Off-roaders call a traveling exhibit showing the Algodones Dunes prejudicial


PALM DESERT - The pictures show the beauty of the sculpted sand dunes and the scars left behind.

For decades, the Algodones Dunes have lured off-roaders. The steep, wind-swept dunes on the edge of farmland in the Imperial Valley rise up to 300 feet from the desert floor. The dunes are the largest in California.

A color photo exhibit on the Algodones Dunes now touring the United States has come to the Coachella Valley. There are pristine desert and off-road areas with tires tracks running like a giant spider web. The 17 photos on display at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert are the work of Andrew M. Harvey, a 39-year-old photographer from Venice. It's an exhibit with a message. Harvey teamed with conservationists. It's sponsored by the Center For Biological Diversity, Desert Protective Council and the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition.

Environmentalists love it. Off-roaders are incensed.Harvey says, "All I'm asking is for people to look at the truth. The truth is off-road vehicles tear up the dunes." He says he's not against off-road vehicles in the desert altogether. "But I am opposed to sacrificing an ecosystem for recreational activity." But the president of the California Off Road Vehicle Association is upset by the photo exhibit. "I've seen that display before and it's despicable," Ed Waldheim said. "It's sensationalism at its worst." Environmentalists badger off-roaders about using open desert for their sport, Waldheim said. "We have a legitimate right to use these lands. Why doesn't he go and make pictures of some of the tracks left by tanks at Fort Irwin or any other area where the desert is used."

Off-road vehicles are now allowed on 69,000 acres out of 118,000 acres at the Algodones Dunes, said Stephen M. Razo, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management in Riverside. It's part of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area about 160 miles southeast of Riverside near the tiny community of Glamis. Riding in off-limits areas is not a serious problem now, but there are violations and citations, Razo added.

At the Living Desert this week, Sylvia and Richard Moher of New Hampshire stopped by the Discovery Room to see the photographs. Sylvia Moher studied pictures showing where off-road vehicles had left trails and said she opposed the practice. "I wish they were never invented," she said. "If I had my way, we would all be driving little electric cars." Her husband added, "They need a place to ride, but not in the wilderness. It should be a restricted area."

Off-roading sport defended

Greg Gorman, national media relations director for the 20,000 member American Sand Association, an organization that favors off-road recreation, calls the photos inflammatory and propaganda.

Off-roaders care about the environment, too, he said. Their sport is a great family activity, and their association started a program of flying checkered flags on the dunes to support law enforcement. Off-roaders fly flags and sign a pledge saying they will pick up their trash, obey all rules and report major violations. They will also assist officers who need help in a remote area. The photo exhibit has been three years in the making.

Harvey started backpacking into the Algodones Dunes for overnight stays while shooting pictures. Harvey became aware of the dunes after hearing about Competition Hill, an area where many off-roaders come to practice their sport. At one point, Harvey talked to biologists and then went on a hike with the Center For Biological Diversity, which has filed lawsuits involving environmental causes in the Inland area. What once seemed like an almost lifeless desert came alive for the photographer as biologists pointed out plants and animals living there, he said. Harvey also began noticing miles of rutted tire tracks left by off-road vehicles."Those were very strong images," Harvey said. "It left a pattern as far as my eyes and lens could see." Harvey says preserving the environment is one of the most important tasks facing the human race. He quotes Pablo Picasso: "Artists cannot remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake." "I approach my artwork that way," Harvey said.

Dunes History

The Algodones Dunes are among the oldest in California, dating back thousands of years. Scientists believe that beach sand blowing off an ancient lake created the dunes. Prevailing winds continue the process today. Three plant species live only on the Algodones Dunes: Peirson's milkvetch, Sandfood and the Algodones Dunes Sunflower and one species of inspect, Andrew's scarab beetle, said Terry Weiner, conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council. American Indians first inhabited the dunes, crossing between the ancient lake and the Colorado River. Early explorers such as Juan Bautista de Anza and later, the Southern Pacific Railroad, detoured around the dune system. During the 1950s and up to 1964, the U. S. Navy used portions of the dunes as a range for exploding practice bombs, shells and rockets. The dunes run for 40 miles and are about five miles in width. The recreation area also attracts hikers, rock hunters, bird watchers and campers. Weiner of the Desert Protective Council would like to see the dunes promoted as an eco-tourism spot where people can see nature up close.

"It's a rich place that deserves close attention," Weiner said. "People stopping, looking and listening."