SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — A decade after two children were attacked by mountain lions at Ronald J. Caspers Wilderness Park, county officials are moving to lift restrictions imposed then on minors using the area.
Bolstered by a recent court decision in Santa Barbara County that Orange County's attorneys say adds more legal protection in cases of wild animal attacks, the Harbors, Beaches and Parks Commission this week unanimously recommended opening all of the 7,600-acre wilderness to children with adult supervision.
The issue will go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
"There are still mountain lions out there," said Tim Miller, who manages the county wilderness park system. "But we know lions also show up at O'Neill and Whiting and Santiago Oaks [parks]. Mountain lions are part of the natural wilderness community."
Miller said Caspers may be the only park in the state that bans minors.
"Our stance is that children should be allowed to go into these wilderness parks," Miller said. "The parks should not be restricted."
If they are, he said, children miss an opportunity to gain appreciation of wilderness areas.
The county has banned minors from Caspers since 5-year-old Laura Small and 6-year-old Justin Mellon were attacked by mountain lions in separate 1986 incidents.
The county was sued by the Smalls, who alleged that rangers were negligent in failing to warn campers of increased mountain lion activity. They won a $2-million judgment in 1991 that was eventually settled for $1.5 million.
County supervisors voted in 1995 to allow children into Caspers' campgrounds and play areas only. Park trails were closed to youngsters except during ranger- or docent-led tours.
Under the current proposal, all 30 miles of trails in the park--the largest wilderness facility run by the county--would be open to children.
The Santa Barbara case resulted from a mountain lion attack on a youngster in Gaviota State Park in 1992.
Darron Arroyo, then 9, was attacked as he was hiking there with his family. The Arroyos sued the state.
State attorneys cited California codes that protect public entities from liability in situations involving "an injury caused by a natural condition of any unimproved public property."
In Arroyos vs. the State of California, the court ruled that a wild animal is a "natural condition" within the meaning of state law.
After reviewing that case and others, Orange County's attorneys recommended removing age restrictions at Caspers.
Paul Beier, a wildlife expert who conducted a mountain lion study for the county in 1993, said, "I'm very pleased they're opening the park back up to children. . . . The biological reality hasn't really changed. Using a wilderness park in Orange County is still low risk, and most people know how to live with it."
Mountain lions, which can weigh more than 150 pounds, roam the undeveloped foothills in southern and eastern regions of the county. Though attacks are extremely rare, they can be deadly.
The attack on Laura Small was the first by a mountain lion in California since 1909. The child was exploring with her mother when a mountain lion attacked, grasping her head in its jaws before being scared off by a passing hiker. The cat's powerful grip sent shards of bone into the girl's brain. She was left partially paralyzed and blind in one eye, and she required reconstructive facial surgery.
Seven months later, Justin Mellon was hiking with his family when he stopped to tie his shoes and fell behind. Family members heard screams and rushed back to find a mountain lion on top of the child.
Justin's father, Timothy Mellon, ran at the cat and frightened it away. The child was hospitalized with cuts on the back of his head, back and legs, and was released a few days later.
In 1986, "nobody knew about the potential dangers of lion attacks," said the Smalls' attorney, Wylie Aitken of Santa Ana. "There was a great deal of unusual mountain lion activity that she should have been warned about."
Since then, warning signs have been posted at all county parks, and rangers keep logs of mountain lion sightings.
"The county has gone a long way since to alleviating the potential dangers," Aitken said.
John Gannaway, senior park ranger at Caspers, reported seeing lion tracks in August and said a hiker spotted one of the big cats that month.
But in 15 years working outdoors, Gannaway said, he has never seen one.
"We can go for a long time without spotting any mountain lion activity," he said.