Off-road enthusiasts who visit the Oceano Dunes will see some changes this spring after the Coastal Commission approved State Parks’ first steps of dust-control measures to improve air quality in neighboring communities.
New wind fencing will be installed in the camping area and around park boundaries, about 21 acres will be closed to riding, and wind fencing will be installed over an additional 40 acres that might also prevent riding.
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the largest OHV park in the state and the only place where driving is allowed on the beach, offers about 1,500 acres of dunes for riding, which is reduced with fencing to 1,250 acres during snowy plover breeding season in the spring and summer.
“Visually, it will look different,” said Mathew Fuzie, who directs the off-highway vehicle division of State Parks.
“We want the users to know, first of all, a lot of the ideas are coming from them,” he added. “We want to continue to work with them with the operational plan to keep as much camping and riding areas open, while still helping with the health issue.”
State Parks will make the changes to the park in an effort to reduce dust emissions in the first step of a five-year plan to meet demands of the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District. The Coastal Commission unanimously approved that plan after hours of testimony Wednesday at a meeting in Cambria that drew both Nipomo Mesa residents concerned over air quality and off-roaders fighting to keep as many acres of riding area open as possible.
“We’ve sat there and continued to breathe this particulate 2.5 dust. It settles in your lungs, it’s very similar to asbestos. You don’t expel it. So once you’ve got it, you’ve got it forever,” said Nipomo Mesa resident Jack Moyer, who called the spring plan an experiment, not a solution.
“The health of the citizenry is greater than the need to enable the recreation,” he added. “It needs action immediately, not three months from now, not two more years. We need it now.”
Off-road riders come from all over the state, many from the Central Valley, to spend their money on the park’s entrance fees and at neighboring businesses. Those riders who attended the meeting spoke of the value of the recreation area to their family and tradition, which included a slideshow of family photos sent in from across the state.
“(It’s) a history that is slowly disappearing, as we’ve already lost 91 percent of our original riding area,” said Lyndi Love-Haning of the Nipomo Mesa, who referenced the decrease in riding area after Oceano Dunes became a state park in 1982. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who love camping and riding out in the Dunes.”
Some Dunes riders said the health threat is exaggerated, or as Nick Lalanne said, “a lot of these health conditions they’re claiming are not from the Dunes.”
Changes you’ll see this spring
▪ Dust mitigation work began early this month, when two 9-acre sections of riding area on the Sand Highway between markers 15 and 16 were fenced off permanently to establish native plants. The five-year plan calls for an additional 20 acres to permanently close each year.
▪ Forty acres of wind fencing will be installed in the open riding area near the new vegetation. Whether riding will be allowed within the 40 acres has not yet been decided, Fuzie said. Wind fences will be placed 28 feet from each other for maximum dust control, and that may be too narrow for off-road vehicles to travel through safely.
▪ Three acres will be closed as an experimental test site.
▪ More wind fencing will be installed within the camping area that users can camp around and along park boundaries.
State Parks and the Air Pollution Control District worked together on the plan.
“We’re working together to see what can we do realistically to move the dial on air quality,” Fuzie said. “Basically, we’re putting everything on the table and discussing it in a non-combative form.”
More changes could be coming
Not all commissioners were satisfied with the spring plan.
Commissioner Steve Padilla said he is skeptical that State Parks will achieve the kind of mitigation that is needed for public health and suggested the commission needs to review the underlying permit for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to determine if the location of the park is appropriate.
“I really hear the voices of the people who are having adverse air quality and health impacts loud and clear. And with all due respect to the recreators and the people who like to camp,” Padilla said, “that doesn’t outweigh public health benefits or environmental damage. That is not at the same level at all.”
He asked to see quantifiable measurements of the dust mitigation, because if they’re not having effects, he said, “I’m going to be the first guy at this table screaming bloody murder that it’s time to get that permit review in front of us and then really tackle the fundamental problem.”
The motion to approve the plan was brought by Commissioner Erik Howell of Pismo Beach, who pointed to Air Pollution Control Officer Gary Willey’s support of the plan as reason to approve.
Willey said this is just the first step to control dust and relieve air quality for downwind residents on the Nipomo Mesa, as the Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board may order additional closures as soon as March.
Still, Nipomo Mesa residents likened the plan to “kicking the can down the road,” as demonstrated by resident Laurance Shinderman, who literally kicked a can that was labeled “public health.”