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A decade after two children were attacked by mountain lions at Ronald J. Caspers Wilderness Park, Orange County officials are moving to lift restrictions on youngsters using the park.

Tim Miller, who manages the Orange County parks system, said Caspers may be the only park in the state that bars children from wilderness areas.

Bolstered by a court decision in Santa Barbara County that could add more legal protection in cases of wild animal attacks, the Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks Commission last week recommended opening Caspers' 7,600 acres to children with adult supervision.

The county's legal advisors also support the move, and the issue will now go before the county Board of Supervisors.

Caspers, Orange County's largest wilderness park, is near San Juan Capistrano about seven miles east of the San Diego Freeway on Ortega Highway.

"There are still mountain lions out there," Miller said. "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 the current policy keeps youngsters from gaining an appreciation of nature.

"Our stance is that children should be allowed to go into these wilderness parks," Miller said. "The parks should not be restricted."

The county banned minors from Caspers after 5-year-old Laura Small and 6-year-old Justin Mellon were attacked by mountain lions in separate 1986 incidents.

Laura's family sued the county, alleging that rangers were negligent in failing to warn campers of increased mountain lion activity. The family won a $2-million judgment in 1991, and the case was eventually settled for $1.5 million.

In 1995, county supervisors eased restrictions and voted to allow children into Caspers' campgrounds and play areas only. Park trails remained closed to visitors under age 18, except during tours led by rangers or docents.

Under the current proposal, all 30 miles of trails would be open to children.

The move was spurred in part by a Santa Barbara case involving 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."

The 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld the state's contention in 1995, concluding that the state had "absolute immunity" and that a wild animal is a "natural condition" within the meaning of state law.

After reviewing that case and others, attorneys in the Orange County counsel's office recommended removing age restrictions at Caspers.

Paul Beier, a wildlife expert who conducted a mountain lion study for the county in 1993, said, "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 by the animals, also known as cougars, are rare, they can be dangerous.

The attack on Laura was the first by a mountain lion reported in California since 1909. The child was exploring with her mother when the animal struck, grasping her head in its jaws before being scared off by a passing hiker. The cougar's powerful grip sent shards of bone into the girl's brain. She was left partially paralyzed and blind in one eye, and required reconstructive facial surgery.

Seven months later, Justin 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 ran at the cougar and frightened it away. The boy was hospitalized with lacerations 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 [mountain] lion attacks," said attorney Wylie Aitken, who represented the Smalls. "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 county parks, and rangers keep logs of cougar 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 big cougar 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.

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