Yermo Checkpoint Disrupts Traffic, Safeguards Produce

You know the agricultural checkpoint in Yermo is a pain in the ass. What you don’t know is it’s a necessary evil.

Photo by James Quigg

Photo by James Quigg

Whether you’re a Las Vegan hauling the family to Disneyland or a Californian heading home with a Sin City hangover, the agriculture inspection station in Yermo is anything but convenient.

On a weekday, it means briefly slowing to a crawl as you kick that banana peel farther under your seat. On a Sunday afternoon, it means an extra hour or two behind the wheel as you curse and resolve—again—to leave early next time.

But know what else isn’t convenient? Crazy ants.

If crazy ants tag along in a Colorado family’s potted plant, they can eat away the wiring in your home, cautions Greg Du Bose, manager of the California Department of Food and Agriculture checkpoint. If quagga mussels hitchhike on a boat from Lake Mead, they can choke local water supplies. And if Asian long-horned beetles commute from Chicago in a stack of firewood, they can devastate entire forests, further elevating California’s wildfire threat.

Having worked for 17 years at the remote desert checkpoint just north of Barstow, Du Bose knows full well that few people understand why it’s there. Foreign visitors often flash their passports, he says, while East Coast visitors have tollbooth change handy. Commenters on Yelp, who give the station one-and-a-half stars, complain of delays and report they’re always just “waved through.” One review reads, “A complete waste of time, manpower and taxpayer money.”

The State of California disagrees. Although recent financial woes limited hours at some stations and temporarily shuttered others—in recent years, the Yermo checkpoint was manned mostly only during peak driving times—the 2014-15 budget included an extra $3.1 million to keep all 16 of California’s agriculture inspection stations open year-round. Supporters claim that’s a bargain compared with trying to get rid of invasive pests and offsetting damage to valuable crops or waterways.

Photo by James Quigg

Photo by James Quigg

So long as there’s funding to staff the station, Du Bose insists, “Every vehicle that comes through here gets some sort of inspection.” That could be a visual check, with workers noting whether the license plate is from a state that’s home to harmful species. (Generally, vehicles from Nevada or California are waved through, while those with plates from states east of the Continental Divide tend to raise a red flag.) It could be a verbal check, with inspectors asking drivers whether they have any produce. Or, in the case of slow days and high-risk vehicles, it could mean a physical inspection.

Inspectors stand ready to search for everything from smuggled palm trees to out-of-state recyclables to illegal pet ferrets. On tables by their sides are blocks used to steady vehicles’ tires before inspectors peek under them. There are wrenches to pull plugs out of boats and bolt cutters in case a driver doesn’t have the key to a locked truck bed. There’s a pressure washer to knock mussels off boats. And in the nearby trailer, there’s a bee suit and digital microscope to quickly identify pests.

Commercial trucks take up most of the inspectors’ time. Some companies, including Walmart and Target, have compliance agreements in place so drivers don’t have to stop. Otherwise it can take hours to examine produce trucks, track livestock and complete paperwork.

But what about those of us passing through in our Priuses and PT Cruisers? What if we have a couple of apples in the ice chest or bought a bag of cherries at a roadside stand?

Contrary to what you probably believe, it’s not actually illegal to bring produce into California. Drivers simply have to pass through the checkpoint and, if asked, come clean about what they have and where it’s from. Inspectors may then want to take a closer look. If they find suspicious larvae in your orange or on those wildflowers you picked, you’ll have two choices: hand them over to be destroyed and continue on your merry way, or be banished back across the border.

If you’re caught hiding produce or plants, inspectors can write citations that could result in fines, but they aren’t law enforcement and they can’t detain anyone—even if they find a truck full of cocaine. That’s when they call the California Highway Patrol. In fact, CHP officers and sheriff’s dog teams occasionally stand with inspectors. The San Bernardino County Fire Department also runs operations in Yermo, and a Fourth of July sting this year resulted in $126,250 in fines to drivers who tried to transport 10 tons of fireworks, with three people getting arrested.

Photo by James Quigg

Photo by James Quigg

And that’s not even the craziest of stories. There was the time a driver handed an inspector a bottle of vodka and said, “Can you hold this for a minute?” There was the time extreme winds blew the inspection station’s roof onto a Yukon rented by an Australian family. Then there was the man who told an inspector he had bombs in his truck speakers. No bombs were found, but the freeway was shut down, and the man was arrested for making terrorist threats.

Those instances aside, the routine can get tedious, so inspectors occasionally try to lighten the mood. When drivers ask inspector Michael Percy how far the rain goes, he likes to respond, “All the way to the ground.” Once Du Bose greeted an elderly couple by saying, “Welcome to Mexico.” The wife promptly slapped her husband and said, “I told you you were going the wrong way!”

The location of the checkpoint is a bit puzzling. Yermo is 102 miles from the California/Nevada border. Though drivers can be cited and potentially fined up to $2,500 if they bypass an inspection station, online forums offer up a number of alternative routes to avoid the delays.

Consequently, a new dual port-of-entry checkpoint has been planned for six miles south of Primm for nearly 30 years. The station will include both a commercial vehicle weigh station run by the CHP and an agricultural inspection station.

Photo by James Quigg

Photo by James Quigg

Funding questions have continually delayed the $71 million project, but the CHP launched construction of its portion in December. The weigh station is expected to open in late 2015, Caltrans spokeswoman Terri Kasinga says. As for the new agricultural checkpoint, it’s on the books, but there’s no time frame yet for when construction will begin. If and when it is completed, Du Bose says about a third of his staff will move there with him, while the rest will likely be hired out of Las Vegas. What will then become of the Yermo station, which has plagued drivers, safeguarded California crops and waterways, and marked the halfway point between Las Vegas and Los Angeles since it opened a half-century ago? It will return to the desert.

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