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The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department is once again applying for state money to help pay for better policing of illegal off-road activities in the Santa Ynez riverbed.

It’s not a new problem, but it’s not improving either. The county receives an increasing number of complaints about people riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in the riverbed and surrounding areas on Lompoc’s outskirts.

The calls are coming in because the illegal activity is damaging private property and the environment. ATV riding in the riverbed violates several state and county ordinances.

ATV riders generally are willing to take the risks involved in riding in places where they shouldn’t be riding. Off-roading can be a lot of fun, and the hefty investment in a quality machine compels the owner to just get out and do it.

But doing it in a sensitive habitat, within earshot of residential areas where home owners treasure the peace and quiet of their semi-rural existence can be a major problem — and one the Sheriff’s Department hears about, loudly and often.

The department is seeking $220,000 in grant money from the state to add the resources necessary to tamping down the riverbed nuisance. The department has made three such requests in the past, and all were approved.

For the unfamiliar, ATVs are off-road four-wheelers with a high profile and plenty of speed. They can provide a very exciting outdoors adventure — and they can be quite deadly.

The modern version of the machine has been around since the early 1970s, and brought with it a meteoric spike in death and injury. In an average year, 100,000 ATV injuries are reported, with annual death rates running between 300 and 800 a year.

The injury/death potential soars when the machines are driven on normal roads, mostly because the ATV’s equipment is designed specifically for off-road use.

The neighbors complaining about ATV activity in the Santa Ynez riverbed aren’t so much concerned about riders’ safety, although that is certainly one component, but about what the machines do to the habitat, and the noise associated with roaring engines ripping at break-neck speeds through the soft riverbed sand.

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There also is a lot of concern about the ages of the riverbed riders. Witnesses say they sometimes see kids barely big enough to reach the necessary controls tearing along at a high rate of speed.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to use the state grant money, if the application is approved, to purchase an ATV for the department, increase the frequency of patrols in the riverbed area, and to add more rescue equipment.

ATV riders use the riverbed to enjoy their sport because there are, generally, not many other places to ride. They could travel up to the Dunes in southern SLO County, but public sentiment against off-roading there is fairly strong.

In an ideal world, ATV enthusiasts, home owners seeking solace, environmentalists wanting to preserve habitat, and government policy-makers could come to terms, agree to a suitable spot for off-roading that would satisfy the riders’ needs while protecting the interests and rights of others.

But we seem to have segued into an era in which mutually acceptable compromise is evasive, if not impossible to achieve. Perhaps it’s time for a town hall-style meeting involving all parties, in order to discuss the problems and find terms on which to agree. If such an event could be arranged there would have to be a no-shouting-at-each-other rule, maybe with sheriff’s deputies on hand to help enforce the rule.