By the time it was Mike Gomes' turn to talk about the future of Oceano Dunes, he was amped up.
He'd heard people talk about fencing off acres of the off-road vehicle park at the air quality hearing in San Luis Obispo County in March — the hearing that he drove more than two hours to get to from his Central Valley home in Hanford after working a 12-hour night shift as a machine operator.
He started his three-minute public comment calm. But soon, after a few sentences, the 24 hours without sleep caught up to him and "the raw side came out." And out of that, a new slogan was born.
Here's what he said: "I didn't know you can possibly die from second-hand sand. But if that's a thing, that's how I choose to go. I will die on that beach with a cigar in one hand, a vodka in the other and a smile on my face because I spend enough time at that beach with my wife and kids to have that much sand in my lungs."
Within hours, private messages from dune riders poured onto his Facebook page giving him props. Within days, he'd worked with his brother to slap the slogan "2nd hand sand" on the image of a sand rail with paddle wheels on top of the hashtag #savepismo.
Pismo dune riders love it.
He's sold stickers, someone put the logo on shirts, and he's working toward selling hats. Any money raised after the cost of production will be donated to Friends of Oceano Dunes, a group that was founded in 2001 to protect recreational access on the park.
The message resonates with a group of dune riders upset and concerned that their favorite park and the only place in which vehicles are allowed on the beach in California — the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area — might become smaller, again.
State Parks recently agreed to a plan to reduce airborne emissions from the park by 50 percent in the next five years, a plan that in the first year would require 100 acres of prime riding area to be closed off to be filled with vegetation. The San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control Board Hearing Board will vote to accept or reject the plan on Monday.
You better believe Gomes will be there.
To him, the fight is more than saving his playground from getting smaller. It's about the government pushing an agenda to close the park without the science to back it up. He believes it's an attack on his way of life.
"What's going on right here — people pushing their agenda — pretty much represents everything that's wrong with the government and America," Gomes, 42, said in a recent interview with The Tribune. "Rich Americans move to an area, don't like what's going on and want to change it."
He said officials with the APCD have ignored the science when it doesn't prove their point, and officials ignore the fact that hundreds of acres of eucalyptus trees that had been working as a filter for sand-blown dust were removed when the golf-course communities downwind were developed.
"They've been trying to close those dunes for over 35 years," Gomes said.
About 2 million visitors a year come to play with motorized sand toys on nearly 1,500 acres along a 5.5-mile stretch of shore south of Pismo Beach. Old cars, trucks and dune buggies used to roll over some 15,000 acres of dunes, but the area was made smaller when it was taken over by State Parks decades ago.
Since then, small bits of the park have been fenced off, a few hundred acres closed to people part of the year for snowy plover nesting season, and wind fencing has been installed in various places in riding area after the APCD said that riding on the dunes caused sand to be ground down to small airborne pieces that float down-wind in a dust cloud that harms residents' respiratory systems.
Gomes feels there is a concerted agenda to shut down the park.
"When you ignore science and the science you did do is proven false, there has to be something else behind it, in my opinion," he said.
He's talking about two areas of study that lead to questions about the source of the particulate matter in the air and what the particulate matter actually is.
The former APCD officer who filed complaints against State Parks for the air-pollution problem made prior statements that the problem in the air is crystalline silica. In a March 2017 letter to the California Coastal Commission, he said because of the Oceano Dunes the public is exposed to unacceptably high levels of particulate matter "much of which occurs in the form of highly toxic crystalline silica."
During testing last year, crystalline silica was detected in three of four samples, but the amount was below standards created by Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to APCD Air Quality Specialist Karl Tupper.
The new APCD Officer, Gary Willey, briefly addressed those issues, but they were mostly dismissed at the hearing in March. Dune riders feel they've been swept under the rug because they counter the agency's point: That the State Parks is to blame for the bad air by allowing off-road vehicles without mitigation.
Many off-roaders have enjoyed the dunes for decades. They've gotten married there, raised their kids there. Gomes took his baby girl there about as soon as she first got out of the hospital — and now, he said, they're trying to close it.
"The dunes represent the best park of America: Bring your tired, your poor." Gomes said. "... Bring your dirt bikes, your quads, your trucks, your sand rails, your jet skis. Bring us your Chevy van with eight kids with mom and dad eating cold chicken from the night before watching the ocean."
"We welcome everybody. You have camps with $1 million of sand toys, camps with $1,000 of sand toys, and camps with no sand toys. Everybody's welcome."
He said he doesn't hate the people arguing the other side, the "red shirts" as they're known, but he thinks the public-health issue either isn't real or it's exaggerated. After all, he lives in a valley with horrible air quality.
"I hate to see the dunes closed, and I'm going to argue that until my dying day," Gomes said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the results of crystalline silica studies.