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03 • 19 • 2021

New Hope for Oceano as 40 Years of Dune Destruction Ordered To End

By Delia Bense-Kang

It’s official! The California Coastal Commission has unanimously voted to phase out Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use at Oceano Dunes over the next three years, opening opportunities for conservation and peaceful recreation on the beach. This is the culmination of efforts spanning decades – and a significant victory for Surfrider’s San Luis Obispo chapter.

Background

The modern use of Oceano Dunes as an OHV park began back in the 1970s. Without oversight, use grew out of control, so in 1982, State Parks acquired what was supposed to be a temporary permit from the California Coastal Commission to manage the area – the idea was State Parks would come up with a plan to better protect the dune habitat, beach, birds, fish and other wildlife. But then four decades passed with no improvement in protection and a steady increase in use. In addition to harming endangered species like the snowy plover and California least tern, the impact of 1.5 million annual visitors (according to State Parks) whomping around the dunes and beach tears up the habitat and prevents people from using the beach for nearly any other purpose.

All this came to a head, finally, in July of 2019, when the Coastal Commission gave State Parks one year to create a future for the dunes and beach that put natural resource protection and traditional access over the destructive ATV and OHV use – in short, to come into compliance with the California Coastal Act. State Parks instead firmly rejected the Coastal Commission’s direction and proposed, in its Public Works Plan, a massive expansion of OHV area. 

Victory

On Thursday, the Commission held a special hearing regarding the renewal of State Parks’ permit. The special hearing lasted more than 11 hours and included five hours of public comment from off-roaders, recreationalists, environmentalists and community members. Surfrider and other environmental groups, along with the Northern Chumash tribe and area residents, argued for compliance with the Coastal Act, the protection of nature and the transition of the beach to a place that is welcoming for all people. Many advocates for OHV recreation argued the historic and cultural significance of OHV use at Oceano Dunes, citing cultural and family traditions of OHV riding along the coastal area for multiple generations. However, as Surfrider and other OHV opponents testified, in an area with protected natural resources and environmentally sensitive habitat areas where many endangered species live, the practice is immensely destructive.

Ultimately, Coastal Commissioners based their decision on their obligation to uphold the California Coastal Act, noting the impossibility of legally allowing OHV use over environmentally sensitive habitat.

“The Surfrider Foundation San Luis Obispo Chapter has been actively engaged in the issue and is grateful to the Coastal Commission for enforcing the legal standards enshrined in the California Coastal Act,” said Brad Snook, Vice Chair.

The future

For decades California State Parks has failed to enforce its own rules and regulations at Oceano Dunes, and the community and creatures have been paying the price: the area has some of the worst air quality in the nation and dune buggies regularly crush snowy plovers under their tires while tearing up the dunes. Additionally, the people who live in Oceano have been unable to enjoy the sort of restorative recreational experience most of us take for granted in California due to their beach being, in essence, a highway. 

The 2020 closure of the ODSVRA due to COVID-19 provided a window into what Oceano Dunes might look like without OHVs. Low-impact recreation thrived, natural dunes formed, beached marine mammals were protected and snowy plovers expanded their breeding grounds. People from all walks of life were able to enjoy the beach in its natural state. 

After this historic decision, Oceano Dunes can now permanently become the environmental gem that’s been hidden beneath tire tracks for all these years.