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For Riders of Dunes, True Grit--and Risk

Times Staff Writer

There are no speed limits, no age limits and no roads across these sands.

Formed by ancient Colorado River delta sediments fanned out across the desert floor, the area is also known as Glamis, after the nearby town, or the Algodones Dunes. The 200 square miles of wind-sculpted ridges, bowls and flatlands undulate from the Chocolate Mountains south to the Mexican border.

They are among the most popular -- and most deadly -- places in the nation for riding off-road vehicles, particularly on holiday weekends in winter. Seven have died so far this riding season, which runs from October through April. It is the highest toll at this point in the season in the memory of coroner’s officials here.

More than 30,000 people show up on an average three-day weekend, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area and has been aggressively seeking to expand off-road access here. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, some 200,000 people arrived, more than the regular population of surrounding Imperial County. With the New Year’s weekend approaching, local authorities fear more deaths.

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Riding the dunes is universally described as rib-bruising, exhilarating and terrifying. On a busy weekend, a bewildering array of vehicles -- collectively called “toys” by riders -- crowds the sandy slopes: souped-up golf carts, dune buggies, four-wheeled “quads” and sand rails, which look like a cross between a go-kart and a Formula One racer.

“It’s scary.... It’s adrenaline-soak time,” said Eric Tomlinson, 28, of San Diego, gunning his Banshee four-wheeler and swirling out of sight over the lip of a slope at Osborne’s Overlook on a recent Friday.

“People die at Glamis,” said Alan Wilson, 38, of Surprise, Ariz., who said he witnessed one of the five deaths that happened over Thanksgiving: A young man on a motorbike collided with a high-powered sand rail after he had turned his head to wave at a camping area.

“He wasn’t watching where he was going,” Wilson said. “It definitely put a damper on things.”

Also killed was a 5-year-old boy: His father hit a steep “razorback” ridge in their truck and rolled four times, throwing the unbelted youngster headfirst around the cab. His parents were charged with felony child endangerment for driving him and two other children with no safety belts, said California Highway Patrol Officer Robert Gonzalez. Several law enforcement agencies police the dunes during big weekends, with the CHP handling violations of the motor vehicle code.

Despite the risks, Wilson said he would continue to come and ride, mainly because off-roading is a family vacation for him and his teenage children.

He and others said law enforcement has tightened in recent years, with strict helmet and warning-flag policies in place.

On a recent December weekend, hundreds of families caravaned in motor homes and tents along Gecko Road, which runs along the western edge of the dunes. They zoomed across the cinnamon-colored slopes by day, then huddled companionably around campfires at night as temperatures dipped into the 30s.

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“Oh, it’s so fun, when you live in California and you’re used to all the traffic, to come out here,” said Sharon Fernandez, 29, of San Diego. She has been visiting the dunes with her father since she was 8. Now he rides a dune buggy with her son.

Three generations of Van Ostendorps -- grandfather Bart IV, father Bart V, and son Bart VI -- enjoyed a three-day trip with a dozen other relatives from California and Arizona.

“It’s most fun when you’re on the verge of death and serious injury,” joked Bart V, 30, of Mesa, Ariz.

Off-roading advocates and some law enforcement officials say there is risk inherent in any sport. But safety advocates argue that manufacturers of all-terrain vehicles are increasing the risks by selling large, powerful machines for use by children who cannot handle them.

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“ATVs are not toys. They are incredibly fun, and they are incredibly dangerous,” said Sue Rabe, a founding member of Concerned Families for ATV Safety, a national network of people who have lost children in off-roading accidents. “My son asked for an ATV every year for Christmas.”

Eventually, the family bought one. Three years ago, Kyle, her 10-year-old, was “tootling along” in his ATV with a close friend when he hit a bump going downhill on a rutted dirt track in Oregon. His four-wheeler flipped and landed on him, killing him instantly -- two weeks before his 11th birthday.

“I had no idea how dangerous these things could be,” Rabe said.

An average of 130 children die annually on all-terrain vehicles, and more than 47,000 are seriously injured, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Those numbers do not include dune buggies, off-road trucks or dirt bikes.

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Increasingly, the machines are getting faster and more powerful. Some sand rails now pack up to 500 horsepower and retail for as much as $100,000. Off-road motor sports last year were a $4.8-billion business, trade publications say.

Two of this year’s fatalities occurred when motorcycles or dirt bikes hit sand rails. In both cases, the rider of the bike died.

The Consumer Federation of America, a national advocacy group, is pushing for federal rules that would ban the sale of heavier, adult-size ATVs for use by children under 16. Four states -- not including California -- have similar laws.

Bob Mason of the American Sand Assn., an advocacy group for riders, opposes the idea. “I don’t need the federal government telling me what to do in that area. You just need to be aware of your kids’ capabilities.”

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Mason argues that a large part of the problem stems from the closure of half the dunes by court order to protect imperiled plants and animals.

“The numbers of people have gone up, and ... you have loss of usable area that has compacted people into a tighter area,” he said. The sand association has fought for wider off-roading access at the Algodones Dunes and removal of federal protection for the Pierson’s milk vetch, a tiny plant classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Environmentalists, safety advocates and some locals vehemently disagree. They say there is still plenty of room at the dunes and that the closure -- along with two years of steady rains -- has helped species like the milk vetch rebound.

“They might have a point if they were being squeezed into small areas, but they’re not. They still have more than 100 square miles,” said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued in 2000 to have the dunes managed better.

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He and others blame poor management by the U.S. Interior Department and the BLM, which do not limit the number of visitors and are seeking to reopen portions of the dunes.

“People die and endangered species die at this place,” Patterson said. “It is directly related to the Department of Interior’s and BLM’s failure to properly manage the dunes.”

BLM officials say they have fought hard to curtail lawlessness at the dunes and that there are fatalities every year, not just this year. Though the deaths are tragic, they say, in general the dunes are far more family-friendly than they were in 2000, when a stabbing and a fatal shooting occurred, and a ranger was run over.

But, said Gary Taylor, a BLM staffer in charge of environmental compliance at the dunes, with the number of people who come here to ride, some problems are inevitable. “Every time you jam 200,000 people into an instant city, you’re going to have deaths,” he said.

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