Opinion

Reckless drivers, drunks and Confederate flags don’t belong on the Oceano Dunes

Off-roading fans say they’ll fight to keep the Oceano Dunes open

People in favor of keeping the Oceano Dunes open to off-roading brought their trucks and RVs festooned with signs and flags into the parking lot of Embassy Suites for the July 11, 2019, Coastal Commission meeting in San Luis Obispo.
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People in favor of keeping the Oceano Dunes open to off-roading brought their trucks and RVs festooned with signs and flags into the parking lot of Embassy Suites for the July 11, 2019, Coastal Commission meeting in San Luis Obispo.

Oceano Dunes, you’ve been warned.

Yes, the Coastal Commission agreed to maintain the status quo at the popular off-road park for at least one more year. But it also made it clear that it expects improvement.

And if the commission takes its job to protect and enhance the coastline at all seriously — and wants to retain any credibility with opponents of the state vehicular recreation area — it will treat this as a last chance.

For as much as supporters have tried to portray the Oceano Dunes as a safe, welcoming, family-friendly place, the PR isn’t working.

It’s hard to characterize a place as safe and family-friendly when there have been six fatalities and a shooting so far this year.

And welcoming?

Sorry, but even a single Confederate flag on the back of a pickup is enough to create the impression that the entire off-roading community is a bunch of racist good ol’ boys who come over from the Valley to drink and raise hell — leaving the locals to eat their dust and clean up their mess.

Yes, that’s grossly unfair, and for the record, the majority of off-roaders don’t fit the stereotype.

“I’ve heard people say they’re all a bunch of drinkers. I don’t drink, my husband doesn’t drink. We’re 100% sober,” off-roader Lea Hansley told a Tribune videographer. “Not everybody is out there drinking.”

Yet generalizations, however inaccurate they may be, have a way of persisting. And they don’t become stereotypes for nothing.

Any report of bad behavior at the Dunes — on top of the harmful dust emissions from the off-road park — has made it all the more easy for critics to demand closing the park to off-road recreation.

So has the recent rash of fatal accidents. Six people dead in OHV accidents, including one 18-year-old. That’s a record number of fatalities for a single year since at least 1992, according to a search of Tribune archives.

For many, the deaths confirm the park is an inherently lawless, dangerous place — the term “Wild West” gets used a lot — where there’s little supervision and almost anything goes.

As we’ve said before, we don’t believe the increase in fatalities is a reason to close the park — but it definitely is a reason to figure out what the heck is going on and do whatever it takes to make the park safer.

For starters, State Parks should consider adopting some of the safety measures suggested by park users, as detailed in the excellent reporting by The Tribune’s Kaytlyn Leslie and Monica Vaughan.

A map showing the safest areas of the park for beginning riders would be especially effective. So would a rating system that designates dunes by their degree of difficulty, similar to the system used for ski slopes.

But the responsibility for improving safety — along with rehabbing the image of the park — doesn’t just rest with State Parks.

Off-roaders do their cause no favors when they drive recklessly; get drunk and disorderly; leave the beach and dunes strewn with trash; trample vegetation; rail against restrictions aimed at protecting the environment; and show absolutely no concern for downwind residents who are breathing dangerous dust particles drifting from the park.

And we really can’t say enough bad things about those Confederate flags spotted on the occasional vehicle — including at least one parked at a recent Coastal Commission hearing on the dunes.

Now that’s the way to impress public officials!

Do the people flying those flags have any idea of the offensive message they’re sending?

Do they not understand that what they are doing reflects badly on the entire community of off-roaders?

And if they don’t, can someone clue them in and maybe nudge them to leave their racist flags at home? Or better yet, get rid of them entirely?

Because this isn’t the time or place to get all self-righteous about the First Amendment.

Not when the SVRA is under more scrutiny than ever and the Coastal Commission is demanding change.

So you know that reputation for Wild West lawlessness that’s plagued the Oceano Dunes?

It’s time to bury it. Prove that the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area really is a safe, welcoming, family-friendly place.

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