Wayward riders

Rick Fischer's job these days is to keep people out of California's newest nature preserve. And he's having a tough time doing it.

Fischer is a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. And the people he's after are dirt bike riders and all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts who routinely cut through the barbed wire surrounding the giant Potrero Creek preserve.

Only a few minutes earlier, a man driving a blue van had pulled up to tell Fischer that he'd spotted about a dozen riders roaring over the hills that make up the 9,117-acre conservation area, one that bears the scars of motorcycle abuse. And the majority of that damage has taken place since the state took over the property last month from Lockheed Martin Corp.

"Look what they're doing to the habitat," said an exasperated Fischer. "It's an epidemic out here."

Bikers come here because it's close to the population hubs of Southern California. The preserve is just south of Interstate 10, adjacent to Beaumont, a rapidly expanding Riverside County community.

For many years, Lockheed used the land to test jet engines, and there are scars from that as well, with more than 500 acres of contaminated soil where chemicals were routinely dumped.

But most of the preserve is in excellent shape. There are cottonwoods and willows and a small pond that fills up in the winter rainy season. There are bobcats, deer and quail. The Wildlife Conservation Board estimates that the land will serve as habitat for 30 species of concern, including the Stephens' kangaroo rat.

Lockheed bought the land in the 1960s, and negotiations with the state to buy the huge tract began about 10 years ago. Lockheed eventually offered to sell for $25.5 million, along with agreeing to clean up the contaminated acreage. The state took possession of the preserve in early January, using federal, state and county funding to finance the deal.

And that's when the dirt bike problems got serious as word spread that the land no longer was under Lockheed's control and that the 24-hour security had ceased.

"They think it's their right to be on the land," said Lt. Tom Stenson of the Fish and Game department.

But word is spreading that authorities no longer are in a mood to have the land ruined by the motorcyclists who ride the backcountry.

In one recent weekend, wardens issued almost 40 tickets to dirt bikers, from trespassing to habitat destruction. The crackdown rankles off-road riders, who feel they've been squeezed off open land even as their sport grows. Ed Waldheim, president of the California Off-Road Vehicle Assn., called it "pushing the envelope."

"They're going to continue to use it," he said. "You can't close off the riding."

Enforcement is "going to be woefully difficult until we find a legal place for the riders," said Tony Perez, chief of the off-highway motor vehicle recreation division for California's state parks.

Fischer, meanwhile, patrolled the preserve on a February afternoon, showing where the green hills had been denuded and where yellow police tape had been stretched across gaps where the fences had been cut.

"These guys are desperate," Fischer said. "They want places to ride, but there's no place to do it."