‘A lot of traffic, a lot of garbage.’ Why local groups support OHV ban at Oceano Dunes

If off-road vehicles at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Area are so good for the local economy, “Why doesn’t Oceano look like a thriving little town?”

That’s Sherrill Gardner’s question, a local resident and member of the Oceano Beach Community Association. The association, along with other community and environmental groups, supports the Coastal Commission’s staff controversial recommendation to phase out vehicles from the State Park.

They’re part of the Dunes Alliance, a coalition working to redefine the future of the park with increased habitat and species protection. And a majority of the coalition’s members support limiting vehicles in the park to governmental and emergency motor vehicles, as well as State Parks shuttles to transport visitors.

The Coastal Commission is scheduled to consider the recommendation July 11, and that’s sparked a wave of vocal opposition from users of the SVRA from across the state who want their sport and family tradition preserved.

But with a new Coastal Commission policy that examines environmental justice, groups opposed to off-road vehicles at the park see an opportunity to shift the land’s use and in turn get cleaner streets, a safer beach, habitat protection and less traffic and noise.

Recommendation to ban off-highway vehicles

The recommendation to ban OHV use, among other measures, comes 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.”

“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.”

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Homeowners have complained of dust-related health concerns in the area downwind of the dunes. A study found areas where riding is allowed produce more dust emissions. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

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.

Many people opposed to the ban have been riding OHVs with their families at the dunes for years. As of midday Tuesday, a petition against the commission’s recommendation had more than 143,000 signatures.

But Gardner said the consequences of riding on the beach are too great to ignore.

“I understand importance of family time and fun, but it ties back to sustainability” said Gardner. “We can’t keep continuing doing what we are doing and not expect serious consequences.”

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OHV riding at the Oceano dunes is a popular pastime and the park draws roughly two million visitors a year. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Traffic, air quality and Oceano’s economy

Many people in opposition to the ban say OHV riding at the dunes is necessary for Oceano’s economy, but the unincorporated community has the highest poverty rate in the county at 21 percent, according to census data.

Gardner said the community is hurt by OHV use at the Oceano Dunes.

“We get a lot of traffic, a lot of garbage and a lot of dust, and nothing in return,” Gardner said.

Gardner said Pier Avenue, where one of the entrances to the Dunes park is located, has so much traffic cars can’t get into driveways and emergency vehicles can’t pass.

“The fact is you can’t open successful businesses along Pier Avenue,” Gardner said. “We have no chance to develop a beach town feel and economy.”

The Coastal Commission adopted an environmental justice policy in March, which includes the consideration of public health, habitat and coastal access when making permit decisions. Part of its purpose is to ensure underserved communities do not get the brunt of an environmental issue.

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OHV riding at the dunes can disturb natural habitats and harm endangered species. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Gardner thinks the new policy applies to Oceano.

“It’s an issue of continuing to degrade the dunes, which is ridiculous, the air quality issue on the Mesa and the economic issues for little Oceano,” Gardner said.

The recommendation comes in light of an ongoing dispute over OHV use’s role in dust-related health complaints, staff said.

Air quality and public health officials have warned that blowing dust from the dunes comes with serious health risks to downwind communities. Most point to the vehicle use at the park as a cause. Other groups say the dust is a natural phenomenon, and that OHVs are not to blame.

On-going research funded by State Parks found that areas in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area where riding occurred had two to five 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.

On July 9, the County of San Luis Obispo Health Commission sent a letter urging the Coastal Commission to “strongly support” phasing out OHV use, citing research on health issues from dust emissions. The letter called the State Parks’ response to the health problem “very slow and ineffective to date.”

“Science demonstrating the clear connection between OHV use on the dunes and Nipomo Mesa residents’ exposure to serious health consequences from the dust has been evident for years,” the letter stated.

Some Mesa residents who have called for action to improve air quality do not necessarily support a ban on vehicles. And, a settlement reached between the county Air Pollution Control District and State Parks to reduce dust emissions from the park does not require the end of off-road vehicles. It does, however, include plans to limit areas where vehicles are allowed.

Other safety concerns at the dunes include deaths from vehicle collisions. Since 1992, at least 42 people have died in OHV collisions at the park.

In a letter sent to the Coastal Commission, The Elders Council of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council wrote due to a history of bad decision making, the tribe’s sacred dunes have become a killing field, a death trap on sacred and ceremonial indigenous peoples lands.

Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said OHV use at the park puts the public at risk.

“The death toll out there is through the roof,” Miller said. “It’s very poorly managed.”

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The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area includes snowy plover habitat. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Effects on wildlife, natural habitats

Other groups within the Dunes Alliance are concerned about the environmental impacts of OHV use at the Oceano Dunes, including harming endangered species and natural habitats.

Miller said activity at the state park violated the Endangered Species Act multiple times over the past decade.

“State Parks have gone so long without being interested in improving things,” Miller, a Los Osos resident, said. “It’s time for the Coastal Commission to step in and help State Parks protect the law. We need common sense measures.”

Miller said State Parks’ lack of action to protect wildlife and natural habitats is unacceptable. Two bird species which live on the dunes, snowy plovers and least terns, are being negatively affected by OHV riding, he said.

“Plovers are found dead in vehicle tracks at Oceano every year,” Miller said. “Least terns are flushed out from nesting and foraging areas by OHVs.”

Snowy plovers are a federally threatened species and least terns are a federally and state protected species.

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A flock of least terns take flight in Oceano Dunes State Vehucular Recreation Area. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

State and federally protected plants are also affected by OHV use, he said, including Nipomo Mesa lupine, marsh sandwort, La Graciosa thistle and Gambel’s watercress.

“There are better ways to enjoy the park without the impacts and added mayhem of vehicle use,” Miller said. “The park belongs to everyone and should be used by everyone.”

Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said he was “heartened” to see the Coastal Commission’s recommendation and doesn’t think State Parks will take action unless forced to.

“We sued (State Parks) in 2003 to protect species in the dunes and they said they had a habitat conservation plan almost done,” Christie said. “Sixteen years later, they are now telling the Coastal Commission the same thing.”

Christie said he wants the park to put up fencing to protect snowy plovers year-round — not just during nesting season as the park currently does. He said it’s time for action to be taken at the park.

“We’re not talking about shutting off recreation, not saying cars can’t touch the dunes,” Christie said. “We’re just agreeing that the decades-long effects on habitats, air quality and the creek need to stop.”

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Kaytlyn Leslie writes about business and development for The San Luis Obispo Tribune. Hailing from Nipomo, she also covers city governments and happenings in the South County region, including Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach. She joined The Tribune in 2013 after graduating from Cal Poly with her journalism degree.