‘It’s time to take the gloves off’ in Oceano Dunes dust fight, state commissioner says

In a five-minute rant about the battle over air quality downwind of the Oceano Dunes, a State Parks commissioner said San Luis Obispo County’s air quality agency “needs to be told to stand down” and that what’s happened to the park “is stupid.”

Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commissioner Ted Cabral made the comments at a March 1 commission meeting in Palmdale, in response to a public comment that the commission wasn’t doing enough to defend the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area from acreage closures to mitigate dust emissions.

The nine-person commission is responsible for the approval of general plans, receives public comments about the off-highway motor vehicle program, and reviews plans for recreation areas.

The discussion came as State Parks and the San Luis Obispo Air Pollution Control District are negotiating how the state agency will fulfill a mandated legal order to reduce the fine dust particle emissions measured to be above assumed natural levels downwind from the park, according to the order agreed to in April 2018.

The comments provide insight into what some leaders in State Parks think about the issue that’s been discussed for more than a decade.

Commissioners said they will consider passing a “strongly worded motion” to support recreational activity at Oceano Dunes and to direct the state of California to “not give in to local interests for their parochial views,” as proposed by Commissioner Paul Slavik.

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Oceano Dunes stakeholders fill the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers for Monday’s meeting of the Air Pollution Control District Hearing Board. People wearing red shirts are in support of more restrictions on riding to improve air quality. People in blue shirts are in support of off-road recreation at the Dunes. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

‘It’s time to take the gloves off’

In his comments, he blasted local city and county government, local developers, the California Coastal Commission and, most fervently, air quality officials.

“The air board, in my opinion, thinks they have too much power and I think they need to be pushed back against,” Cabral said. “I know some of that stuff’s been done behind the scenes, but it’s time to take the gloves off publicly too. They’re just being ridiculous.”

In the last few decades, the vehicle riding area at the Oceano Dunes has shrunk from 15,000 acres to 1,500 acres.

In recent years, the area has shrunk more for annual seasonal closures for the snowy plover and for dust control efforts. The current mandate from the air quality board is to reduce dust emissions that are above the baseline level 50 percent by 2023, which an analysis said would require planting native vegetation in 500 acres in the riding area.

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A map by Friends of Oceano Dunes shows that the area open to off-road vehicles was reduced by about 13,000 acres over the years. Courtesy Friends of Oceano Dunes

Cabral, in his passionate speech on March 1, said that State Parks has worked behind the scenes to fight closures “to make sure that the park not only exists, but gets managed in a responsible manner.”

He blamed the Coastal Commission for “misplaced planning” that condensed riding into an area in front of homes in 1982, then accused local county agencies of “illegally” allowing housing developments downwind from what he argued was naturally-occurring dust caused by biological material in the ocean.

The APCD disputes that the high emissions in the area are phytoplankton blown in from the ocean.

“What’s been done there is stupid, OK? To literally take and condense the recreation more and move it into an area directly in front of the, illegally in my mind, formed housing development,” Cabral said.

During public comment period, users of the dunes asked the commission and State Parks to “do its own science” to defend recreation.

While State Parks agreed in 2018 to a legal order to reduce dust emissions that are above a natural baseline by 50 percent before 2023, the agency recently released a report in February saying that it wasn’t possible and questioned APCD’s scientific findings.

State Parks denies that vehicle traffic is responsible for increased dust emissions that float downwind during strong wind events that are common in the spring. Instead, in its recent report, State parks says it is coordinating with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to analyze if planktonic blooms offshore from the Oceano Dunes are responsible for the particulate matter downwind.

Call to open more acres to riding

After a presentation by Jim Suty, president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, gave a historical perspective of the closures forced upon riders, Cabral offered more steps the commission could take.

Cabral went after developers who built homes in the communities downwind of the Oceano Dunes on the Nipomo Mesa, saying that they’re supposed to disclose air quality concerns to home buyers.

“I’m wondering if that was done properly and if wasn’t done properly, what kind of liability that developer could own and if there would be anyway to recoup some of the dollars from the developers for the effort (State Parks staff) have put forth,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, the solution is that State Parks should plan to expand the park.

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A group of riders heads out for a morning on the Oceano Dunes SRVA. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“(We need to be) looking at it from, not so much of what do we have to do to deal with the air board and the local community, but let’s just wipe out all those forces,” Cabral said. “What would we do to make the best operating park for this type of use? Take away those people, those influences, that are trying to close the park.”

Another commissioner, Kevin Murphy, agreed that dispersion of recreation across the park is the right model.

“Instead of taking the outside forces and basically giving the ranch away — at some point they’ve whittled us down to operating in this little tiny area. It’s not safe, it’s not sustainable — why not take the opposition’s argument and use it as a good reason to open up and recreate in a different place,” Murphy said.

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