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Youths Allowed Back at Rustic Park : Wilderness: Some restrictions remain. Two lion attacks prompted a ban of children a decade ago.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Children will be welcomed back to Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park later this month, nearly a decade after they were banned from the rustic environs in the wake of separate mountain lion attacks on two youngsters.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday that restricts everyone younger than 18 to the park's picnic area, playground, visitors center and camping sites.

Youths will be allowed beyond those restricted areas, but only when they go with a group accompanied by a park ranger or docent. Signs warning of mountain lion dangers will be posted throughout the 7,600-acre park.

"Caspers Park is a unique asset," Supervisor Marian Bergeson said before the board unanimously approved the plan to readmit youths. "I know it's going to be enjoyed by thousands more in the very near future."

The board also rejected a proposal to close the park several days during the week to save the bankrupt county money, but instead is looking at raising park fees after users said they would be willing to pay more to keep their beloved park open.

Caspers was a popular location for children and their parents until then 5-year-old Laura Small was left partially blind and paralyzed following a mountain lion attack in 1986. A few months later, a 6-year-old boy was mauled, prompting county officials to close all but the visitors center and the front picnic area to children.

Children were banned from the entire park in 1992, when Small was awarded $2 million after filing a lawsuit alleging that county officials were aware of mountain lion dangers but failed to warn the public. That award was later overturned on appeal and the Smalls and the county reached an out-of-court settlement of nearly $1.6 million.

After a state appellate court ruling earlier this year protected counties from lawsuits involving mountain lion attacks, Bergeson pushed to reopen the park to children.

The board recently agreed to accept children back at Caspers and Tuesday approved the plan for park use.

Even Laura Small, now 14 and scheduled to enter the ninth grade in the fall, said she doesn't have a problem with admitting children--as long as they know the dangers.

"It's fine with me, as long as they warn the visitors," Small said.

Sherry Kuczynski and her husband, Carl, who visit the park at least once a week, were the only people in the playground Tuesday. Nearby, a tire swing stood motionless and a leaf-covered slide testified to little use. The Sunset Beach couple lamented a playground without children to bring it to life.

"It's so sad that children haven't been able to enjoy everything this park has to offer," Kuczynski said. "There have been many times when our relatives visit us, and we can't take them to the park because they have children. It's our paradise, and we're glad we'll be able to finally share it with them."

Lyle Boston, 25, and Ralph Sweetin, 28, both of San Juan Capistrano, hike about five miles each week.

"When we first started hiking here, I noticed that there were never any children," Sweetin said. "Now it'll be fun to hear their laughing voices. "

Some people complained that the restrictions, which begin Aug. 25, effectively prevent children from enjoying all that the park has to offer. Some also questioned how easy it will be to find rangers and docents willing to take children on rural hikes.

Robert G. Fisher, director of county Harbors, Beaches and Parks, said the influx of children would likely bring in more money to cover park maintenance costs.


The plan triggered a lengthy and sometimes heated debate between board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez and Supervisor Jim Silva about whether the $2-per-vehicle park fee should be raised.

Vasquez noted that some parks in neighboring counties charge as much as $8 per vehicle, while Orange County parks are operating at a deficit. When Silva said he thought residents already pay too much in taxes and fees, the normally placid Vasquez loudly defended the county's well-used parks.

"Our parks are being worn and torn down and we're doing nothing to recover the cost," Vasquez said. After being assured higher fees wouldn't go to hiring employees, Silva endorsed the action.

In a county known for despising taxes, speaker after speaker endorsed higher campground fees, entrance fees and annual passes to keep the beloved park open.

"If it's necessary to increase the fees to do that, I have no problem with that," Caspers user Mike Sinclair said.

The board has also called for a larger examination of countywide park fees.

Campers Susan Shores, 54, and her husband, Harold, 58, said they won't mind a higher cost.

"Even if admission prices do go up, from what we've seen, it's worth any amount of money to get out here and just watch the wild animals and sleep under the stars," she said.


New Rules at Caspers

Children will be allowed to visit Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park under the following rules:

1. Those under 18 must be supervised by an adult (18 or older).

2. Those under 18 are not allowed on park trails unless accompanied by park ranger or trained docent.

3. Adult visitors must sign a wilderness permit/waiver of liability before entering.

4. Visitors will receive brochure that includes map, mountain lion warning notice, wilderness safety information and instructions on what to do if they meet a lion.

Source: Orange County Board of Supervisors


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