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Riding at Oceano Dunes, shifting sand nearly buried this lake. Then State Parks stepped in

A pile of ground-up quartz, feldspar and mica can generate surprisingly varied responses.

Artists such as photographer Ansel Adams and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille saw the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes on the border between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as a beautiful, scenic setting.

Sand miners and oil drillers see the sand dunes as a resource to extract and sell. And off-road riders picture the Oceano Dunes near Pismo Beach as a place to find freedom and excitement behind the handlebars of an ATV.

Others have called the dunes home — from the Chumash, who have lived in the area for thousands of years, to the Dunites, who enjoyed a bohemian existence among the Oceano Dunes in the early 20th century.

For nature lovers, the dunes mean wildflowers and walks along the beach. For scientists, they’re a resource for environmental research. And for Nipomo Mesa residents, they’re a source of a massive dust plume carrying tiny particles that can cause serious diseases downwind.

California State Parks tries to balance these and other competing interests. The income from thousands of admissions to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area helps fund scientific studies and law enforcement for what is an ephemeral city of thousands on a holiday weekend.

Now the California Coastal Commission staff is advising the state board to take steps to stop recreational off-highway vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes, stating that “it is time to start thinking about ways to transition the Park away from high-intensity OHV use to other less intensive forms of public access and recreation.”

At one time, there was access to the dunes from Pismo Beach, and riders were allowed south of Oso Flaco Lake.

In May and June 1979, Telegram-Tribune reporter Ann Fairbanks wrote a three-part series asking “Can Nipomo Dunes Be Shared?” A new entry point to the vehicle area was proposed near the Nipomo Mesa oil refinery, a move opposed by San Luis Obispo County since it was first proposed in the mid-1960s.

In 1987, the area south of Oso Flaco Lake had been closed to vehicles and replanting was underway. It was a massive effort — one that was echoed in 2018 when the California Conservation Corps and State Parks teamed up with volunteers to replant 20 acres with native plants.

Now the boardwalk from Oso Flaco Lake runs through a fully grown landscape.

Gary Taylor wrote this story, published in the Telegram Tribune on Jan. 9, 1987. (Since it was written, the Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area has changed its name to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.)

Pismo effort to slow shifting dunes

Seeding to help Oso Flaco Lake

State officials have just completed the largest revegetation project ever undertaken at Pismo State Beach, hoping to save Oso Flaco Lake from shifting dunes.

The project, begun in mid-January and completed Sunday, involves $150,000 worth of grass seed spread over 50 acres of dunes along the lake in the hope that grass will stabilize the shifting dunes.

The encroachment of sand into the lake — and the loss of water surface area and destruction of natural vegetation — has forced the state Department of Parks and Recreation to undertake the largest revegetation project at Pismo State Beach, according to Ranger Bill West.

West admitted the project has officials “crossing our fingers.”

“We’re reasonably confident the project will stop the erosion of sand, but we can’t be absolutely certain,” West said.

“We’re using a seeding technique that we’re not extremely familiar with, and there’s no guarantee it will work. All we can do is hope — and cross our fingers.”

The department placed layers of straw on the 50-acre stretch of dunes, disked the dunes [with] straw and then sprayed a mixture of special liquid fertilizers and two different types of heavy grass seed. Additional layers of straw were placed over the mixture.

For part of the work, a Caterpillar tractor was needed to pull the seeding truck across the dunes.

Rainfall is the project’s only intended source of water, West said.

If the project is successful, the sands that are now sliding into the lake will be covered with enough vegetation to stop the erosion.

West said the return of vegetation will also mean the return of wildlife that has left the area because barren dunes offer no food.

“The entire project is intended to restore the natural balance that was disrupted by the encroachment,” he said. “Once the vegetation returns, the dunes will be stabilized, the lake will retain its surface size and the small wildlife will return to the area.”

Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area Superintendent Don Patton said the department has known about the dune problem for years, but it didn’t have the money to revegetate the area.

“We’ve known that the dunes have been gradually sliding into the lake for the last 10 or 15 years, but the problem was so extensive that if we were going to attempt to correct it, we needed enough money to revegetate acres and acres of dunes,” Patton said. “We didn’t have the manpower or the money to do that.”

The department still doesn’t have the money, but it doesn’t need it because the state’s off-road vehicle fund is footing the bill.

Patton said the $150,000 will cover the entire cost of the project, including the hiring of an outside contractor to do the work.

West said the money came from the off-road vehicle fund because the area is open to off-road vehicles, and their heavy use over the hears contributed to the dune problem.

“Off-road vehicles did cause a substantial amount of the damage that we’re now trying to correct,” he said. “The dunes began to shift when they began to wear down, and off-road vehicles contributed to that shifting.”

West said once the grass is in place, there should be “no problem” with off-road damage because the dunes will be stabilized.

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