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Curbing off-road recreation
Asbestos, rare plants threaten freewheeling bikers in the Clear Creek Management Area
Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Hollister, San Benito County -- If there is a Garden of Eden for off-road enthusiasts, it might be the Clear Creek Management Area, about 50,000 acres of dirt-bike bliss 55 miles south of Hollister.

A rambling expanse of Western-style badlands, Clear Creek is a type of public-use area that has become increasingly rare in crowded California.

You can scramble a dirt bike over hundreds of miles of old mining roads; you can camp pretty much wherever you want. You can shoot a wild pig and roast it over a campfire, bring your dog, gather firewood, dig for gemstones and drink beer -- activities that are prohibited in many places are, with the proper permits, perfectly legal here.

But as in Eden, it appears that new information could bring an end to, or at least lead to limits on, the freewheeling good times at Clear Creek.

The barren landscape that makes Clear Creek so attractive to off-road drivers also allowed rare plants to evolve here, including the threatened San Benito evening primrose, which lives nowhere else. Yet the soil that nurtures the rare primrose is laced with naturally occurring asbestos -- and may prove to be an unacceptable cancer risk for humans.

"The plants love (the soil). These special-status species thrive on that kind of mineralogy," said Lynn Suer, an environmental scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "But the conditions are not so great for humans."

So after decades of nearly unlimited access, off-roaders could face restrictions aimed at protecting the rare native plant and, possibly, reducing exposure to toxic dust at the site. Many of them, however, suspect the real motivation is to put the kibosh on their fast, noisy, adrenaline-powered sport.

"The land available to off-road recreation has been shrinking since the '70s," said Ed Tobin, spokesman for the Salinas Ramblers Motorcycle Club. "The agenda of the environmental lobby is to eventually eliminate off-road vehicles from public land altogether. They are using plant species as a surrogate."

The land use conflict at Clear Creek poses a knotty problem for the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency is charged with allowing full public use of Clear Creek, which has boomed in popularity over the past two decades. At the same time, it must comply with environmental laws, and in the case of toxic substances at the site, it has to balance health risks with the public's right to access.

The increased traffic -- an estimated 50,000 visitor-days last year, the vast majority of them off-road enthusiasts -- has drawn the wrath of plant biologists. They say the agency has failed to protect Clear Creek's rare flora from vehicle traffic.

"The California Native Plant Society has no desire to close all public lands to off-road vehicle use," said Emily Roberson, senior policy analyst with the society, which threatened to sue in March after an off-road event roared through wildflower habitat. "However, some areas are simply too fragile and too valuable to be exposed to ORV (off-road vehicle) damage."

Keeping vehicles out of plant reserves would also protect hikers from toxic dust kicked up by spinning tires, Roberson said.

"The dust is just as bad for wildflower watchers as it is for motorcycle riders," she said. "We want to use these lands, too."

In a 1998 plan, the BLM agreed that 4,000 of Clear Creek's 50,000 acres would eventually be set aside for habitat research and largely closed to recreational traffic. But the plan has never been implemented, and only 1,880 acres are currently off limits.

The BLM's slow pace has also drawn the threat of a lawsuit from the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group of off-roading organizations. The coalition, like the plant society, criticized the BLM for not protecting the plant habitat, but with a slightly different goal in mind.

"If (this area) is not protected, it's going to be closed," Tobin said. "It would be stupid for us to say we don't care about the primrose, because now it carries more weight than the needs of thousands of people who recreate out there."

In the long run, however, Clear Creek's unusual soil composition may be more effective at protecting the primrose than any lawsuit could ever be -- and could bring far greater restrictions on off-road use. This month, bikers clad in moon suits and breathing through respirators will be riding Clear Creek's trails, gathering dusty air samples for an EPA study that could have a dramatic impact on recreational use of the area.

Most of the free-floating asbestos at Clear Creek is the result of eons of erosion of exposed serpentine rock. Fibrous white layers of asbestos are clearly visible in exposed rock here, and in some places the mineral constitutes up to 50 percent of the soil content.

The presence of asbestos, mercury and other valuable minerals has long been known in the Clear Creek area, which was mined throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. More than 50 abandoned mines, along with nearly all of the area's roads and trails, lie within an officially designated Hazardous Asbestos Area.

The agency warns visitors in the "red zone" -- so-called because the area is prominently outlined in red on trail maps -- to avoid kicking up or breathing dust, and to avoid touching or drinking the water that runs through Clear Creek's eponymous but misleadingly named waterway.

Government workers are required to wear respirators on breezy days at Clear Creek, and to decontaminate their vehicles, clothing and persons after every visit. Periodic chest X-rays to spot potential lung damage are also part of the routine.

In contrast, recreational visitors at Clear Creek ride motorcycles and dune-buggy-style contraptions with no protection at all for their lungs.

Many devoted riders believe the asbestos risk at Clear Creek is overstated, or that exposure can be minimized by riding when the soil is damp.

"I've had friends and relatives ride out here for 30 years, and they've had no problems," said Martin Schleich of Morgan Hill, out riding on a dusty March day with his 13-year-old son, Augustine. "I've heard that the asbestos out here is not harmful."

According to EPA Senior Science Adviser Arnold Den, chrysotile asbestos - - the type mostly found at Clear Creek -- is less potent than other varieties and has not been linked to mesothelioma, a rare and fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs or stomach. But it is firmly linked to lung cancer and asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that can result in slow suffocation.

Currently, no one knows how much asbestos dust an average rider might inhale during a day of off-road riding at Clear Creek.

In a 1992 report, the BLM estimates that 5 of 100,000 average Clear Creek visitors will develop cancer as a result of their asbestos exposure there.

But a previous study, performed for the BLM in 1978 and published in a peer-reviewed journal and as a textbook, measured asbestos levels as much as 84 times higher than those measured in 1992.

Den and his EPA colleagues hope to fill in some of the information gaps this summer by analyzing the samples gathered this month with electron microscopy. By enlarging samples 20,000 to 40,000 times, scientists will be able to determine both the number of asbestos fibers in the air and type.

"My job is to get good results so individuals can make an informed decision about their personal risk," Den said. "The policy-makers have to balance the risk and the enjoyment, which improves lifespan as well."

Nothing short of a discovery of extensive amounts of chrysotile asbestos, or the presence of more toxic forms of the mineral, will convince riders like Tobin to limit his recreation at Clear Creek. But new information about health risks might cause Martin Schleich to think twice about taking his son there to ride.

"If it is a health hazard," Schleich said, "I would want to know that."
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