Ten motorcyclists were arrested Saturday during a tense Mojave Desert showdown with federal authorities over cancellation of this year's Barstow-to-Las Vegas dirt bike race.
More than 100 angry dirt bikers, declaring themselves defenders of Americans' right to use the nation's public lands, joined in the protest on a wind-swept patch of desert about 25 miles northeast of Barstow.
Despite a brief shoving match between a demonstrator and rangers with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, there were no injuries, authorities said.
Four dirt bikers dressed in colorful racing regalia were arrested after they sped around a phalanx of federal rangers onto land the BLM had temporarily closed in hopes of discouraging an off-road protest ride through environmentally sensitive terrain.
One rider's bike stalled in the sand a short distance away. But the other three--thrusting their fists skyward in a victory salute--were chased about 40 miles across the desert by a San Bernardino County sheriff's helicopter before they ran low on fuel and stopped, BLM District Ranger Felicia Probert said.
The four--who face up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted of violating the BLM's land closure order--were identified as Rick Sieman, Wesley Holmes, Barry VanDyke and Patrick Martin. They were taken to San Bernardino County Jail in Barstow, where they were cited and released.
Five other bikers were arrested and cited for similar violations farther east of Barstow. And a 10th protester--Buena Park electrician Louis McKey--was taken into custody after he attempted to block a U.S. Army tank motoring across the closed lands from nearby Ft. Irwin.
"These tanks are doing more damage than a bunch of motorcycles," McKey, 59, yelled before being led away and handcuffed. "Our rights are being blatantly violated."
Dozens of other demonstrators, meanwhile, mounted their bikes and followed routes around the closed territory without interference from law enforcement officials.
"We came to ride, so we're gonna' ride," said Jim Smith of Laguna Hills, a member of a Christian motorcycle club. "Barstow-to-Vegas is an important event to us. It's a tradition. That's why we're here to make this statement."
The Barstow-to-Vegas race, first run in 1967, is considered the premiere amateur dirt bike race in the world, drawing 1,200 riders and thousands of spectators annually. Racers use dry washes, dirt roads and trails to travel the timed course, which stretches up to 150 bone-jarring miles.
Through the years, environmentalists have bitterly opposed the event, contending that the dirt bikes irreparably scar the desert and harm its inhabitants.
This year their complaints took on new urgency with the federal government's listing of the desert tortoise as a threatened species. In September, the race's sponsors announced they were canceling the event because they had lost hope of obtaining a federal permit.
That news sparked rumors of a protest ride. The BLM, fearing that thousands of angry, unmonitored bikers might encroach on the sensitive tortoise habitat, declared the traditional race routes and staging areas off limits to motor vehicles.
On Saturday, protesters began descending on the desert just after daybreak, some toting toddlers, others lugging home video cameras. Most had also brought their motorcycles, but a lineup of BLM rangers--supported by county sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers--discouraged widespread defiance of the closure order.
In interviews, protesters said the loss of the so-called "B-to-V" race is symbolic to them of a broader peril--the restriction of off-road-vehicle access to the desert.
"When I was young, there were all sorts of places out here to ride motorcycles," said Steve Webb, 30, a Van Nuys carburetor salesman. "Now the environmentalists have got us squeezed down to just a few places, and that isn't fair. . . . This is as much our land as anyone's."
Many motorcyclists also disputed arguments by scientists and conservationists that off-road vehicles damage the desert and endanger the tortoise. Webb said he has seen competitors in the race "stop their bikes, pick up a tortoise on the course and put it behind a bush."
"We're not the bad guys everyone says we are. We love the desert," said Jim Tarrant, 44, a mechanic from El Toro who brought his 8-year-old daughter, Kimberly, to the protest. "Things may look bad right after a race, but once you get a good windstorm, it's back to normal."
BLM officials identified the other five motorcyclists arrested Saturday as Lincoln Peirsol, Lance Polloreno, Lowell Webb, Lawrence Naston and Michael Whitcomb.