State Parks has fenced off nearly 20 acres of off-road riding area in the Oceano Dunes for a revegetation project that aims to reduce the dust that’s triggered health complaints on the Nipomo Mesa.
The acreage — spread out over two separate areas — is being reseeded with native plants to anchor the dunes within the Oceano State Vehicular Recreation Area.
The work, which began in early January, marks the beginning of on-the-ground implementation of a five-year plan to mitigate dust from the most popular off-road vehicle park in the state.
State Parks is working with the Air Pollution Control District to roll out additional dust mitigation measures before the spring high-wind season, including a proposal to install another 40 acres of wind fencing.
“I have no doubt, we will have the most significant (dust) mitigation to date. It will be much, much better than we’ve had in the past,” Gary Willey, the new director of the Air Pollution Control District, said at a Thursday board meeting.
Nipomo Mesa residents, however, remained unconvinced about the program’s potential effectiveness.
“After eight years, you’ll forgive me for being skeptical. I’ve heard so many plans being promulgated over these years that when I see those numbers going down, then I’ll believe it,” said Arlene Versaw of Nipomo Mesa.
“I understand the frustration of our board members, and I understand the frustration of the public,” Willey said. “This process is very difficult. It’s beyond what we could ever imagine, and I imagined it was going to be difficult on the onset.”
For years, downwind residents have blamed dust from the Dunes for poor air quality that has negatively impacted their health, a concern recently reenforced in a letter by the American Lung Association to APCD in support of “reducing harmful particle pollution levels from the Oceano Dunes as quickly as possible to protect public health.”
Off-roading enthusiasts who use the Dunes have already lost access to riding areas — including territory seasonally fenced off for snowy-plover habitat — and have fought against losing additional acreage without also gaining property back.
Friends of Oceano Dunes, a group of off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and park users, is challenging the five-year plan in a court action against the Coastal Commission.
Ronnie Glick, a senior environmental scientist at the Dunes, asks park users to take the long view and consider that they may gain riding area through an ongoing process to re-envision the park.
“They want no net loss. That’s one thing we’ll try to effect in our Public Works Plan. It’s an OHV park. We have to be able to provide recreation,” Glick said.
Dust mitigation work began early this month, when two nine-acre sections of riding area on the sand highway between markers 15 and 16 were fenced off permanently to establish native plants that Glick said are more effective than fencing in reducing dust.
The areas were identified as hot spots for dust by the California Air Resources Board.
This week, workers with the California Conservation Corps in San Luis Obispo and the American Conservation Experience distributed layers of weed-free rice straw on the sand to stabilize the ground long enough for native plants to take hold.
While fencing can get buried by blowing sands, native plants — such as yarrow, silver bush lupine, senecio, mock heather, and deer weed — can adjust and grow to the changing topography and wind direction.
Meanwhile, the APCD Hearings Board is scheduled to continue an abatement hearing on Tuesday to determine whether the State Department of Parks and Recreation is in violation of state Health and Safety Code and district rules, whether the dust from the Dunes is a public nuisance, and whether abatement is needed.
That could result in a prohibition of vehicles in up to 200 acres of active riding area, which would amount to about 13 percent of the overall 1,500 acres open to off-roaders.
How that could impact this year’s dust control projects is yet to be seen. Any outcome from the hearing, could affect the dust mitigation plan.