All-terrain tumult

Times Staff Writer

IN a highly critical audit, the state auditor charges that a division of the California Department of Parks and Recreation has failed to properly plan for more off-road vehicle parks and has misused funds paid by riders of dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel-drive trucks.

The audit, which was prepared at the request of San Diego County lawmaker State Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), focuses on problems in the department’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division over the last few years. The division collects taxes and manages eight parks, from Rancho Cordova to Borrego Springs.

State Auditor Elaine Howle concluded that division managers did not develop long-term plans to expand or add off-road parks. She also found money collected from off-road vehicle users was spent on projects that did not directly benefit them, although the state parks department disputes that. The report was released Aug. 17.

Off-road vehicle advocates say the findings confirm their suspicion that officials in Sacramento have neglected the increasingly crowded dirt-bike parks and ignored complaints from riders.


“We’ve been wronged pretty often,” says Ed Waldheim, president of the 5,000-member California Off-Road Vehicle Assn. Waldheim and other off-road riders say state officials and environmental groups are biased against them because they consider the vehicles harmful to wildlife habitat.

“They look at us like we are the abusers, but we are environmentalists ourselves,,” says Val Henry of the California Assn. of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs.

Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the parks and recreation department, acknowledges many of the problems identified in the audit. He says they began during Gov. Gray Davis’ administration but are now being remedied by division Deputy Director Daphne Green, whom Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed in June 2004.

“This report provides an instant laundry list of what she [Green] doesn’t have to investigate and what she can jump right in and fix,” Stearns says.


Yet the audit exposes other troubles in the program, not the least of which is the fact that the seven commissioners on the governing board of the Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Division were unable to reach consensus in response to the findings.

The state’s off-highway vehicle program was launched in 1971 to provide state lands for off-road vehicle enthusiasts while protecting natural and cultural resources. The program is funded with gas tax money, registration fees and entrance fees to the state’s off-highway vehicle parks. The budget for this year is $49.2 million.

But off-road enthusiasts say, and the audit confirms, that the state has failed to add enough land to keep up with growing demand.

The number of users at the parks has more than doubled in the last decade to about 3.8 million annually. The state’s newest off-road vehicle recreation area -- Heber Dunes, a 343-acre park in Imperial County -- opened in 1998. Five of the parks opened in the 1970s.

As a result, riders complain of crowded conditions and long commutes to reach the parks.

“They haven’t opened enough of these parks,” says Jeff Biggs of Santa Barbara, who recently took his family riding at Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreational Area near Gorman.

The audit says that the state has not gathered the information needed to plan and design new parks. Stearns says the data should be collected and analyzed by January.

Meanwhile, he says, the state is considering opening two new off-road vehicle parks -- an 11,000-acre site near Bakersfield and a 7,200-acre parcel near Riverside. The audit says the Riverside park will cost $27 million for 600 acres.


The audit also says the state spent $3.6 million last year in off-highway vehicle funds on public lands not designated for widespread use of motorcycles, ATVs and four-wheel trucks.

For example, the state spent some of the money at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Although that is not an off-road vehicle recreation area, Stearns says the expenditure is justified because Anza-Borrego has 420 miles of dirt roads where people ride motorcycles and street-legal four-wheel-drive trucks.

The audit recommends that the Legislature clarify the law regarding spending of off-road vehicle money on lands that don’t allow off-highway vehicles.

Morrow, who requested the audit, says he will press the department to remedy problems identified in the document.

“I assure you that this audit will not be forgotten,” Morrow says.