MORONGO BASIN — Illegal off-roading has diminished in the past four years, data from the county Sheriff's Department suggest.
"Other than little anomalies, we have seen a dramatic decrease in number of complaints from 2007 until now," Sgt. James Porter said last month.
Complaints about motorcycle riders in county areas went from 679 in the year 2007 to 227 last year — a decrease of about a third. In Yucca Valley, complaints dropped from 388 calls in 2007 to 140 calls in 2011. In Twentynine Palms, they went from 225 calls to 127.
Five years ago, it seemed off-roading through residential areas was the norm, Porter said. Today, the scene is different. "It's getting harder and harder to find people riding off-highway vehicles in dirt-road neighborhoods," Porter said.
He largely credits education programs that reach beyond the Sheriff's Department.
"Years ago, when the problem started, we had a huge number of offenders," he acknowledged. Most of them were people who had ridden in certain neighborhoods or on dirt roads all their lives, and didn't know it was illegal.
"We see less and less of that," Porter said. "There's been a massive education push; the Bureau of Land Management, local stores, community groups: At every angle you have at the local level, someone has done something."
The visibility of the sheriff's off-road enforcement team helps, too, he said.
A group of deputies who completed specialized training and use motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles, the team's members vary according to assignment and grant money. Right now, the team has five members.
"We do much more public-contact work now than we ever had in the past specifically with OHV abuse," Porter said.
"If we could educate everybody and get them riding where they should be riding, not in the neighborhoods, we would have a much more lasting impact," he explained. "So education is important."
Enforcement, on the other hand, has its limits, given the nature of this crime. "With most of the calls for service a deputy responds to, by the time we get there, the rider is gone. Even if it takes a deputy just two or three minutes to get there, the person could be two or three miles away," Porter said.
More often, the enforcement team happens on off-roaders who are riding on dirt roads or private properties. Most of the citations they write come from those contacts.
It's still important to report problem riders to the Sheriff's Department business line (not 911), he said, because the team patrols in areas where reports have been high.
Often, that's been the Yucca Mesa area, especially around Aberdeen Drive and Avalon Avenue. "When there's a lot of activity at Sunfair Dry Lake, we get calls surrounding there," Porter added.
The team is paid for with money from state OHV registration fees, funneled through a grant. The Morongo Basin sheriff's station competes with agencies throughout California for a share of the money, so the grant amount varies. This year, it's comparatively small - around $15,000, compared to around $100,000 in 2007. Porter thinks that could be linked to a decline in illegal OHV riding, and therefore public outrage.
"We've seen a wane in public interest. It's a competitive grant, and they really take in consideration the perceived problem in area," he explained.