State Parks to Coastal Commission: You’re moving too fast on Oceano Dunes

State Parks isn’t exactly telling the California Coastal Commission to back off on further restricting the Oceano Dunes off-road vehicle park — at least not in so many words.

Its message can be summed up this way: Hold your horses.

In a lengthy letter from State Parks Director Lisa Ann L. Mangat, the agency points out that it’s either already addressed — or is in the process of working on — issues raised in the Coastal Commission staff report.

She’s asking the Coastal Commission to reject almost all of the controversial staff recommendations when it meets Thursday in San Luis Obispo.

Those include reducing the number of camping spots; eliminating night riding; permanently fencing off more areas of the dunes; and prohibiting crossing of the Arroyo Grande Creek when it’s flowing to the ocean.

State Parks says it’s already working on management plans to address dust emissions, habitat protection and other concerns, and it’s asking the commission to allow that planning process to wrap up before it imposes controversial changes to the popular off-road park.

Here’s what State Parks has in the pipeline:

A public works plan

This will look at revamping the park to increase efficiency and minimize conflicts. It could result in relocation of riding and camping areas and entrances to the dunes. The “preferred projects” will be up for public discussion this fall.

A habitat conservation plan

State Parks is working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to safeguard the sensitive dunes habitat, which is home to protected species like the least tern and snowy plover.

The plan will cover issues like fencing, predator control and protecting Arroyo Grande Creek.

A dust control program

State Parks signed a multi-year agreement with the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District to take steps to reduce the amount of dust pollution drifting from the park.

Those include replanting the dunes; installing sand fencing; and possibly planting trees inland from the dunes. The first of what will be annual work plans is due this August.

Other recommendations

On other issues coming before the Coastal Commission, State Parks says it’s already got things covered.

For example, Coastal Commission staff recommends a public outreach plan to increase use by “lower-income, youth and tribal parties.” State Parks says it’s already doing outreach. It has a junior lifeguard program that recruits in underserved communities and free camping for at-risk youth. It also provides free camping for an annual Chumash celebration.

State Parks also rejects a call for increased vehicle enforcement. It claims it already patrols and enforces the laws at the Oceano Dunes — but it doesn’t speak to the recent spate of fatal accidents at the park.

The letter from State Parks is conspicuously silent on the big issue: The question of whether to totally ban OHVs someday, which Coastal Commission staff views as inevitable.

Many view the restrictions recommended in the staff report as a first step in shutting down the OHV park — a position praised by environmentalists but condemned by off-roaders and many in the business community.

Residents who live downwind of the dunes and have been affected by dust pollution tied to off-roading mostly just want an end to the harmful emissions.

They aren’t so caught up in whether or not OHV riding survives — as long as their health concerns are addressed.

Other comments

The Coastal Commission has received more than 5,000 comments on the proposed changes at the dunes, including these from local public officials.

  • County Supervisor Debbie Arnold urges the commission to reject the restrictions. “The elimination of the recreational opportunities the park presently provides will create a severe economic hardship for San Luis Obispo County,” she writes.
  • Grover Beach Mayor Jeff Lee doesn’t oppose or support the recommendations, but rather, asks the Coastal Commission to to find a “path forward” that protects the economy and the environment.
  • Mary Jean Sage, chair of the San Luis County Health Commission, strongly supports phasing out OHV activity. She criticizes State Parks’ efforts to clean up the air as “very slow and ineffective to date.”
  • Arroyo Grande Mayor Caren Ray Russom, speaking on behalf of herself rather than the entire council, criticizes the Coastal Commission staff for not consulting with local agencies before releasing the report. “It’s simply wrong to exclude the jurisdictions during the process,” she writes. She’s asking the commission to reject the recommendations at this time, and to include local agencies in the process should it decide to pursue limiting or closing the off-road park in the future.
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