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Long overdue

It's time for the community to do something about the dangerous dunes



It's long past time for the powers that be to corral the outlaw mentality at our local Dunes of Death, aka the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area.

I'm not sure they want reform, though. Their reaction to the recent carnage is the same "look the other way" mentality that has long dominated at the dunes, despite dunes users' many transgressions.

In fact, it's becoming evident that the powers that be share that outlaw mentality.

The most recent bloodletting began on April 26, when a woman in an off-road vehicle hurtled over a 30-foot dune vehicle and died. The ATV was traveling the treacherous, shifting sands at 60 miles an hour, according to press reports, and had a child on board. The child survived.

A week later another man died while trying to pump his ATV brakes at the top of a dune cliff that he clearly hadn't anticipated. He went over, and his vehicle landed on him.

Then came the shooting on May 4. An impromptu late night "concert," booze, weapons, five people shot, one man arrested.

Official statements haven't said much about this or other tragedies other than the message that is always written between the lines of their press releases: "Move along folks, nothing to see here."

The people in charge of letting the rest of us know what's going on at the dunes routinely tell us to, well, pound sand. When something bad happens, it's all just another day at the dunes. Ho hum.

The off-road vehicle playground has been in the news in recent years because of lung problems off-roaders create for nearby residents. Sand blows off the beach into their homes, and the vehicles make it worse by breaking up the crust and liberating more particles.

That's a problem, all right. But the more sinister health hazard always has been the behavior of the off-roaders themselves and the mayhem it has led to. Since the turn of the 21st century as many as 20 people have died on the dunes, and hundreds if not thousands have been hurt.

The fact that little to nothing is done about it flows directly from attitudes about the park.

There has always been a rogue vibe to our local off-road area. It is not like other parks that you can safely take your children to—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Kings Canyon. The off-roaders give off a "we're going to do what we want, and if you don't like it, buzz off" vibe.

There's a class element at play here. The park is known as "the redneck riviera," a place where people from Bakersfield and Fresno come to play.

They don't want anyone interfering with their jollity, and they view the locals who object to their behavior, many from the pricey Nipomo Mesa, as a bunch of hoity-toity, brie-chomping, wine-sipping snobs who can't stand the idea of anyone else having fun.

Both stereotypes, of course, oversimplify. But, as with most stereotypes, there is an element of truth.

The brie and wine set has been losing badly for a long time. Consider the reactions to the recent body count.

• The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office considers the shooting an isolated incident.

• A park ranger's advice to off-roaders after the deaths was to drive carefully. The parks people issued no permit for a concert, didn't know there was one, and apparently don't much care.

• And there is Ted Cabral, a state off-highway motor vehicle recreation commissioner: "It's time to take the gloves off" in the fight against locals.

Commissioners are considering passing a "strongly worded motion" defending off-roaders against the "parochial views" of local residents.

Cabral was talking about the sand issue. But the message clearly applies to anything off-roaders want to do: "Back off."

Cabral and his fellow foxes are guarding our local henhouse. That bodes ill for change, and it's easy to suppose that more people will die or be maimed or hurt at the park, possibly during this Memorial Day weekend.

I'd like to suggest an alternative: Change the use of the park. Get the motorized vehicles off so that the rest of us can fish, swim, and hike without worrying about our toddlers being run over.

I know, it's an unthinkable notion. Think about it, anyway.

The chief argument against change is the fact that the park is a huge moneymaker. But what if visionaries and planners looked at the place in a different way? That piece of land is stunningly beautiful. Marketed correctly, without motor vehicles, it would bring people from around the world, and their dinero.

Those who currently return yearly as part of a family tradition could still come back. After all, the key word in "family tradition" is family, not all-terrain vehicle.

Those who need to get their ride on have plenty of other places. The area between Barstow and Yucca Valley in the desert is chock-a-block with off-road riding areas, to cite just one example.

This isn't going to happen soon, but it will at some point. Too many people are being hurt out there.

Doctors and others have been documenting the injuries for decades. Emergency room nurses who have seen healthy young people confined to wheelchairs for life have spoken eloquently about the wasted lives.

All have been ignored, and some who complain have had their jobs threatened.

I'm not sure how to start a movement to change the park, but I know one way is to gather information. I would like to see the notoriously circle-the-wagons State Parks authorities and law enforcement be transparent for once.

Here are some questions for them: How many people have died? How many injured? How many have sued the state, and what were the results? How do we find these people to hear their stories? Where do we see paperwork on all this? Unredacted, please.

I don't expect them to fess up to any of this, so it's on the press and private individuals. The press may not be much help. The Tribune rides high on the apple cart and doesn't want to upset it; see their fawning treatment of the lucrative wine industry and obsequiousness to local business. My sense is that New Times wants to do this story but simply doesn't have enough reporters.

That leaves the rest of us. The family of Cal Poly student Jordan Grant fought relentlessly and successfully to improve safety at El Campo Road and Highway 101, where their son and brother died. Maybe it's time for citizens to use the Grants as an example of how to get something done when local institutions fail the community. Δ

Bob Cuddy writes from Arroyo Grande. Send your comments through the editor at [email protected] or write a letter responding and email it to [email protected].

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