One of Diane Martinez’s earliest memories is of cresting sandy hills at the Oceano Dunes.
Her father built beach buggies with his friends and would take Martinez and their family out for weekends of sun, sand and freedom.
“It was like riding a roller coaster,” she said, remembering sitting in the buggy with no helmet and only a lap belt holding her in. “We went up and down and around and around. I do remember that sound of the ocean and the beautiful sunsets while sitting on top of a sand dune were some of the most wonderful things to witness.”
Martinez, who lives in Nipomo, is one of the millions of people who — taking a cue from their childhoods — return to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Park again and again.
“I enjoy the freedom to ride my quad in the dunes — it is something that I have done for years and years,” Martinez told The Tribune in an email interview Wednesday. “Had I not been exposed to this as a child, I may never have known this opportunity.”
That opportunity may soon be lost to future generations.
A controversial recommendation
The California Coastal Commission is expected to consider a recommendation on July 11 to begin phasing out off-highway vehicle (OHV) use at the Oceano Dunes park, after years of controversy surrounding the park’s safety, public health concerns and environmental sensitivity.
On June 21, Coastal Commission staff released a report stating that “in staff’s view, a park that is fully consistent with on-the-ground realities, and with coastal resource protection requirements, does not include OHV use.”
The recommendation comes in light of an ongoing dispute over OHV use’s role in dust-related health complaints, as well as its impact on an environmentally sensitive region that is home to numerous endangered and protected species, among other issues, staff said.
Homeowners in the Nipomo Mesa area have long complained of health issues associated with particulate matter in the air and point to the vehicle use at the park as a cause. Others say the dust is a natural phenomenon, and that OHVs are not to blame.
A 2013 study funded by State Parks found that areas in the Oceano Dunes SVRA where riding occurred had five to eight times more dust emissions than areas where no riding was allowed, but researchers in the study did not conclude whether OHV riding was the cause.
“We think OHV use is just not something that is appropriately a use out there,” the commission’s Central Coast District director, Dan Carl, told The Tribune in a June 25 article. “We just don’t see how OHV use can be squared with the local coastal plan.”
Coastal Commission staff have not set a timeline for when such a plan could be carried out.
A series of operational changes to the park meant to address immediate concerns — such as reducing day use and camping use limits, prohibiting night riding and adding more fencing — could be in place sometime between the July 11 meeting and December, Carl said.
‘Protect our camping and OHV rights!’
Though some lauded the recommendation, alarm spread quickly through the off-roading community.
“We want our rights back!” read one comment on a Change.org petition titled, “Protect our camping and OHV RIghts! Fight to keep OCEANO DUNES SVRA open!” The petition began circulating on Facebook and social media groups soon after the report was released.
“I want my grandkids to experience it as well, not just a bedtime story,” another person commented on the Change.org petition.
“It’s a great place for friends and family to get together and keep tradition!” wrote one person who begged for the park to stay open.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition had more than 120,000 signatures — with more being added every minute.
Titus Rivera, a Half Moon Bay man who started the petition June 26, said his heart sank upon hearing of the the Coastal Commission staff recommendation.
“Oceano Dunes have been a huge part of my life and always will be,” he told The Tribune on Wednesday. “It’s one of the few places in California that brings real happiness and joy to my life.”
Rivera said that upon hearing the recommendation, he “immediately felt that I needed to do something to defend the dunes and my right to be able to enjoy the dunes.”
The petition has since blown up online, he said.
“The off-road and moto community really pulled together on social media,” Rivera said. “That was pretty awesome to see.”
Cunningham voices opposition
On Wednesday, state Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham — whose district includes the San Luis Obispo County state park — also jumped into the fray.
In a letter sent to the Coastal Commission, Cunningham asked the commission to “not further limit access to one of our state’s coastal treasures.”
“The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area itself generates more than $150 million in annual economic activity from outside visitors,” he wrote. “It is a major contributor to South San Luis Obispo County’s tourism industry. Hundreds of businesses rely upon these visitors to generate revenue and employ local residents.”
“These business would see a loss of economic activity if this commission imposes further limitations on off-road vehicles, and our county would see a loss of tax revenue,” he added.
Cunningham also noted displeasure at the timing of the decision, with the comment period closing right after a major holiday.
Sport community ‘blindsided’
Don Amador, government affairs representative for the American Motorcyclist Association District 36 (AMA D36), also submitted a letter on behalf of the riding advocacy organization asking for the Coastal Commission to not approve the recommendation.
“AMA D36 urges the Coastal Commission to take a step back from what appears to be a misguided and narrowly focused staff recommendation that fails to understand and appreciate the historic value and economic benefits that open dune and wave slope-based OHV recreation opportunity and tourism brings to the local community,” Amador wrote.
In a follow-up phone interview with The Tribune on Wednesday, Amador said he felt the riding community was surprised by the staff recommendation.
“I think we were all blindsided by it and feel that it was grossly inappropriate,” he said. “Judging by the way this issue is going viral on social media, I think it’s caught a lot of riders off guard. I think people are shocked there are elements of state government that would come out and oppose a sport.”
Amador said he disagrees with Coastal Commission staff’s position that OHV use contributes to air problems in the region, and noted that environmentally sustainable OHV parks exist around the country, so why not at Oceano Dunes?
“We don’t have another place on 1,100 miles of coastline, except for Eureka, to do our sport,” he said. (The Samoa Dunes Recreation Area outside of Eureka also allows OHV use on 140 acres of its 300-acre coastal park.)
“All we are asking is to be treated fairly, and I don’t think closing down the SVRA is fair,” Amador said.
A way of life
For people like Martinez, losing OHV access to the Oceano Dunes feels akin to losing a way of life.
For close to 60 years, Martinez has visited the state park with her family for birthday parties, weekend camping trips and anniversaries. She and her husband began taking their own children out to the beach when each child was about 1 year old; they required the kids to take the state’s ATV safety courses before they were allowed to ride anything.
They’ve bought “toys” — what riders often call their OHVs of choice — and toy haulers. They have annual passes.
“It is exciting and serene all at the same time,” Martinez said of riding her quad through the dunes. “Hard to describe: a sense of exhilaration and calmness all wrapped in one. Fresh air, sunshine and enjoying the dunes that we cannot enjoy anywhere else.”
“That it is just another thing being taken away from us,” she added.
Martinez, who said she won’t be able to attend the Coastal Commission meeting in San Luis Obispo on July 11, has signed the petition to keep OHVs at the park. She is hoping for a compromise that continues to allow recreational off-road vehicles at the park.
“I personally feel that it is just another freedom being taken away,” she said. “We keep losing more and more every day, and pretty soon there won’t be anything left to take away.”