Remember the two sisters who were slapped with $275 tickets for hiking in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area during the government shutdown?
As it turns out, they were in pretty select company.
The Bureau of Land Management issued just five such tickets during the 16-day closure, one of which went to the driver of a vehicle that tried to enter the scenic loop through the exit, despite a prominent warning about “severe tire damage.” On top of four flats, that misguided motorist received a citation from the federal government.
Kirsten Cannon is spokeswoman for the bureau’s Southern Nevada district, which takes in 3 million acres and includes Red Rock Canyon, the busiest BLM site in the nation with more than 1 million annual visitors.
She said law enforcement officers tasked with patrolling Red Rock after the gates were locked Oct. 1 were directed to “educate and seek compliance in respect to the law and closures due to the shutdown.”
“If an individual was outside those parameters, they were to be dealt with by officers on a case-by-case basis,” Cannon said.
In the case of Gina Borchers and her sister, Donna Kanehl, a ranger stopped them while they hiked near the Red Rock visitor center Oct. 5 and wrote them each a ticket for “creating a nuisance” by entering a closed area.
Borchers, 55, admits she saw the sign posted at the entrance to the scenic loop, but she talked her 53-year-old little sister into crossing under a locked gate because she assumed the closure applied to the visitor center and the parking lot, not the trails through the desert.
The women plan to return to Las Vegas to contest their citations in federal court, though they haven’t been given a hearing date yet.
“I am hoping that I will be able to establish a defense based on the uniqueness of the situation,” said Borchers by email from her home in San Clemente, Calif. “I mean, really, I am not the only one who saw an ambiguous sign and still proceeded with hiking ‘outdoors’ in the wild.”
Cannon, who spent the shutdown on furlough, said the BLM issued a total of 48 citations within Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area between Oct. 1 and Oct. 16. All but eight of them were for traffic violations — illegal parking, speeding on state Route 159 through Red Rock and the like. Three were for camping outside approved areas and five were for violating the closure order.
Law enforcement rangers across the Southern Nevada district also handed out 121 written and verbal warnings during the shutdown, Cannon said.
The totals were higher at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which sees roughly seven times as many visitors than Red Rock Canyon does each year.
Lake Mead spokeswoman Christie Vanover said rangers from the National Park Service handed out 12 citations to hikers, cyclists, motorists and fishermen who violated the closure order at the 1.5 million acre recreation area east of Las Vegas. Another 435 verbal warnings and 100 written warnings were issued during the shutdown.
After her story first appeared in the Review-Journal, Borchers said she was contacted by CNN and the NBC Nightly News. When she didn’t answer a call from for a local newspaper in Southern California, she said the reporter “camped out” at her work.
Two different Las Vegas lawyers called her to offer their services free of charge.
She said the experience has changed the way she looks at law enforcement officers. “Previously, I just assumed if they said someone was guilty, they were. Now, I’ll always wonder about the other side of the story,” she said.
Cannon declined to comment on the specifics of Borchers’ case. All she would say is this: “We believe, based on the evidence, that we we will prevail in court.”
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. You can find him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.