Should off-roaders be banished from the Oceano Dunes? Only as a last resort

Well it’s about time.

It’s been almost 40 years — 40 years! — since an “interim” management plan was adopted for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Finally, the staff of the California Coastal Commission is pressing for permanent change by 1) recommending short-term restrictions (the report calls them “lesser changes”) and 2) making it clear that it believes the days of off-roading on the dunes are numbered, due to environmental and air quality concerns, among others.

Peppered throughout the report are statements like this: “... 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.”

Is it any wonder the off-roading community is rallying the troops for the upcoming July 11 Coastal Commission hearing?

The environmental community, meanwhile, is completely behind the Coastal Commission staff.

Our position hasn’t changed: The health of residents living downwind — who are exposed to harmful dust particles carried from the off-road park — must come first.

Public heath is more important than recreation (sorry, off-roaders); than tourist dollars; than the political will to appease the off-road lobby.

If State Parks can improve its track record on air quality and environmental protection, it’s appropriate to allow some level of OHV recreation to continue.

If not, then shut down the SVRA.

But before banishing off-roaders for good, the Coastal Commission should give the short-term measures a chance to work.

Those include:

Another entrance study

The two entrances to the state park — Grand Avenue in Grover Beach and Pier Avenue in Oceano — are “interim,” even though they’ve been around for as long as anyone can remember.

Years ago, State Parks was required to prepare a study analyzing alternative entrances and staging areas. It actually prepared two studies, one in 1991 and another in 2006, that considered the existing entrances at Grand Avenue and Pier Avenue; Ocean Street, Creek Road and Silver Spur Place in Oceano; Callender Road in Nipomo; Phillips 66 property; and Little Oso Flaco Lake and Oso Flaco Lake near Guadalupe.

Both studies identified the preferred entrances as — no real surprise here — Pier and Grand. But then nothing happened.

Now, the Coastal Commission wants another study, followed by a decision on a permanent entrance.

Rationale: While State Parks has consistently argued that another study isn’t necessary, Coastal Commission staff disagrees. The most recent study is 13 years old, and new issues have arisen since then, including the need to improve air quality.

Our take: This is the single most important recommendation of the bunch, inasmuch as it’s the only one that speaks to the long-term future of the park. So yes, another study should be done. But this time, don’t include Grand Avenue or Pier Avenue in the mix. Put the entrance farther south. That would eliminate the need to cross Arroyo Grande Creek, which is habitat for protected species. And it would give Oceano residents relief from the noise, traffic, litter and general chaos that occurs during peak OHV season. One more caveat: There appears to be little support for an Oso Flaco entrance — the Guadalupe City Council just weighed in with concerns. Somewhere in between, maybe?

Restrict vehicles crossing Arroyo Grande Creek

To reach the SVRA, vehicles must cross Arroyo Grande Creek. That isn’t a problem in dry months when the creek isn’t flowing. But during the rainy season, it poses an environmental risk as well as a practical one: Vehicles get stuck in the creek flow on a fairly regular basis.

The report recommends no creek crossings (except by emergency vehicles) when the creek is flowing to the ocean. State Parks would be required to monitor the creek when it appears to be nearing the ocean and, if necessary, evacuate the camping and riding areas to the south.

Rationale: Vehicle crossings can compromise the creek — causing banks to erode, altering the creek bed and threatening protected species, including steelhead trout, tidewater boby and red-legged frogs. State Parks tries to control crossings to limit damage, but according to the report, “videos have been shown ... in which OHVs were seen to be driving through Arroyo Grande Creek at a variety of depths (sometimes being washed into the ocean) and also breaching the banks of the creek.”

Our take: Yes.

Establish new caps on attendance

Currently, the park allows a maximum of 2,580 street-legal vehicles per day; 1,000 street-legal campers, such as RVs, per night; and 1,720 off-highway vehicles at any given time (not per day). Staff recommends reducing those limits to 1,806 street-legal vehicles per day; 700 camping units per night; and 1,204 OHVs per day.

The Coastal Commission also is calling for better tracking of the number of vehicles. And it no longer wants to allow exceptions for big holiday weekends, such as the Fourth of July, when the limits have been exceeded.

The rationale: The riding area has been reduced by 30 percent for dust control and habitat protection, therefore, the number of users should also be reduced by 30 percent.

Our take: If the Coastal Commission is interested in compromising, this is one place to do it. It’s only fair to honor camping reservations that have already been made. Also, set the camping limit slightly higher on big holiday weekends. And consider starting with a smaller reduction, say 20 or 25 percent. If it doesn’t work out, it can be adjusted later.

No more night riding

While the park closes at night for day users, campers can still operate their OHVs. Under the proposed rules change, all riding would be prohibited from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise.

The rationale: Night driving harms native plants and animals. “Given that dune and beach driving is allowed during the day ... night-time is the only reprieve from disturbance for organisms in this area.”

Our take: Yes, although more information would be helpful. For example, how much riding occurs after dark? Are there more accidents at night? Or are there fewer, since the dunes aren’t as crowded? Would it make much difference if riding were allowed until, say, 10 p.m.?

Authorize dust control measures

These include planting native dune vegetation; installing fencing; planting trees in inland areas; and possibly installing hay bales as windbreaks. The project will cover around 350 acres in all, which will further reduce the riding area. The report recommends further reductions in the maximum number of users as the park shrinks.

Rationale: This is a program that results from years of negotiations between State Parks and the county Air Pollution Control District. It’s intended to reduce the amount of wind-borne dust particles that drift to the Nipomo Mesa, where some of the worst air readings in the nation have been recorded and where residents have reported serious respiratory illnesses.

Our take: An unequivocal yes. The dust control program already is showing promise. According to Gary Willey, head of the local Air Pollution Control District, there have been 17 violations of particulate pollution standards so far this year. It’s the second straight year that violations have dropped. In the past, they’ve ranged from around 60 to as high as 97 at the most effected spot on the Mesa.

Add a special events protocol

Permits already are required for special events like concerts and competitions, but the Coastal Commission wants to tighten up the process by requiring the state to develop a special events protocol the would include an evaluation of environmental effects and by requiring a Coastal Development Permit for events that could have “adverse impacts.”

Rationale: In the past, special events have “resulted in significant coastal resource issues,” including spectators “massing” on fenced-off vegetation in protected areas.

Our take: Lately, the bigger problem seems to be the special events that take place without any kind of permit or even knowledge of State Parks staff, such as the May concert where a shooting injured five people. Better enforcement of the existing process, rather than a new process, may be the better solution.

The bottom line

The staff of the California Coastal Commission has developed a reasonable plan to reduce harmful effects of off-road vehicle use in the short term. We urge the Coastal Commission to adopt it, though some of the more stringent proposals — such as camping limits — could be relaxed.

Monitor progress annually, but also set a hard deadline — say, five years from now — to decide on a long-term plan.

In the meantime, State Parks can continue to look at whether it’s possible to reconfigure the park in a way that will reduce conflicts with surrounding residents and avoid harm to sensitive habitat.

And please, Coastal Commission, don’t let this drag on indefinitely. That will only prolong what has been one of the most frustrating, divisive, worrisome issues inf San Luis Obispo County history.

We’re tired of this limbo; don’t make us wait another 40 years for a final decision.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune