It's Saturday on Memorial Day weekend at the Oceano Dunes. The park is abuzz with off-road vehicles, and thousands of campers dot the sandy rolling hills with RVs, trailers and tents.
Flags fly high across the horizon for sports teams, the skull and crossbones, the U.S. and the Confederacy.
Some campsites are cordoned off by police tape visitors brought to keep away vehicles.
As the sun sets, a group gathers to grill hot dogs and drink Coors Lights. They speak loudly, laugh frequently and scan the ocean waves.
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These are familiar sights for Supervising Ranger Robert Colligan, a 10-year veteran of State Parks.
Colligan is two hours into his 4 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift, making time for a ride-along tour of the Dunes with a Tribune reporter and photographer.
"I like this shift," he says. "I'm a night owl. You have a different clientele at night. There are more families in the day. At night there's more action."
Law enforcement at the Oceano Dunes is challenging for the staff of 16 rangers -- especially on crowded holiday weekends, when more than 50,000 visitors are at the park.
Rangers are on duty, either on shift or on-call, 24 hours a day. State Parks officials declined to say exactly what the number is at any time.
Even with help from rangers at Hearst Castle and Morro Bay and the Oceano Fire Department during heavytraffic periods, the staff acknowledges that rangers don't witness all violations of laws.
Some locals who oppose the off-roading say a lack of adequate enforcement year-round leads to wrecks and generally wild behavior by park users.
But the rangers dispute those claims, saying they perform many preventive stops to avoid potentially illegal or dangerous activities and respond to calls as quickly as they can.
And they don't think the driving violations they miss are significant, comparing them to minor incidents on any road.
The rangers must complete two years of college, six months of law enforcement training (the same training as police officers) and 12 weeks of specific instruction on their work at the Oceano Dunes.
Their goal: that Dunes visitors have fun without violating California law or park rules.
Park officials say rangers are preventing accidents, pointing to the fact that the number of visitors has increased over the past five years while accidents remained at the same level -- about 250 to 300 each year.
As the sun sets, Colligan's night is just beginning.
He likens his job to a "roving watch commander" who patrols the beach, responds to camper-related complaints and coordinates with fellow rangers.
"The key is not to wear emotions on your sleeve," he says.
He always has work to do as a supervisor, he says, though it's never overly stressful.
During The Tribune's ride-along, rangers arrested a 43-year-old man on suspicion of driving under the influence and cited a teenage girl from the Central Valley as a minor in possession of alcohol.
But critics of the off-road riding say a lack of enforcement leads to unruly behavior.
Longtime Dunes activist Nell Langford said she has videotaped speeding, ATV riding in prohibited zones, and illegal dumping of sewage.
Visitors are allowed to drink on the beach but not drink and drive. Yet that happens, she said.
"Anyone who wants to see the lawlessness can go there." Langford said. "Within 30 minutes you'll see speeding, drinking and driving, illegal fireworks, dumping, you name it."
She attributes the poor enforcement to a shortage of resources at the state park and a lack of will by rangers to crack down.
Another activist, who doesn't oppose the riding but wants increased park supervision, suggests raising fees to pay for more staff.
"If they raised park fees to $100 per night (instead of $10 for overnight camping), you'd have plenty of people to supervise the activity," said Nipomo resident Patricia Duron. "But right now, it's out of control and dangerous."
Park Superintendent Andrew Zilke, however, said the violations activists have witnessed aren't significant.
"I think that everyone, regardless of where they are in this state, has witnessed people violating laws, such as speeding on our highways, failing to stop at stop signs, running red lights, littering, road rage."
Zilke said the state park has reviewed a videotape shot by Langford of people dumping sewage that was "proven false following our analysis."
"If they are videotaping illegal activity in the park, it is their civic responsibility to report it to park law enforcement for follow-up," Zilke said.
Activists say their requests to rangers to stop activity such as fireworks and speeding are ignored.
On the ride-along, Colligan notes that common violations include speeding, driving under the influence and underage drinking.
When a teenage girl from Fresno is seen at 6:20 p. m. with two beers, Colligan instructs ranger Brett King on writing up a citation.
The girl "was very patient and seemed very smart," says King, a Hearst Castle ranger helping out over Memorial Day weekend. "She had just popped open one of the two beers. She hardly took a swig."
The key is to allow people to have fun without breaking the law or park rules, Colligan says.
Dunes officials say speeding typically is the most frequent violation, and the park has strived to curb it.
"Several years ago we started our volunteer patrol, which assists us in keeping the message out about 15 miles per hour on the beach and in the camping areas," said Dena Bellman, the park's staff services analyst.
Other measures include the purchase of LIDAR, a laser speed detection device, and posting of a radar trailer, similar to those on city roads, so drivers can see their speeds.
At 7:30 p.m., 28-year-old Carlos Espinosa from Rosarito, Mexico, is stopped for carrying his 3-year-old son on the handlebars of his ATV.
"I didn't know," Espinosa said. "We don't have that rule in Mexico. I was just showing him how to drive."
Ranger Nicole Shannon explains that it's against park rules; the rangers decide to let him off with a warning.
Colligan says accidents and fatalities are unfortunate, but they're not unlike wrecks on highways and roads.
"Fatalities are sad," he says. "Most of the time it's somebody who's inexperienced. Sometimes it happens to people who, at least other people will say, died doing what they loved to do."
Out on patrol
Colligan tells a story about a previous vehicle he drove with only a stripe to represent park affiliation.
"People wouldn't notice me and they'd drive right by drinking a beer behind the wheel until they realized that I was a ranger," he said. "You could see the look on their faces when they figured it out."
Now, his vehicle is well marked with ranger logos. The shotgun in his cab, used for felony stops or weapons searches, also is visible through the dash.
Colligan drives through grassy campgrounds outside the sand area.
In the campground, rangers deal less often with vehicle problems and more with camper-related issues, such as chopping down tree limbs, illegal parking or noise.
A staff member at the kiosk informs Colligan that people at the site have been particularly noisy. He finds no violators but will return later.
By 8 p.m. as the sun sinks and campfires sprout in the pockets of dunes, the radio chatter intensifies after a parolee suspected of driving under the influence is stopped.
Richard Pierce from Dos Palos, Calif., was behind the wheel of a multipassenger John Deere Gator with a friend riding alongside.
Ranger Jennifer Kramp asks Pierce to walk heel-to-toe to gauge his inebriation.
After the test, the 43-year-old blows a 0.12 blood-alcohol mark on the breathalyzer, well above the legal limit of 0.08.
Colligan makes calls about the man's parole conditions before his arrest.
"I'm not even halfway through my night," Colligan says.
* * *
Officers on duty for Memorial Day weekend: 18 total for each 24-hour period (including rangers from other state parks)
Total visitors over Memorial Day weekend: 55,373
Park acreage: 3,600 total — 1,200 open March through September for OHV use; 1,500 open to riding October through February.
Total rangers on staff: 16 (district's superintendent, deputy district superintendent, three supervising peace officers, and 11 peace officers).
Designated ranger patrol zones: 4