By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

Off-road vehicle damage in Tolowa Dunes State Park has steadily worsened in the last six months, raising concern among conservationists, tribal members and park employees.

Off-road vehicles are the single most destructive source out here, said Dick Goss, recently retired from a 20-year park ranger position at the Dunes.

The coastline affected is roughly 3,000 acres from Point St. George almost to the mouth of the Smith River. There have also been instances of people taking their vehicles to the edge of Lake Earl and doing brodies in the mudflats. They just denude everything for the most part, said Goss.

The rare sanddune phacelia, or pioneer dune plant, a low-growing silvery-leafed plant, that is one of the first to establish a foothold in the harsh environment of the coastal dunes, is struggling to survive. Its entire range is isolated from Southern Curry County to Point St. George.

European beach grass, an introduced invasive species has spread throughout the dunes, choking out native plants. The few islands of native plants remaining are being trampled by off-road vehicle tires because they are easier to maneuver over.

The ancient sand dunes are probably the most sensitive habitat in Del Norte County because there is no soil. Plants are hanging on by their teeth, said Goss, as he made his way through the golden waves of beach grass towards a large dune scarred by tire tracks.

For thousands of years, several large Tolowa village sites have been situated along the coastlines of the current state park and descendants regularly visit the grave site inland from the dunes. The tribe is concerned with how some off-road vehicles are potentially impacting native plants and cultural resources that lie extensively along the coastline, said Laura Mayo, environmental programs director for the Smith River Rancheria.

Besides botanical and cultural concerns, wildlife populations have also been affected. The habitat of the Oregon silverspot and the Yontocket ringlet butterflies are in jeopardy, says Alan Barron, a local ornithologist who has focused on the dune and lake areas for a majority of his 20 years here. The butterflies feed on violets that grow in the inland-meadow areas, which too have been torn apart by tires.

Snowy plovers, which once nested in the sand, have not been seen in the Tolowa Dunes area in over 10 years. The last nest I saw was in a truck-tire track, said Barron of his last sighting in 1988. The burrowing owls that once made their homes in old burrows of ground squirrels are also gone.

Reaching the base of Castle Dune, named for its steep pointed peak, Goss shakes his head with disgust. This is 1,000 percent worse than it was a year ago. There is no way to get out here without knowing its wrong. Signs that clearly label boundaries are posted every quarter-mile or at every illegal access point.

The area used by motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles looks like a BMX racing track or a moonscape where the only plant life is on the edges of the manmade trails. Goss said it takes plants six months to regenerate in such terrain, if left alone. But every time he returns he only finds more damage.

A lot of them dont know they are doing damage but a lot them dont care, said Goss.

Although rangers are designated to the dunes region, they cannot be everywhere at once and Goss says there needs to be more assistance with patrols.

Off-road vehicle users argue that this is the only area from Blue Lagoon in Eureka to Bandon where dune beaches are accessible for riding. Those concerned with preserving the dunes are not opposed to riding along the beach but would like to see a designated area where riding could be centralized.

I am strongly in favor of an organized effort to get patrolling out there. Its getting worse, said Barron.

Recently five signs were destroyed throughout the park and will take time and money to replace. Someone came through methodically, said Goss.

We need to have a presence out there. We need to try to make it easy for stewards to report, said Eileen Cooper, chairperson for the Friends of Del Norte. Her group is trying to establish a campground host at the end of Kellogg Road., a starting point for many with off-road vehicles. She would like to see community support for additional signs in the area, volunteer patrols and distribution of dune information. We hope we can get a handle on this, said Cooper.

The Smith River National Recreation Area in Gasquet has maps of areas set aside for off-road vehicles. People interested in becoming a steward of the Tolowa Dunes can call 465-8904.

You have to hit a happy-medium, or nothing ever works, said Dick Goss.