JAWBONE CANYON — You'd think the prospect of having the state buy around 20,000 acres of prime off-roading lands in this hilly area of eastern Kern County, for the specific purpose of keeping those lands open for off-roading, would get a big, fat "YAY!" from the off-roading crowd.
Not so much.
More like a small "yay..." but with a whole lot of concerns.
We're talking about the Jawbone Canyon/Dove Springs area, along the west side of Highway 14 about 20 miles north of Highway 58.
Most of the land out here is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.
The 50 parcels being looked at by the state are the old Onyx Ranch formerly owned by the Rudnick family. The ranch was sold to ReNu Resources, LLC, owned by Renewable Resources Group, in 2008.
The parcels form a checkerboard with the BLM lands.
OK, back to the concerns.
It boils down to the fact that we're talking about the State of California (cue Darth Vader theme music).
The state isn't exactly known for its free-wheelin', live-and-let-live attitude toward regulating various activities.
Off-roaders, and others, fear that if the state buys the land it will manage it with a heavy hand. They envision closed off-road trails, tight restrictions on rock hounding, equestrian activities, camping and outright bans on grazing, hunting and target shooting.
Tut, tut, was the state's response to all those fears. The state hasn't even bought the land yet, I was reminded.
If (and it is kind of iffy right now) the lands are purchased by the state, that will trigger a long, detailed management plan process that will include all interested parties, I was told by several folks in the Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation division of California State Parks.
Off Highway Commission Chairman Paul Slavik and Deputy Director Chris Conlin both sang the praises of state ownership and management.
Besides keeping the land from being sold for wind or solar development, they said, a state purchase would also bring money, people and expertise to truly enhance the area.
That's exactly what isn't needed said Ed Waldheim, president of Friends of Jawbone, a private, non-profit organization that has managed the trails in Jawbone, Dove Springs and other riding areas for the Bureau of Land Management and private land owners for many years.
"We don't need more bathrooms," said the plain spoken Waldheim. "We don't need an SVRA type attitude out here. This is a very unique area."
An SVRA is a state vehicle recreation area. The state has eight of them, such as Hungry Valley.
Waldheim described the state as extremely restrictive in how it allows people to recreate. No hunting, target shooting, very limited trails and even some rock hounding is prohibited, he said.
Indeed, the department's environmental documents on the possible purchase say that while current activities would initially be unhampered by a state purchase, things could change in the longer term, particularly in regards to grazing. The documents say but rock hounding also would be limited.
Right now Jawbone Canyon has open and limited use areas that Waldheim and his team of 25 employees keep a close eye on.
In the open areas, people can ride pretty much anywhere, even up a number of hills that he said the state has already told him were "unsustainable." Waldheim said that issue has been litigated and court rulings have allowed the hill climbing.
In the limited use areas of Jawbone, riders are kept to specific trails and Waldheim's crew is out daily fencing off and replanting any illegal trails that seem to pop up overnight.
"They're like the Taliban!" he said of illegal riders.
Illegal riding is the bane of Waldheim's existence and, in fact, the only reason he would like the state to buy those private chunks of land.
"We don't need them to manage the place, but we need them for law enforcement," he said.
Both Slavic and Conlin of the Off Highway Commission said they envision working with the BLM to provide needed enforcement and to open up more recreational opportunities, not squeeze people out.
"It will mean more trails, more single track, which they don't have there now, and it would be better managed for the environment," Slavic said of state ownership.
Conlin said the state would develop a memorandum of understanding with the BLM on how to manage not just any lands the state might purchase, but BLM lands in the area as well. And, he said, the state would continue partnering with Waldheim's group for trail upkeep.
None of this is new, he said, noting the state has similar partnerships with the BLM and non profits at its SVRA in Ocotillo Wells near Borrego Springs.
Such assurances were met with disdain by Waldheim, who likened the state's plans to a dirt bike park.
Either way, the management debate may all be moot.
The state, which has set aside $32 million for Jawbone, has made two rounds of officers to ReNu Resources, which Conlin said have not been well received.
The state made its most recent offer before the holidays.
"But ReNu doesn't like those numbers," Conlin said. "We can only negotiate so far. This is taxpayer money and we can't outbid fair market value."
Ari Swiller, president of Renewable Resources, had a different perspective.
"We have no offer in front of us," he said. "We are interested in doing something with the state, it makes a lot of sense, but right now, the ball's in the state's court."
We'll have to see if that's where it stays.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail email@example.com