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Can we reopen our boat landings and parks?

The recent column by retired South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officer Ben Moise, “Reopen the boat ramps: Citizens deserve a patrolling solution,” certainly ginned up its share of discussion and opened up a wealth of worthwhile dialogue regarding this controversial aspect of the ongoing coronavirus lockdown. In just a few days, it garnered thousands of readers and hundreds of views, shares and comments on social media.

When Governor McMaster issued Executive Order 2020-16, he noted the continued freedom of private citizens to enjoy the waters of the Palmetto State during this emergency — he did not ban Sandlappers from the water, nor is there any reason to believe that was his intent. Too many folks taking the situation too lightly (think of those who sought raucous sandbar parties after early beach closings) led to this draconian response. It also created a troubling situation Mr. Moise highlighted — those with private water access are still sitting pretty, while members of the general public are consigned to second-class status.

The DNR has not closed Wildlife Management Areas, nor has it introduced any new restrictions on hunting and fishing. Its public communications have actively encouraged citizens to continue to enjoy all reasonable and licit paths to growing their physical and mental health through time spent outdoors. Further, we note the governor’s Tweets when announcing this executive order — only the most generous reading of them fails to find a whiff of the punitive in this shutdown. It’s not just about public safety (the rightful and reasonable role for government) … it is, at least in part, about teaching the citizenry a lesson.

Thus, we editorially agree in full with Mr. Moise. What good is it to have a right if that right cannot be reasonably exercised? And how is the only “reasonable” solution a total lockdown on all public boat ramps?

We offer the following points to ponder on how our elected officials might safeguard the health and vitality of Palmetto State citizens — might even effect a little much-needed cheer — by intelligently ratcheting back this “riverine quarantine.”

Break up the parties. As Mr. Moise said, a patrol-based solution promises to knock some sense into the knuckleheads while letting reasonable citizens avoid this middle school-esque “group punishment.” Let those throwing parties on the water, hitting the sandbars and well-known hotspots be hit with a visit from local law enforcement officers. Good game wardens know the favored spots for irresponsible recreation and need to hit them hard. We are all in favor of some serious-sized consequences for this serious situation.

Deliver seriously big consequences. McMaster’s executive order allows DHEC and the DNR to “provide or issue any … appropriate supplemental guidance, rules, regulations or restrictions …” to enforce the order. Perhaps $500 fines for rafting or congregating at sandbars will do the trick, but what about putting other tools in the kit? How about rescinding an offender’s boat registration or nixing their hunting and fishing license permits? Such a hard-hitting response might very well get the intended result, if the state is willing to go that far.

Put a consistent communications campaign together. Christen it with a snappy title, like “Safe S.C. Outdoors”— anything that works. Give us one clear, consistent and positive statewide voice on outdoor access in the Palmetto State. With one primary voice (and point-of-contact) for DHEC, the governor’s office, DNR and other key parties, citizens could have a much clearer picture of the whats and whys of various outdoor access issues. Further, get the outdoor writers at newspapers and blogs to report on these changes.

Reopen with a rollout. Those concerned that social distancing at the boat ramps will be impossible do have one strong argument: Folks starved for a little recreation on the water will race to the ramps on the first day of reopening and “jam up the works.” Consider ways to thoughtfully restore access. One way might be to give the first week to non-motorized vessels, then a second week where boats under a certain size are permitted, then so on to a full reopening. Also, limit or rotate the boat ramps in use, if that proves to be a useful tool.

Leverage tech on reopening. We’ve all got access to modern social media tools, and most can be effectively used without great expense. Landing-by-landing traffic and parking updates throughout the day can prevent overcrowding.

Park smart. Socially distance the parking lots of the boat landings, designating only a certain number of spaces for use at a time. Limit parking time for non-commercial users to a half-day to give others a chance.

Look to the citizens ourselves. Who is going to implement all of these action items on the ground? Well, for every halfwit treating the quarantine as a giant rolling cocktail party, there are plenty of intelligent and community-minded sorts happy to help in this trying time. Find a role for the tens of thousands of members and volunteers of conservation groups and the DNR. Call in the S.C. State Guard; consider finding new roles for our Class III and reserve law enforcement officers. Much of our suggested agenda could be accomplished with cell phones, walkie-talkies and minimal training — no firearms or arrest powers needed.

A final caveat. The 600-pound law enforcement gorilla is that, before Gov. McMaster closed the boat ramps, many violators greeted DNR officers giving warnings with something akin to a middle finger … or worse. This was not an isolated incident — up and down the coast and on the lakes — and the collective horde led to the heavy hand.

However, the law enforcement went on patrol with their hands behind their backs, explicitly under orders to avoid making arrests or writing tickets. As a result, the DNR officers have not had the full ability to to act in a manner that serves as a deterrent, so they cannot be sure how the public will react to the threat of big tickets. Moreover, outnumbered officers are not keen to get in close proximity to a drunken crowd on a sandbar. It is up to state leadership to give them every tool needed to get the job done.

Should the rowdy sorts dictate usage of our public boat ramps and parks? Or can we find a modest compromise to return responsible sorts to the water? Residents of this state deserve a better resolution during these difficult days.

[Note - on April 16, Governor McMaster amended his executive order to allow for the reopening of public boat ramps. We are pleased to have "started the ball rolling" on the issue. - ed]

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