Legal Intervention Backs California’s Authority to Protect Oceano Dunes From Off-Road Vehicles

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif., February 16, 2022 — Conservation, Native American and community groups filed a motion this week to intervene in a lawsuit to defend the California Coastal Commission’s March 2021 decision to phase out off-highway vehicle use at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The coalition of groups includes the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Oceano Beach Community Association, Sierra Club, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation.

The coalition jointly filed a legal motion in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court to support the California Coastal Commission’s authority to amend the California State Parks’ coastal development permit for Oceano Dunes and Pismo State Beach. This is in response to lawsuits by groups representing off-road users, which claimed that the Commission’s amendment would violate its authority, the California Coastal Act, and California Environmental Quality Act. Among other changes, the Commission’s amendment would end off-road vehicle use by 2024 to protect the coast.

The Oceano Dunes are a critical part of an 18-mile stretch of the Central California coastline that comprises the world’s largest intact coastal dune ecosystem. The Dunes are sacred to the Indigenous Northern Chumash and are home to many rare and endangered species. 

“Chumash peoples have been stewards of the Oceano Dunes for thousands of years,” said Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. “Together with my father, the late Chief Fred Collins, we fought for many years to protect this sacred place from the destruction caused by vehicles. The Coastal Commission's decision last year to phase them out must stand, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that it does and that these lands are once again protected.”

In March 2021, the California Coastal Commission approved substantial changes to the development permit, citing damage caused by vehicles to sensitive coastal habitats and threatened and endangered species, environmental justice concerns about vehicle use affecting residents of the nearby communities of Oceano and Nipomo, and concerns over justice for the Indigenous Northern Chumash.

“As one of the environmental groups that has advocated, organized, litigated, and fought for decades to bring environmental sanity to the Oceano Dunes, we support the hard-won victory achieved for the California coast last March,” said Carole Mintzer, chair of the Sierra Club’s Santa Lucia Chapter. “We will always stand up for the protection of the environment, environmental justice, and enforcement of the nation’s premier coastal law.”

The proposed amendment includes phasing out off-roading at Oceano Dunes and restricting street legal vehicles to a one-mile stretch of beach north of Pier Avenue. This would keep vehicles out of the habitat for endangered snowy plovers and least terns, protect a sensitive creek area, and allow the Oceano community to enjoy its beachfront.  

“The California Coastal Commission gave a lifeline to snowy plovers and other endangered wildlife at Oceano Dunes, and we’re here to defend that,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These sensitive dunes have been damaged by off-road vehicles for far too long, and now this important coastal habitat should get a chance to recover. The amended permit better protects endangered species and the climate, and allows everyone to enjoy this beautiful place.”

As the groups’ motion explains, vehicle use has effectively turned this stretch of beach into a highway, making it unsafe to walk along the shore or sit and enjoy a beach picnic. The plurality-Latino population of Oceano is unable to safely recreate on its beachfront and Oceano’s economy suffers from a lack of tourism compared to nearby cities with more serene, less dangerous coastal lands.

“Joining this case in defense of the California Coastal Commission is critical to the Surfrider San Luis Obispo Chapter, which represents beachgoers who want to enjoy Oceano Dunes in low impact, non-motorized recreational pursuits,” said Brad Snook of the Surfrider Foundation San Luis Obispo Chapter. “We, and the community, presently cannot do so, since vehicular traffic on the beach has effectively turned the sand into a highway.”

The conservation, Native American and community groups are represented pro-bono by the University of California Irvine School of Law Environmental Law Clinic.