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Off-road users upset by new fees | But federal officials say additional money is needed for upkeep

Caitlin Rother

25-Dec-1998 Friday

Local residents who go off-roading every year in the Imperial County sand
dunes aren't doing wheelies about new fees that will go into effect Jan. 1
at the federal recreational area.

"A lot of people are so upset they want to rip the (fee collection)
machines out of the ground," said Justin Cole, 25, a San Diego Off-Road
Coalition board member from El Cajon.

Like Cole, some of the 37,000 other people who have registered their
off-road vehicles in San Diego County say they don't understand why the
federal agency needs more tax money to keep up the area, south of Glamis.

After all, they say, it's basically just miles and miles of sand and
they're already being taxed to use it.

"How much more money do they think they need to maintain that land?" said
Tim Mathews, 30, of Chula Vista.

Mathews and Cole pointed out that some of the $21 "green sticker" fees they
pay the state Department of Motor Vehicles every two years already go to
maintain the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.

But officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management say the sticker
money isn't enough to make necessary improvements. Roads need to be graded
and facilities need to be added for recreational-vehicle users who want to
camp, they say.

Earlier this year, the agency contracted with a vendor to install 18
machines similar to ATMs around the dunes area, where users will be
required to buy a weekly pass for $10 or a yearly pass for $30.

Bureau officials project that the fees will bring in $900,000 a year.
Proposals for use of the money include:

* Building 28 vaulted toilets for $420,000. That's $15,000 per toilet.
They're expensive, officials say, because they have to withstand extremely
hot and cold temperatures. They will be serviced only once or twice a year.

* Installing $100,000 pumping stations where recreational vehicles can
dump their "black water," or human waste. Existing facilities are often
full, officials said.

* Laying down 100-square-foot camping pads, at $50,000 apiece.

Don Amador, chairman of the state's seven-member Off-Highway Motor Vehicle
Recreation Commission, said he is "cautiously supportive" of the fees.

He said his board agreed to support the new fees on the condition that a
technical team would evaluate spending proposals with input from local

"I'm fairly confident that whatever they do out there will be
semi-cost-effective because of the involvement with the local user
community," he said.

Amador said he's hoping to see "better restroom facilities and things like

Jesse Tacata, 40, often caravans from his home in Chula Vista to the Dune
Buggy Flats, which will remain free to users. He said he is worried that
the new fees will drive people out of the Glamis area into the flats.

"It will make it more crowded and also a little more dangerous," he said.

Cole has been going to the dunes since he was 8. He lives and works in El
Cajon, which he contends is the off-roading capital of the world because of
the number of related businesses there.

He not only objected to the way the federal agency went about instituting
the fees, he also raised concerns about the lack of competitive bidding for
the contract.

"It's been a nightmare since day one," he said.

BLM spokesman Mark Conley said that Universal Parking of Scottsdale, Ariz.,
got the sole-source contract because the bureau didn't know of any other
agency that made the fee-collection machines. Universal also is under
contract with the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

Conley acknowledged, however, that another company that makes the machines
stepped forward in October.

Under the two-year contract, Universal will receive a varying percentage of
the collections to offset the cost of installing the machines. The company
will receive 50 percent of the first $300,000, 20 percent of the next
$300,000 and 15 percent of any amount above that.

The arrangement was made to save federal tax dollars, officials said.

"If we did not contract this out, the start-up costs would be something
like $580,000," said BLM spokeswoman Carole Levitsky.

Bureau of Land Management fees for off-road vehicle users

New user fees for the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area will go into
effect Jan 1: Weekly: $10 Yearly: $30

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.