County called to mediate Glamis access feud

A Union Pacific railroad track intersects with Highway 78 and separates Glamis from riding trails to the east. Photo by Brett Miller.

IMPERIAL COUNTY — Hundreds of thousands of off-road enthusiasts make the pilgrimage each year to the premier Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area (ISDRA), more commonly known as Glamis. But frustration among both local and visiting riders has been brewing since 2009 when a popular route connecting Glamis to desert trails to the east was closed off. Tuesday morning (March 28) saw representatives of the sport request the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to intercede, warning that the sport’s economic stimulus on the Valley’s economy, an estimated $100 million a year, could be negatively impacted.

While supportive of efforts to make access between the two areas available, the Board was hesitant to get financially involved.

“We are not the site control agency,” warned Supervisor Ryan Kelley. “It’s not our jurisdiction. It is a federal issue.”

The pass connecting the two recreational areas is referred to as Wash 10, and was originally intended to allow storm water to pass underneath the railroad that runs along the east of Glamis. However, the wash was deep and wide enough to allow vehicles to pass, and the Union Pacific Railroad closed Wash 10 to vehicle access in 2009 to avoid liability. However, Wash 10 and a handful of other now-closed points along the tracks provided the only access points between the west and east sides of the track from Highway 78 to Ogilby Road, a 17-mile stretch.

Additionally, off-highway vehicles (OHV) by law are not permitted to drive on highways. If someone wants to ride on the other side of the tracks, they must load their OHV onto a trailer, cross at the highway, and then unload the OHV on the other side.

Over 5,500 signatures have been collected in support of reopening Wash 10.

“It’s not just here in the Valley. If you talk to anybody that has to deal with the railroad, they have an answer to every question, and it’s ‘No’,” said Bob Ham of the American Sand Association (ASA) in regards to petitioning Union Pacific to permit improvements for OHV. Ham also said U.S. Border Patrol agents faced the same access dilemma if they saw contraband smugglers on the opposite side of the tracks.

Supervisor Raymond Castillo supported taking action, and meeting with the railroad company.

“What I would like to see is the Board press the Union Pacific to do something about it,” he said.

Union Pacific is willing to reopen Wash 10 on the condition that the County takes the lead on the construction and operation of the pass, as well as be held responsible for any liability. Initial estimates put the construction of Wash 10 to meet minimum requirements for vehicle use at well over a million dollars. Supervisor Ryan Kelley was hesitant to have the County make substantial financial investments into such a project.

“In regards to the County taking on ownership, site control, any improvements and any liability associated with that, I do not want to see that happen. We didn’t create the problem, and we should not be owning the problem,” Kelley said.

“It’s something we can’t take on right now,” admitted Imperial County Executive Director Ralph Cordova. “Frankly, we’ve been in this battle with Union Pacific for some time.”

As a temporary solution, Nicole Nicholas Gilles, executive director of the ASA, presented the Board with a proposal to widen Highway 78 at the railroad crossing and install barriers parallel to the road, allowing off-highway vehicles to use the crossing safely.

A train crosses Highway 78, the suggested location for an off-highway vehicle crossing. Photo by Brett Miller.

Nicholas Gilles also shared a personal account. While camping near the railroad, her dog wandered over the tracks, and Gilles ran after her pet, crossing the tracks in the process. The alternative, she said, was unreasonable.

“Seventeen miles is a really long way to not have any safe, legal access,” said Nicholas Gilles.

Off-road recreation in Imperial County has long been seen as an economic boost, especially during the winter months, as travelers purchase fuel, food, supplies, services, and lodging. The County estimates 500,000 people visit the Imperial Valley each year to ride at Glamis, Superstition, and other popular locales. According to a 2008 fiscal analysis, OHV enthusiasts spend well over $100 million dollars in the Valley during the busy season of October to May. During that time, the most conservative estimates list Brawley as the biggest winner with $72.6 million spent by visitors in town, with El Centro ($47.2 million) and Blythe/Palo Verde ($16.3) following.

In accordance, the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office provides considerable resources to the management of the Glamis area. In addition to personnel, the County has invested in off-road vehicles to aid in patrols.

“The Sheriff’s department has twelve four-wheel drive vehicles, six quads, three sand rails,” Cordova explained. “They also have dedicated mobile command center that they take out on particular weekends.”

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a general policy in support of safe OHV use and encouraged access between recreational areas.