IMPERIAL SAND DUNES — A growing number of off-road enthusiasts are getting steamed over what they call heavy-handed law enforcement practices by federal rangers in the popular Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.
An online petition that began last month has drawn more than 1,300 signatures and more than 800 comments, all with the same theme: Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officers in the area that locals call “Glamis” are out of control, rude and thuggish.
BLM officials acknowledge they have spoken to more visitors this season as part of a crackdown designed to combat drunken driving and illegal drug use in the area. But they say their officers are professional and friendly.
Lance Ricotta, a commercial pilot and Yuma resident who has been going to the dunes for years, started the petition and is trying to get people to listen.
“Everybody calls it Nazi Germany in Glamistown,” Ricotta said.
“It’s gotten to a point where there are a lot of people who simply won’t go to the dunes anymore or they choose to go on off weekends. It seems to be really, really bad on holiday weekends.”
The majority of complaints allege officers conduct random stops of vehicles and subject drivers to lengthy interrogations. Others complain that rangers pull into camps where motor homes are grouped, and then go to each vehicle, checking registrations and looking for anything that can be ticketed.
“It’s as if they’re just fishing,” Ricotta said. “There’s a lot of animosity. Nobody wants to see these people. Nobody wants to be around them. They are treating everybody like second-class citizens. When you get pulled over by a police officer you should be treated with respect. These guys have no respect.”
Thomas Zale, the BLM field manager for the El Centro office, said Friday he has confidence in his officers and believe they act professionally.
“I’m proud of the work that our rangers do on the ground,” he said. “They are our most visible group of employees to the recreating public. They are the face of BLM.”
He acknowledged that a decision was made at the beginning of this season to step up enforcement this season, which runs Oct. 1 to April 15. In cooperation with the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department, the push was designed to crack down on alcohol and drug violations, fee compliance, and closure enforcements, he said.
Zale forwarded a letter on the BLM’s law-enforcement philosophy that included statistics showing the number of visitor contacts made by BLM rangers over the first three holiday weekends of the current season increased dramatically compared to the same time period the year before.
Most people, including San Diego County residents by the tens of thousands, visit the dunes between Halloween and Easter. It’s simply too hot the rest of the year to enjoy the desert, and even Easter is pushing it.