Whistleblower claims environmental damage at Ocotillo Wells - San Diego, California News Station - KFMB Channel 8 - cbs8.com

State Parks whistleblower claims environmental damage at Ocotillo Wells

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OCOTILLO WELLS, Calif. (CBS 8) A California State Parks employee is blowing the whistle on what he calls widespread environmental damage at Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Environmental scientist Joe Hopkins said he has concerns about soil erosion, vegetation destruction, and non-enforcement of state environmental laws at the 85,000 acre off-road park.

Ocotillo Wells is the largest off-highway vehicle area in the State Parks system. Most of the park is designated as open riding area, meaning off-road vehicles can go pretty much anywhere.

That's a problem, according to Hopkins, who currently works for Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

"You don't just turn these hills over to the public and say, ‘Feel free to climb that; if there's 17 trails on that hill and you are not happy with them, make your 18th trail.' But that's what this administration has done," Hopkins said.

Hopkins filed a whistleblower complaint with the California Department of Justice and California State Parks in 2011, but never received a response.

"I think they should have at least investigated. We have no evidence that they have done absolutely anything," said Hopkins.

In some areas of the park, off-road vehicles are required to stay on designated trails; but Hopkins said that's not happening either.

"There are whole areas that have been denuded of vegetation, hills that are incised with cuts 10 to 15 feet deep, people going up and over hills where they have no business riding," Hopkins claimed.

News 8 reached out to local off-roading supporters, like Dennis Nottingham, president of the San Diego Off-Road Coalition.

"Our idea is to keep public lands open for the public, not just the off-roaders, but everybody," said Nottingham. "Sure, there may be a few less plants, but it's an off road park. That's what it was built and designed for."

Nottingham said his group pays fees that help fund environmental protection at Ocotillo Wells.

"There are areas closed due to sensitive plants, whatever the case might be, a lizard or a bug. But it's an off road park. You can't just close everything down," said Nottingham.

"The off-road park polices that real well.  If they see you disturbing a plant, you're going to get a ticket," Nottingham said.

Nine weeks ago, the state hired a new officer in charge, Ocotillo Wells District Superintendent Garratt Aitchison.

"For the folks who are concerned about resources out there, we're going to do our very best," said Superintendent Aitchison. "As we discover habitat or cultural sites that need protection, we're going to close those areas off, or we're going to reroute the traffic around them."

Aitchison said he's currently down four ranger positions but they take environmental violations seriously.

"It is enforced. It's something we can and will continue to enforce. We can improve. We can do better. And that's my goal," Aitchison said.

Ocotillo Wells is preparing a new general plan and environmental impact report that will outline regulations for future park use. More information is available on the Ocotillo Wells general plan web site.

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