Verona ReBow slips off her boots and steps barefoot into the cool sand of the Oceano Dunes Preserve.
A tableau of brown undulating sand interspersed with patches of vegetation spreads before her, with the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean beyond.
This is the first of two daily walks ReBow will take in the Dunes. Soon, she is delighted to find a line of tracks where a potato bug has skittered across the sand.
"I am very, very appreciative that I have these Dunes as a part of my life," she said. "This place sustains me and rejuvenates me."
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ReBow is a 61-year-old artist and muralist who moved to Arroyo Grande from Germany when she was 40 to be near the Oceano Dunes. Her hiking clothes are flecked with paint from her most recent artistic creation.
She is one of a small but passionate group of county residents who are adamantly opposed to the use of all-terrain vehicles in the Dunes and work to have them banned. To her, they defile a place that has been sacred to people as far back as the Chumash Indians.
"They have to go," she averred. "This has to stop."
A spiritual leader
Anti-ATV activists are a loose-knit and low-key group. As an artist and intellectual, ReBow has emerged as the group's spiritual leader, said Nell Langford, one of the most high-profile and vocal of the activists.
Soft-spoken while others are strident, ReBow has a calm but passionate assurance of a natural leader. She also takes a holistic view of the challenges facing the Dunes.
ReBow walks in the nature preserve part of the State Vehicular Recreation Area where ATVs are not allowed. But the roar of their engines is audible in the distance, and they can be seen moving across the sand.
In an effort to introduce people to the simple pleasures of hiking in the Dunes and passively enjoying them, she has posted on YouTube a video she shot during one of her walks. The video also compares the calm of the preserve with the activity of the riding area.
"I wish people would just quiet down and enjoy the place," she said.
When ReBow first visited the area 21 years ago, she wasn't sure she would stay permanently but found that she connected with the Dunes on a deep level. She often photographs the Dunes and the park's wildlife on her walks and then paints pictures from the photographs.
"It has that Zen-like quality for me," she said.
She believes that the negative consequences of ATV riding far outweigh any benefits. She wants the community to work cooperatively to devise ways the park can continue to contribute economically but without the ATVs.
Her concerns about dune buggy-riding run the gamut — air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, wildlife impacts and public safety issues.
As an Arroyo Grande resident, she feels that she and others who live near the park bear the brunt of the environmental problems of ATV riding.
"We, as residents, have to deal with these consequences," she said. "They (the riders) exploit the most precious gem we have here."
'The last frontier'
ReBow has seen the popularity of the Dunes as a riding destination grow exponentially since she first moved here. An estimated 2 million people now come to the Dunes each year to ride. These visitors and the fees they pay are an important source of income for the cash-strapped state Department of Parks and Recreation.
"There are more people on the Dunes on a holiday weekend than live in Pismo Beach," she said. "It's like a highway."
Like many ATV opponents, she rejects the idea that the ATVs are a significant boost to the local economy. She notes that Oceano is economically blighted while neighboring Pismo Beach is thriving as a regular beach community.
"Any money that the few businesses make doesn't offset the damage to the environment," she said.
She also disagrees with the notion that riding ATVs is good clean fun, particularly when it comes to children. Riding quads and other open vehicles is too dangerous for children, she contends.
Similarly, she finds many of the activities that take place in the park to be offensive and promote a sense of lawlessness. These include drinking, flying Confederate flags from pickups and displaying Sand Outlaw window decals. She calls Oceano Dunes the "last frontier of the Wild West."
"How anyone can call that family recreation is hard to comprehend," she said.
Instead, she recommends that people take a holistic approach to the Dunes. Riding dune buggies over barren sand may look harmless, but she believes there is a cost to the environment.
"You can't do something without affecting others," she said. "Everything is connected."
Reach David Sneed at 781- 7930.
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SEE THE VIDEO
To view Verona ReBow's YouTube video of walking in the Dunes, go to www.youtube.com/watch? v=NQ-21zOzJuY