After six hours of emotional public comment and debate about the myriad environmental issues facing the Oceano Dunes, the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday agreed that finishing a plan to protect the many rare and endangered species there needs to be the highest priority.
The commission directed its staff to work closely with the staff of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to finish a habitat conservation plan for the park. The plan has been in the works for 25 years.
However, the commission gave no clear direction on the most vexing problem facing the park — dust blowing from the Dunes onto the Nipomo Mesa, an area with San Luis Obispo County’s worst dust pollution. Nearly 100 people addressed the commission, and most of them were angry over the lack of progress in solving the dust problem.
“The air quality definitely affects my quality of life, and I ask you to do everything in your power to protect public health,” said Jay Bennett of the Nipomo Mesa.
However, the commissioners agreed that the dust problem is largely a matter between State Parks and the county Air Pollution Control District. The commission’s purview in the area is very limited, they said.
The habitat conservation plan would be a blueprint for protecting four federally protected wildlife species in the park. These are two shorebirds, the snowy plover and least tern, which nest and raise their chicks in the park, and steelhead trout and tidewater gobies, two fish species that live in Arroyo Grande Creek.
Commissioners agreed that a new entrance to the park needs to be found. The two current entrances are at the north end of the park and require that all vehicles cross Arroyo Grande Creek, where the steelhead and gobies are found, to reach the riding area.
“I think it’s time for us to get a little stronger here and give some pretty strong direction,” Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said. “Using our beaches as highways is not OK, and using creeks for crossings is not OK.”
Brent Marshall, park superintendent, said he expects the conservation plans to be completed by the end of the year. The department has resolved some staffing issues and streamlined the scope of the work and is in place to make much quicker progress, he said.
The commission directed staff to come back in a year or sooner with an update on the development of the conservation plan. Several commissioners said park managers should consider using some sort of a temporary bridge to minimize the number of vehicles crossing the creek.
State Parks has spent more than $3 million in recent years to find a solution to reduce the amount of dust pollution but has not come up with an effective solution. These include hay bales and wind fences.
The park has failed to meet a number of key milestones in finding a solution, said Larry Allen, executive officer of the Air Pollution Control District.
“Progress has certainly not been what we had hoped it would be at this point,” he said.
Allen said lawsuits and settlement negotiations have slowed progress. State Parks is preparing an environmental report that will guide its air pollution efforts over the next five years.