When you’re the underdog slugging it out every day in the trenches for your cause, it can be hard to know when you’ve had a win.

Especially if that “win” comes with a suggestion of criminal charges.

But after reading a report by the Kern County sheriff’s off-highway vehicle (OHV) unit about illegal riding along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I have to say I think the folks who’ve been complaining for years about illegal riding have really made a difference.

That’s not how they see it.

In fact, one woman complained to me on Facebook about the report, calling it disheartening and frustrating. (Plus the criminal charges thing, which I’ll get to.)

Like I said, when you’re in the trenches, things often look bleaker than they do to an outsider.

To me, the report was impressively thorough and revealed a number of positives.

First, and most important, illegal riding on the PCT appears to be vastly reduced from years past.

Second, the sheriff’s OHV unit has really upped its game against illegal riding:

  • New training for all deputies so they know the laws and what’s needed for successful prosecution of illegal riders.
  • Regular communication, coordination and joint patrols with other federal and state agencies that also oversee the PCT.
  • Use of helicopter and fixed-wing patrols, hidden trail cameras, hidden GPS trackers and more.

Third, the unit devised a brilliant way to keep actual eyes and ears on the PCT by surveying those crazy PCT “thru hikers” — people who hike the entire 2,600 miles. (See sidebar.)

Frankly, I was impressed by the report and the many ways sheriff’s deputies have come up with to try and protect this remote area with few resources at their disposal.

I know that won’t sit well with the folks who run ORV Watch Kern County who feel sheriff’s deputies pooh-pooh their concerns.

I disagree.

The Oct. 18, 2016, report, presented to the state Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission in November and brought to my attention in December, shows an ongoing, diligent effort by Kern’s OHV unit not only to follow up on specific complaints but to also get an overall idea of the scope of illegal riding.

The report concluded that while there is some illegal riding on the PCT and surrounding areas, the problem is not as large as has been reported.

Hence, the recommendation is to keep resources at current levels.

Resources include about $135,000 in grants from the state commission, which pays for equipment (the aforementioned sneaky GPS stuff plus dirt bikes and other equipment) and officers’ time to cover major weekend camp/ride events, joint patrols and special investigations.

That’s a lot of effort, much of which was driven by complaints from ORV Watch Kern County.

Which I think is a major win for the group.

But here’s where that criminal charges thing is throwing dirt on what could be a great partnership.

That October report includes information about two instances in which reports of illegal riding appear to have been exaggerated, one in 2011 and the other in 2015.

At the Nov. 4 meeting, some commissioners asked if “something” could be done about such “false” reports. They mentioned possible restitution for the time it took officials to investigate the reports.

And the issue of criminal charges was brought up.

Sgt. Steve Williams, projects coordinator in the OHV unit, told commissioners he had looked into charges but didn’t have enough information to make a case before the statute expired.

That lit a fire under Mesonika Piecuch, executive director of ORV Watch Kern County, who sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking for an investigation of the Sheriff’s Office for “misusing State of California OHV Grant money earmarked for reining in illegal off-road abuse, to fund a three-year criminal investigation of our group.”

That’s not how I read the report.

Still, I asked Williams if it was wise to have included the bit about “false reports” in his document, which otherwise was chock-full of solid information about all the ways deputies investigated dirty riding on the PCT to come to its conclusion.

“To say those reports were false or inaccurate, that’s not my opinion,” Williams said in his just-the-facts-ma'am manner. “That’s what the evidence is. I have department heads in my agency and in other agencies who need to know what the credibility is of the people involved in this issue.”

I would also note that Williams got consensus from his counterparts in the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the state parks service that reports of massive illegal riding on the PCT have turned out to be overstated.

It’s not an individual attack, Williams said of his report.

“My job isn’t to be for or against either side. My job is an independent fact-finder,” he said. “I’m disappointed (Piecuch) finds it difficult to work with us in the way we need her to work with us.”

What the OHV unit needs is lots of facts, including exactly where someone is riding, what direction they were coming/going, what they were riding, what they were wearing, license number if possible, etc.

Which is all outlined on the ORV Watch Kern County website, so Williams gets frustrated as well when Piecuch and her group neglect to provide that information then complain that the Sheriff’s Office refuses to punish lawbreakers.

“To make a case stick, I need to be able to get on the stand and say I know where they were, I have the GPS location and I have personally verified it.”

In fact, Williams was able to cite four bikers for illegally riding on the PCT earlier this month after getting all that information and more.

That information didn’t come from ORV Watch Kern County (see sidebar).

Williams also made a visit to the home of another rider he was able to identify from trail cam photos on ORV Watch Kern County’s Flickr page. He may not be able to make a citation in that case, but he said he can give him a warning and use the opportunity to educate the biker about staying off the PCT.

ORV Watch Kern County folks may not feel any of this is enough, but it seems to me the Sheriff’s Office is making a large effort in a needle-and-haystack situation.

If the goal is to reduce illegal riding, and by all accounts it has been reduced, I say that’s a win.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or lhenry@bakersfield.com. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.

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