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Endangered Bakersfield cactus threatened by off-road recreation

The hikers gathered at 7 a.m. Wednesday at the southern reaches of Hart Park.

Before long they were walking uphill into the washes, canyons and carved hills that rise dramatically to the south. They intended to explore not only the beauty but the trash, vandalism and clear evidence of fat tires grinding out new dirt trails where no trail should be.

"This area is the start of the state's reserve for the Bakersfield cactus," said Eddy Laine, who works with variety of groups to enhance Hart Park and to protect and preserve natural habitat around the park and beyond.

"It looks like it hasn't received any protection for a long time," Laine said, looking around at off-road trails that appear to be multiplying and increasing in size.

"There has been a tremendous increase in off-road use in this area," he said. "It's open season."

Erin Tennant, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, helps manage the reserve in the hills and bluffs just southwest of Hart Park.

Tennant was not able to join Wednesday's 3-mile trek into the hills, but she spoke via phone about the difficult job of protecting what's left of this native cactus species, whose habitat once stretched for miles across much of the southern valley.

"Not a lot of people know about the Bakersfield cactus," Tennant said.

And that may be part of the problem at the reserve designed to protect it.

"We've been seeing the same issues for years," she said.

As soon as a new fence goes up, it is cut and dragged to the side, or ripped from the sandy soil clearing the way for motorcyclists, quad riders, and even larger vehicles.

Signs on the vandalized gates and stretches of fence that still stand announce the property is an ecological reserve and make it clear that off-highway vehicles are not allowed.

"These are not mountain bike tracks," Laine said. "These are dirt bike tracks."

One cluster of cacti clearly showed the path of a fat tire cutting across it.

Another endangered cactus was smashed by a vehicle whose driver intentionally cut from one path to another inside the state cactus reserve.

"Is it deliberate?" asked Tennant. No one knows for sure, but the damage was done by a rider who clearly rode off already established trails.

It's not just the cactus reserve that prohibits motorized trail bikes and other OHVs.

Geoffrey Hill, chief general services officer for the county of Kern, said such use is also prohibited on county land south of Hart Park.

"We are definitely concerned about the impacts from overuse and/or misuse," Hill said in an email. "Our rangers routinely patrol the areas frequented by OHVs.

"There are enforceable (county) ordinances that we use to cite offenders," he said. "Last weekend, we performed a directed enforcement operation to focus on the trailhead area behind the Sheriff's shooting range. We made contact with several OHV'ers and wrote citations for illegal use on park land. We also had some offenders that did not stop and we are unable to catch them due to the limitations of our vehicle fleet."

But park rangers may have new off-road equipment on the way.

"We have applied for grant funding for new OHV equipment, vehicles, and training," Hill said.

The grant funding is managed by the Parks and Recreation Commission.

As the hikers passed various native plants growing in the area, one of the group, retired botanist Denis Kearns, was able to identify each species.

While Kearns didn't excuse off-road users for riding in the cactus reserve, he noted that the terrible condition of the fencing and signage would make it difficult for anyone to figure out the boundaries of the protected area.

"With the lack of signage, if I was a mountain biker, I wouldn't know exactly where I am," he said.

Indeed, county-owned land is in close proximity to the state-owned reserve — and privately-owned property also abuts the area, making it difficult to know who holds authority in any given location.

Bill Cooper, co-founder of the Kern River Parkway Foundation, said the foundation is very concerned about deteriorating conditions and vandalism in the area.

"Fences have been destroyed numerous times, signs ruined, protected plants run over," he said. "No government agency has any kind of resource management plan for the area."

In a Zoom meeting held Monday between several interested parties, Cooper and others suggested that the agencies come together to figure out a more effective enforcement plan.

Most agreed that, without effective enforcement, new fencing and signage will not work.

Many of the off-roaders have a sense of entitlement, said Stephen Montgomery, another activist who has been working with the county on Hart Park improvements.

But it's also true that this cluster of hills and washes has been a de facto recreation area for Bakersfield residents for decades. It seems all the owner entities have failed to restrict access over an extended period to this area that has become a OHV playground.

Good luck changing that mindset.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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