The Oceano Dunes OHV park isn’t a death trap — but it could be made safer

Statistically speaking, 2019 has not been a good year for off-roading at the Oceano Dunes.

Over a seven-week period this spring, three people died in off-road vehicle accidents at the State Vehicular Recreation Area — up from zero fatalities last year.

And just last weekend, a fourth fatality occurred when an ATV rider, 37-year-old Shawn Joseph Imlig of Brentwood, was a hit by an alleged drunk driver.

On top of that, there was a shooting in early May that injured five people attending a big outdoor concert. The event took place without the necessary permit; rangers weren’t even aware of it until they got the 911 call about shots fired.

That the incidents came one after another made matters worse by reinforcing the reputation of the dunes as a crazy, lawless, dangerous place — and it provided opponents with yet another argument to shut down the OHV park.

While any accidental death or life-altering injury is a tragedy, let’s put things in perspective: The number of fatal accidents at the Oceano Dunes fluctuates. Over the past 25 years, it’s been as high as five — that happened in 2008 — but other years, it’s been one or none.

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In general, though, the total number of accidents has been trending downward.

According to State Parks data from 2005-2015, there were more than 250 accidents in 2005, 2006 and 2007. From 2009 to 2015, there were fewer than 200 per year. (More recent data was not readily available.)

Besides, if we’re being fair, we’d include other public recreation lands in the conversation. Look at Yosemite National Park, where at least six people died from falls last year, including three who fell while taking selfies. Yet no one is screaming to ban visitors from clifftops and waterfalls at Yosemite.

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Hundreds of dune buggies paraded along the Oceano Dunes State Recreational Vehicle Area at a “dune buggy reunion” in August, 2018. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

New restrictions

The Oceano Dunes SVRA already is under increased scrutiny, especially from the state Coastal Commission, for other issues: air quality violations; health problems reported by downwind residents; threats to rare plants and animals, among others.

These are valid reasons to consider additional restrictions on off-roading at the Ocean Dunes.

Portraying the SVRA as some kind of death trap is not; it’s a paternalistic and discriminatory effort to save Oceano Dunes riders from themselves.

That doesn’t mean State Parks and the OHV industry shouldn’t do all in their power to make the sport as safe as possible.

If there are additional regulations that help, they should be adopted. That’s happened before — for example, in 2010 the state began requiring whips and flags on OHVs, to make them more visible on the dunes.

The evolution in safety should continue.

The Oceano Dunes SVRA. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

More enforcement

There’s also no doubt State Parks needs to step up its game when it comes to enforcement at the Ocean Dunes.

When an unpermitted concert with hundreds in attendance takes place under the very noses of State Parks, and rangers don’t have a clue until they get a 911 call, that’s clearly a lack of oversight.

That’s disturbing — though not a surprise given the current level of staffing. At any given time, there are at most only two or three rangers patrolling, unless it’s a big holiday weekend. There were just two rangers on duty the night of the shooting.

That’s not enough for such a busy recreational area with multiple activities taking place at any given time including off-roading, surfing, fishing, jet skiing, camping. And yes, alcohol is allowed in the park, though it’s no longer legal to drink and drive at the same time. That was outlawed in 1998.

The most recent fatality, in which alcohol allegedly played a role, reinforces how imperative it is to strictly enforce drunken driving laws — and if that’s not effective, ban alcohol altogether.

Yet adding staff is easier said than done.

While government jobs are generally in high demand, the state is having a tough time attracting applicants, according to Kevin Pearce, interim superintendent for State Parks’ Oceano Dunes district.

The park is allocated a 25-member patrol staff — 19 rangers, four sergeants, one captain and one commander — but has 10 vacancies, three of which will be filled when newly trained cadets come on board. That will still leave seven vacancies.

Why so many?

Pay is one factor, Pearce says.

State Park rangers, who are sworn law enforcement officers, often earn less than their counterparts in many county and city government law enforcement agencies.

One example: According to the website Transparent California, base pay for the highest paid rangers (not including supervisors) in the State Parks system was approximately $85,000 in 2018.

The top-paid San Luis Obispo County deputy sheriffs earned just over $100,000 in regular pay in 2018. Differences were even more striking when overtime pay was considered.

When a park has a hard time hiring public safety officers because its wages are no longer competitive with neighboring agencies, that’s a major concern — one we urge local state lawmakers to examine.

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A shooting occurred at Oceano Dunes SVRA early Sunday morning, May 5, 2019. SLO Sheriff deputies and investigators confer near the SLO Sheriff command center trailer in the parking lot at the Pier Avenue entrance to the beach. (Photo by Laura Dickinson) Laura Dickinson The Tribune

Better data

We also urge State Parks to do a better job of tracking data — such as violations and non-fatal accidents — and communicating that information.

How about releasing an annual report on the number and types of accidents, major crimes and drunk driving arrests? That would give the public a much clearer picture of what goes on, so they can make informed decisions on whether they want to visit the park.

When there is a fatality or major injury accident, let people know immediately. When Imlig died Saturday night, word of the accident didn’t get out until Thursday — and then only because one of the man’s friends contacted The Tribune to ask why it had not been reported.

State Parks needs to do a much better job of communicating; don’t keep people in the dark when something goes wrong.

This is a state-owned and state-operated facility, and the public has a right to know what goes on there, instead of having to learn about incidents through social media, word-of-mouth or rumors.

Ideally, there would never again be an accidental death or serious injury at the Oceano Dunes, or any other recreational facility, for that matter.

That’s not realistic.

Here’s what is: For however long the Oceano Dunes SVRA remains in operation — be it 10 years or 100 — there must be adequate staffing, enforcement and education, and the state of California must provide the resources to make that happen.

This was updated to include a fourth fatal accident that happened Saturday night.

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