Chris Cannon fires up a Polaris utility vehicle, shifts the mechanical workhorse into gear and heads out to patrol the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area on a windy afternoon.
Wearing a vest that identifies him as a State Parks volunteer, Cannon is the new face of Oceano Dunes — friendly but hard-nosed when it comes to enforcing the park's many rules.
Safety is Cannon's first concern, but he and the other volunteers are also the park's frontline defenders against polluters and other environmental wrongdoers. Littering, air pollution, wastewater dumping and protecting wildlife are the park's main environmental concerns.
"I'm your 'Get out of jail free' card," he said. "I'm the guy who warns people who are doing something wrong before they have to deal with a ranger with a badge and a gun."
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Cannon is one of about 15 members of the Oceano Dunes Volunteer Patrol. Two or three of the volunteers are typically out patrolling the park on weekends, more on busy holiday weekends, such as Labor Day and Memorial Day.
The volunteer program started in 2002 and is coordinated by Ranger Lisa Remington.
"We grew very slowly," she said.
About half of the volunteers live in the San Joaquin Valley, and the other half are local.
A persistent problem
Cannon motors the Polaris onto the beach. The speed limit here is 15 mph, and he is on the lookout for anyone speeding or showboating in this busy area, crisscrossed by pedestrians headed for the water for a swim or a stroll in the surf.
He eventually reaches the end of the riding area. Ahead is a fence that marks the beginning of a bird nesting area, part of 300 acres of Dunes set aside each year for nesting Western snowy plovers and least terns. It is closed to the public.
Cannon patrols the fence line to make sure no one has entered the closed area. He also carries gloves and a pet carrier in the back of the Polaris in case he finds a sick or injured bird that needs rescuing.
The number of sick birds varies from year to year, but they are most common in the springtime when young birds are learning to live on their own.
Dogs are welcome in Oceano Dunes but must stay on the leash to prevent them from harassing wildlife.
Cannon soon encounters the park's most persistent environmental problem: litter. Several empty beer bottles sit in the sand. He clambers out of the Polaris and puts the cans in a trash bag.
"I hate to see trash on the beach, so I pick it up," he said.
After patrolling the nesting area fence line, Cannon sets off across the open dunes where most of the ATV riding takes place. The six-wheeled Polaris can only reach speeds of 25 mph, but it can go anywhere and has never gotten stuck.
'I'd be here anyway'
The 33-year-old Cannon spends from five to 20 hours a week volunteering at the park. He moved to San Luis Obispo two years ago from the Central Valley town of Porterville and works as an electrician at the California Men's Colony.
"I'm a single guy," he explains. "I don't even have a girlfriend right now, so I've got a lot of time on my hands. I'd be here anyway."
In many ways, Cannon is the quintessential Oceano Dunes visitor. Growing up in Porterville, he frequently visited the Dunes on vacations with his family.
He was finally able to move to the county when he took the prison job and lives in a trailer park across the highway from the park.
He also has all the gear typical of an ATV enthusiast. He drives a pickup, has a Honda quad he loves to drive on the Dunes and owns a Weekend Warrior camping trailer for extended visits to the park.
Because of his single status, he found himself spending a lot of time in the park. He noticed the volunteers patrolling the dunes and inquired about joining the group.
He went on several ridealongs with Remington. She found that he had the necessary attributes for a good volunteer — enthusiasm and level-headedness. He's been volunteering for about nine months now.
He's flexible and willing to work a schedule that fits the park's needs. He's also polite.
"Every contact with us out there has to be a positive contact," Remington said. "We won't tolerate anything less."
Cannon said one of the main reasons he's willing to spend so much time volunteering is self-preservation. He knows that unsafe behavior and violations of environmental rules could lead to additional closures and other riding restrictions.
"I like to help people," he said. "I want to see the park continue."
Cannon thinks the park's increased patrolling and enforcement efforts are paying off. The vast majority of park visitors obey all the rules, he said, and most people go home unhurt.
"This is totally awesome that people are coming down here and behaving themselves," he said. "I feel like we are doing our job."
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.