as inappropriate for riding, then we would be interested in pursuing a public access agreement."
Holding state and federal agencies hostage, Rocha hinted that "maybe they should get out their checkbooks" and the club would sell.
The feud runs deep, and the situation gets more complicated by the day. It's most likely headed for the courtroom, one place, at least, where public access won't be a problem.
Lanphere-Christensen Dunes Preserve - Creation of the preserve began in 1973 with a conservation easement of 133 acres. The Nature Conservancy, a private organization, has used private funds and public money from the state Coastal Conservancy, to purchase a total of seven parcels with a combined acreage of 473.
Restricted access affects most of the preserve. However, a 1987 purchase, funded by the Coastal Conservancy, of the 113-acre "Fernstrom-Root" property, adjacent to the buggy club land, is open to the public without restrictions.
ATV Club Property - 160 acres purchased in 1994 from L-P for $225,000. Another 40-acre parcel slightly south, used as an unloading area, also purchased by the club last year. According to a county ordinance, no riding is allowed on the 160-acre piece but riding is allowed on the 40-acre parcel.
BLM Manila property -112 acres acquired a few years ago in a land swap agreement. Managed as public land open to the public, it's adjacent to a private gun club and buggy club properties. Riding had been allowed until the county beach plan banned ATVs from this parcel.
BLM Samoa Dunes Recreation Area - 300 acres at south end of North Spit. Established about six years ago on public property, the recreation area is advertised in many buggy club magazines and flyers. While some areas are fenced off, others are open to riding and the area is one of only two legal riding areas on Humboldt County beaches.
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